Chef Joan Roca

Courtesy of Chef Joan Roca

Chef Joan Roca of Spain’s Famed El Celler de Can Roca Shares His Vision of the Future

One of the brothers behind a top world restaurant shares the family ties
Chef Joan Roca

Courtesy of Chef Joan Roca

Chef Joan Roca shares the story behind the world-famous, family-run restuarant.

Chef Joan Roca laughed out loud when I asked him if he is going to retire at some point. According to him, he is enjoying the best time in his professional career and has never entertained the idea of retirement, though his wife, Ana, might have some hopes in that direction. This work ethic is in his DNA, since his parents are in their eighties and still working. Anyway, his commute to work can never be the reason, because he lives right above El Celler de Can Roca, his windows overlooking the picturesque patio garden. He credits that proximity for the recent interest in the family business by his teenage son, Marc, and his brother Josep’s son, Martí. The next generation of Rocas accompanied the three brothers on their last world tour, and Roca believes that the adulation showered on their fathers by fans on the trip may have something to do with that interest.

Chef Joan Roca Fontaine and his brothers, Josep (an internationally-recognized sommelier) and Jordi (one of the top pastry chefs in the world), are the force behind the avant-garde El Celler De Can Roca, which has come to represent the best of modern Spanish cuisine. The original restaurant opened in 1986 next to their parents’ bar on the outskirts of Girona. In 2007, the whole establishment moved to its present location in one afternoon between lunch and dinner service, per French chef Michel Troisgros’ son Cesar, an intern at the time. Can Sunyer, originally a country house, was remodeled with a modern aesthetic to accommodate the expansive kitchens, dining rooms, and gardens.

The three Roca brothers studied at the Girona Culinary School, and Joan, the head chef, worked and traveled with Spanish chefs such as Ferran Adrià and Santi Santamaria but always stayed close to his family and hometown. The exemplary hospitality at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant has its roots in this close-knit family culture. The restaurant has been a family operation since its inception, and Joan says the creative processes at the restaurant are the result of the three minds working together in harmony. The triumvirate is reflected in the logo’s symbolic ‘R’ with three shoots, in the triangular glass-walled dining room, and the three-sided enclosed garden, which at first glance appears to be an art installation with fallen leaves on the ground. On their recent menu, a cutout of the three in their childhood home is a backdrop to one of the courses, giving guests a peek into that family history. A few months ago, the course entitled “Memories of a Bar in the Suburbs of Girona” (their parents’ bar) included breaded squid, kidneys with sherry, pigeon bobon, salt cod with spinach, and a Campari bonbon.

The brothers share their annual travels and explorations with their diners in the tasting menu as “The World,” presented at the table in signature black/gray Japanese paper lanterns that open to reveal five tastes from exotic locales such as Korea, Peru, Thailand, Japan, and China. A lamb course on the fall menu — with eggplant, chickpea purée, lamb trotters, and spicy tomatoes — was inspired by the team’s time in Turkey earlier in the year. I asked about their last world tour, and Joan said, “It was fantastic, and we visited four continents and five cities: London, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Santiago, Chile, on this whirlwind trip. It was crazy, but we will continue to embark on these adventures.”

This passion, represented in the restaurant’s modernistic cuisine with undertones of nostalgia and the complex techniques developed in their research kitchen, constantly sets the culinary world on edge. Jordi’s desserts are equally brilliant and unforgettable. My favorite from a previous visit, “Chocolate Anarchy,” lost out to the “Orange Colorology,” a delicate blown sugar bauble filled with the tastes of passion fruit, tangerine, orange, and carrot gels and granita, on the tasting menu on my most recent visit.

Packing the house of every congress or food event at which they speak or demonstrate their culinary skills, from the San Sebastián Gastronomika to Harvard University, the brothers are a significant force in the culinary world. El Celler de Can Roca has been voted No. 2 and No. 1 on the by The Diners Club World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy for the past two years. The annual shuffle of the top five of the World’s Best has also made it one of the most challenging restaurant reservations to land. They maintain an extensive research team at the restaurant, and Joan’s book Sous-Vide Cuisine is highly regarded in the culinary world.

He is a charming man, very grounded, serene, and unfazed by his fame and fortune. A family man, he goes to his parents’ restaurant for lunch, a meal cooked by his mother every day for the whole extended family that includes the 50 or so staff members. No surprise, the major influences on his cooking have been his mother, Montserrat, and grandmother, Angeleta, whom he refers to as his muse. His mother’s riz Catalan or cassola are still his favorite comfort foods, and he shared the recipe in his Roots cookbook a few years ago.

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Conversing in the lounge, facing the sun-dappled interior courtyard, was déjà vu. My first interview with a chef in 2012 was with him sitting in the same spot.