Chef Joan Roca of Spain’s Famed El Celler de Can Roca Shares His Vision of the Future
The term “chef” is used very loosely these days by young people regardless of whether they lead a team or are a part of one. In your opinion, what is more appropriate, “chef” or “cook”?
I call myself a cook. The word chef has been glamorized and is seen as more fancy. Professionally, the word chef is perceived to get more respect in society and I feel that is the reason it is used across the board.
Is it because chefs have become social personalities with wider influence over society, politics, lifestyle, and culture? How much has this role changed during the course of your career?
I perceive it as a positive change in spite of the downside of glamorization of chefs. I remember when I was young, wanting to be a cook was not very well received. It required a lot of patience along with boldness and daring to be a cook. Now people are proud to be a cook or chef and socially it is more accepted and prestigious. That is a good thing because among all these young cooks there is some great talent, which is going to make the industry evolve towards the local and authentic cuisine we spoke about earlier.
Does the current fast track to celebrity status lead to arrogance and a loss of humility? How do you stay so grounded with all your success?
This humility is not acquired, since it’s an attitude and you cannot pretend to be humble. It comes from within and from your own personality, and it’s not about pretending or acting to be this way. My brothers and I were brought up in this working class and very humble neighborhood. Our neighborhood had all kinds of people including immigrants from outside and helped form our perspective on life. We brothers learned everything about hospitality at our parents’ restaurant since we literally grew up there. We have been able to achieve our success because of our family values. For all of us, including the whole team, going to eat lunch at our parents’ restaurant every day is a way of keeping our feet on the ground. This helps us maintain a healthy distance from all the trappings of success.
Is the conversation about biodynamic agriculture, sustainability, and food waste leading to changes in the industry?
It is easy to see that there is a tendency to follow the present trend, but it’s not that bad because a lot of people are talking this subject seriously. As with everything, there are those who are pretending to be on this track but others who are making positive change. The balance, I feel, tips toward the positive.
Since you travel extensively, what do you visualize as the major change in restaurant operation or cooking over the next decade?
The direction is strong and leading towards a cuisine which will be that of a cook. The cooks are going to find that place where they will be in touch with the environment and things that are real and true to them. They will also be preoccupied with facing the big challenge that our planet is facing about depleting food resources. This will deeply connect cooks to their environment and that will become the focus of their attention. It is will be more than the current awareness or a romantic notion, but more an urgency. There will be a sensibility to this cause and a solidarity amongst us to combat hunger. I foresee cooks becoming involved in big campaigns and projects to deal with hunger. If you ask any cook or chef to support these issues, the chefs are liable to give an affirmative response even before learning the details. It is in the DNA of chefs to be sensitive and stand in solidarity.
The kitchen is the heart of the home and a restaurant is the heart of a community. Your kitchen is acknowledged as the biggest influence in modern Spanish kitchens. Does that responsibility affect your work?
I think there are many of us in Spain and elsewhere in the same position. It’s true that it puts great responsibility on us and so we make decisions after very careful consideration. That is why we work in a considered and ethical manner and in responding [to] a lot of things and projects we are requested to do on a daily basis. It is critical for us with our position of responsibility to the industry. So even if we are offered a lot of money for a project that does not fall within our ethical code, we tend to turn it down. Our work is not about or for the money. It’s our personal attitude and how we view life, and not just because of this sense of responsibility. It’s an ongoing conflict against our own personal values.
How important are culture, core values, and family support for you in your work?
It’s not just culture but also knowledge, human nature, passion, and common sense. You have to know your limits about what is possible — or not — in restaurants as well as in the kitchen. Everyone has the capacity to develop their own project as a commitment to their society. It is a life’s work and that to me means the concept of life’s project restaurants that I envision in the future.
Guests at your restaurant come to enjoy a special experience and socialize, not to satisfy their hunger. How can cooks at exclusive restaurant like yours participate in dealing with this issue?
We can do a lot to deal with the problems of people in this situation even from kitchens like ours. Cooks like us can cook for soup kitchens, homeless shelters in our local communities, or with the Red Cross. [Food activist] David Hertz in Rio has taken a step in this direction by actually teaching people to cook and giving them a skill instead of just feeding them. For the last three years, I have joined with Action Against Hunger in their campaign in Spain. They invite restaurants to designate one dish in their restaurant from which all the monies go to support the operation. As a goodwill ambassador for the UN in Nigeria, I am actively assisting in their efforts in that region. There is a large farming area where we are assisting in restoring agricultural practices and in conservation. We have joined in that project as consultants to develop a program to teach local farmers to increase their production, and in reviving old methods of grain storage and helping them market their products in order to progress economically.
Are techniques and transformation of products in the kitchen still relevant in restaurant kitchens, or do diners expect more natural and organic food?
Technique and technology are here to stay and will be more important in the future even with the shift to more organic cooking. We ourselves are moving toward organic in our kitchens but are working with modern innovation.
I actually feel that technology and modernity are not in opposition to natural and organic cooking. Technology for the sake of effect does not make sense, and in our kitchens we use it very sensibly and for concrete reasons. As with any revolution, there are negatives, and it’s happened with the technological revolution in the kitchen. Our use of technology in Spanish kitchens has at times been viewed in that way, since many people just use it for effect or to be cool. Cooks are putting their thoughts and ideas on plates and are always at risk of being judged.
How do you react to criticism or negative comments, and are you ever tempted to respond to them?
They certainly need to be daring and brave. I am 60 now, but my DNA still does not allow me to be a rebel in that way by responding. My rebellion lies in forgetting any negatives that come my way. I prefer not to react because that is exactly what the person unleashing that negativity expects. I have my feet very firmly on the ground and feel that being kind and even better at your work is the way to deal with it instead of aggression.
Is the legacy at El Celler De Can Roca going to be carried forward by the next generation?
It’s hard to say what the younger generation will do in the future.
Is it in the DNA?
[laughing] I don’t know, but as you know we live right above the restaurant and all his life [my son] has been around the restaurant, but for 15 years he never realized it. Last year he finally comprehended for the first time that right below his house there is a restaurant. [laughing]
I never tell my children what to do but have left the choice up to them, and now he has come to work in the kitchen. My brother Josep’s son, Martí, is 16, and he came with us on the trip and is also experimenting in the kitchen. They are both still observing and taking it all in. Josep and I both have one daughter each and we now waiting on Jordi to match us.
So, this House of Roca is going to carry on in the future?
It would be beautiful if it happens. We three brothers visualized this project for the three of us and never thought about it going forward when we started. I also feel that maybe this does not need to have continuity, and we don’t dream of it continuing. It grew organically over the years as we grew ourselves. We don’t have anyone invested in this business but us, and we don’t owe anyone. If we decide to close it one day we can, and we don’t really expect our sons to step up and take over. Sometimes parents create something very big and need their children to step in to help, but we were very practical and grew within our limits without accruing any debts. So we have the freedom to make the decision.