Interview: Joan Roca (El Celler de Can Roca, Spain)

The Roca brothers

The Roca brothers (from left: Joan, Josep and Jordi)

When 27 years ago Joan and Josep Roca created their own restaurant beside the one of their parents, they started to realize their own dream. Chef Joan and sommelier Josep were later joined by their younger brother Jordi, who is master of the sweet pleasures. Six years ago they moved into their own space where their project became a story of success – a result of outstanding creativity and wonderful team work of the three brothers. In April this year has their restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, which already before gained three Michelin stars, been proclaimed as the best restaurant worldwide at the Worlds 50 best restaurants awards ceremony in London. On the 6th May this year, a few days after the award ceremony, have the three brothers for the first time performed in Girona their culinary opera El Somni, which in twelve acts, with twelve courses for twelve  spectators unites art and gastronomy. Magnificent spectacle unites a very interesting group of renewed artists, between them also the great Zubin Mehta. Joan, the chef, explains:

Joan Roca

Joan Roca

Joan, you were born into a family which offers culinary pleasures to the guests since generations and you like to mention that you have inherited your love for this work from your parents. How come that you haven’t simply taken over your parents’ restaurant, as many of your colleagues did, but you chose your own way by opening your own restaurant with your brothers?

With Josep we have been non-conformists as long as I can remember. We had our own ideas, we wanted to do things differently from what our parents were doing. We wanted to build something on our own experiences which we gained in France, through our schooling. And at the same time we didn’t want to change the concept of our parents’ restaurant, because they do greatly what they are doing, just the old way. That’s why we needed a new place where we were able to start from zero.

Exterior of El Celler de Can Roca

Exterior of El Celler de Can Roca

You are Catalonian. This region seems to be a cradle of great contemporary chefs. What is the reason that Catalonia gained such an important position in the contemporary world gastronomy?  

This is a region with a deep gastronomical tradition, history and heritage. All this is accompanied by excellent ingredients. Somebody could say that it’s just a coincidence, but I’m convinced that those deep roots gave the real zest to the chefs who have committed to free interpretation of the traditional dishes and have let their creativity to develop to highest levels.

How would you describe Catalonian cuisine in a few words?

It’s a very complex and diverse cuisine. The one in the inland is very different from the coastal and this one is again very different from the mountain cuisine. Also the Southern is very different from the Northern. Catalonian cuisine gets inspired by the flavours from the past, by all the civilisations that have left traces in this territory through all the history. It’s a cuisine full of contrasts – sweet with sourly, fruit with meat or fish with meat. Our cuisine is on the other side also very baroque with so called  “sofrito” which serves like base … or even more with “picada”, very complex sauce made of parsley, garlic, nuts, chocolate and spices as saffron, cinnamon, pepper, anise, cumin …

Eldelberry and cherry infusion with smoked sardines by Joan Roca

Elderberry and cherry infusion with smoked sardines by Joan Roca

What about world gastronomy? Which cuisines are your favourites?

I’m specially interested in Asian cuisine, but I love also Mexican and Peruvian because of their complexity and diversity.

What do you see as main trend in the world gastronomy and what should we expect from the future?

I think that the main trend is that chefs inspire themselves by their territory. We have a very strong relation to the environment, to local ingredients and their quality and we support the local farming. Relation to the environment, strong identity, respect and openness for the other worlds are and will be still for some more time our main sources of inspiration. Developing our own creativity and capability to touch guests are marking the always developing cuisine and (very important!) this allows guest to feel the effort and mastery which results in strong positive emotions that leave a deep trace.

Pit de colomí by Joan Roca

Pit de colomí by Joan Roca

How would you describe your own philosophy in cuisine and what’s most typical for you?

Our cuisine is deeply rooted in the Catalonian tradition, but it always relates also with science. This way it develops and involves also farmers who are sourcing us with best ingredients. We are always open to interdisciplinarity which allows us to develop our creativity to which we always add also a bit of magic.

Let’s go back to your childhood. Are there any special memories and flavours which you include now into your cuisine?

Memories are my main inspiration. I have brought many to life through my dishes. For example “Xai amb pa amb tomàquet”, lamb with tomato and bread, which I often enjoyed at my grandmother, on low temperature cooked vegetable soups,  traditional Catalan rice and “suquets” (fish stew) …

Is there any special ingredients which you use particularly often?

Humor. It’s always present in our work – it’s base of our relation and communication. And then there is olive oil – this is for me my main ingredient, which I include into all my dishes as the main theme in different stories and interpretations. And then there are different local ingredients that are for me like fetish –  gamba de Palamós (Palamós shrimps), seasonal truffles and other mushrooms from our region, vegetables from the garden, lamb from Mas Marcè, excellent ingredients from small producers from Siurano de l’Empordà…

Anémona by Joan Roca

Anémona by Joan Roca

Who was the most important teacher for you? The person with strongest influence?

My mother – as inspiration and teacher. She has deeply influenced on me with her values as generosity, hospitality, selflessness, diligence and perseverance. She was for me also as a traditional cookbook – a connection with the roots. Beside all that she has inspired me also with her great passion to make guests happy.

What is your main inspiration today?

Memories and emotions, excellent ingredients, landscapes, conversations with artists, discovering wine harmonies with my brother Josep,  sweet cooking with my youngest brother Jordi, humor, … life itself is an infinite source of inspiration.

And your favourite dish?

Traditional rice from our region and the juicy ones. Escudella I Carn d’olla made by my mother.

If you wouldn’t become a chef, which profession would you choose?

I would become an architect. Cuisine and architecture have much more in common than you can imagine.

Your creativity is without limits. Together with your brothers and selected world renewed artists you have created a culinary opera El Somni. A stunning project! What was your main motivation to do it and what are you mostly enthusiastic about?

We were motivated by desire for a dialogue with other disciplines, to develop both in personal and professional way and to nourish our creativity. What I liked most of all is that all our expectations have been accomplished, that it is still alive and will bring still may beautiful experiences.

Gelado de masa madre

Gelado de masa madre

Is it already possible to buy tickets for El Somni?

Not yet. We are now planning the El Somni tour which will be concluded in Girona, where everything started. But we are not in a hurry, we are developing things slowly –  step by step. In this moment we live in the restaurant – we want to give the best to our guests who are visiting us, we are fully committed to them at El Celler de Can Roca. I think this is our first duty.

What is your greatest feasible or already fulfilled dream?

Since always was my greatest wish to develop my own restaurant together with my brothers and I’m happy that we made it reality. Everything what is happening now – awards and recognitions – is much more than we ever expected. We are living a wonderful moment.

And unattainable dream?

Also this moment which we are living now, seemed not so far ago unimaginable, but today it became reality. We are living a reality which is better than our dreams.

Andreja Lajh (all photos: Roca archive)

Interview was published also in Slovenian language in printed lifestyle magazine David.

Interior of El Celler de Can Roca

Interior of El Celler de Can Roca


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