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Best and Beyond: El Celler de Can Roca’s Joan Roca

“They say I’m the leader, but sharing decisions is key to relationships”

In the third of our Best and Beyond series, presented by Miele, we profile Joan Roca, chef-owner of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, voted No.1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and 2015.

He’s “the perfect example of a contemporary chef,” says Massimo Bottura. He’s “generous, creative, thoughtful and warm,” according to Juan Mari Arzak. And in Jordi Roca’s opinion, he’s “capable of harmonising the impossible”.

These words could only be referencing Joan Roca, one third of the team of brothers behind the globally acclaimed El Celler de Can Roca. Often described as humble, nurturing and inspiring, he’s also a deeply competitive, ambitious and driven individual. He may be the kindest cook on the planet, but Roca makes no secret of his desire to be No.1.

Roca and his younger brothers, Josep the sommelier and Jordi the pastry chef, have seen their pride and joy top The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list twice – first in 2013, then again in 2015. Jordi was named The World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2014, Joan gained the recognition of his peers as Chefs’ Choice winner in 2016, and this year the restaurant won The Ferrari Trento Art of Hospitality Award, an accolade accepted by Josep, as head of the dining room.

But the hat trick of special awards won’t be enough until the trio of siblings have also taken home a hat trick of No.1s by winning the World’s Best Restaurant title just one more time. “All three of us brothers are competitive with each other and we’re also competitive as a team,” says 53-year-old Joan.

“We like a challenge, we like working and we like doing things a little better every day”

Humanising the chef profession

It’s not all about the awards though. Joan Roca is one of the first chefs at the top of the business not just to acknowledge publicly but to commit to change the fact that the profession of cooking, particularly at his level, is one of the most demanding jobs out there. He has set out to make it possible for young chefs to thrive in the restaurant industry without reaching total burnout.

The Roca brothers – Jordi, Joan & Josep

“We could see talented young people were leaving the profession because the hours are so long,” says Roca. “We need to make this new generation of young people feel comfortable in the kitchen and not to feel like they’re sacrificing their lives for their passion.”

With this in mind, Roca has taken on the challenge of what he calls “humanising the profession”. At El Celler de Can Roca, they have recently developed a double team system so that instead of the same chefs doing back-to-back lunch and dinner services every day, there are now two complete teams: one for the lunch service and one for dinner. It’s a move that comes at an added expense for the restaurant in Girona, Spain, but Roca says it is worth it, and it’s an idea and a philosophy he wants to share.

From the outside, Roca has managed to juggle success with home life in exemplary fashion. He is a family man through and through, making time for his wife Anna and their teenage daughter Marina and grown-up son Marc, who has recently decided to become a chef. Each day, Roca takes his daughter to school and then take a cycle ride around Girona to clear his head before starting the day’s work.”

These family values no doubt come from his parents, who still run the Can Roca tavern just up the road from the restaurant. The Rocas’ mother, Montserrat Fontané, still cooks the staff meal at Can Roca every single day, and her spirit of hospitality and leadership has filtered through to eldest son Joan, though he may be too modest to admit it.

“They say I’m the leader, but it’s not really true because we agree on everything together,” says Roca. “We talk a lot before we make decisions and I think this is key to our relationship and the fact that it has lasted so long.”

Food as art

“Joan Roca is a major reference for me, for his profound knowledge and for his kindness,” says Rizzo, who runs the kitchen at Maní. “It was at El Celler de Can Roca, after eating there with friends, that I understood that food could be an artistic expression, not just mechanical or monotonous work. After insisting for many years, I got a ‘yes’ from Joan Roca to do a stage at El Celler. It was one of the happiest days of my life.”

Squab civet and its parfait

Many of the cooks who learned from Roca are now putting their own stamp on some of his trademark techniques. Roca’s cuisine is unique and avant-garde. Focusing on mood and emotions, he incorporates cutting-edge techniques to create highly stylised dishes that are designed to evoke memories, emotions and the landscape of the Catalunya region.

A degustation of up to 14 of Joan’s savoury courses and snack selections is accompanied by sommelier Josep’s unparalleled drinks pairings, which draw from one of the most respected restaurant wine cellars in the world. The meal is completed by Jordi’s often startlingly inventive sweet creations, including “Old book,” a puffed pastry of butter cookies, cream of Darjeeling tea and old book essence. The combination of the three brothers’ work is undoubtedly the source of the winning formula.

Although they moved El Celler de Can Roca to larger premises in 2007, they have always rejected the idea of international expansion, preferring to retain El Celler’s identity as a family restaurant with all three siblings frequently present. And yet the Rocas are no strangers to new projects. In 2014, they embarked on a BBVA-sponsored series of world tours, which would see them closing the restaurant for a period over the summer for three consecutive years to travel with their entire team to countries including Colombia, the US and Turkey.

“We’ve cooked in 18 cities in the last three years,” Roca said during his #50BestTalks speech as part of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’s 15th Anniversary celebrations in June. “Our cooking has totally, irreversibly changed since we did that. The techniques and knowledge that we have managed to garner from other places have really been extraordinary for us. We’re still working and researching various fields and projects.”

Their reputation established as conscientious, community-focused cooks, in 2016 the brothers were appointed Goodwill Ambassadors by the United Nations Development Programme. This aligns perfectly with the chef’s desire to use his influence as one of the world’s premier cooks to create a more sustainable industry.

“We hope to be able to use science to create awareness of ecology and sustainability,” he says. “Because the more sustainable we are, the healthier we are. The more human we are, the better. Because to cook is to care.”

Read the full version of this interview on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants website.

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