INTERVIEW : Chef Joan Roca, El Celler de Can Roca, Girona

Chef Joan Roca is part of a trio of brothers with brothers Josep Roca, the Sommelier and Jordi Roca the Pastry Chef; and together the own and run the world famous restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Catalonia.

El Celler is a three Michelin starred restaurant and has been voted the Number 1 restaurant in the world, twice.

Chef Joan Roca, visited Edinburgh with Estrella Damm for their first “Gastronomic Experience” in Scotland. The event was inspired by its Gastronomy Congresses, a concept invented by Estrella Damm to bring together many of the world’s best chefs to experience demonstrations and discussions around food. They have previously taken place in Miami, Lisbon, Melbourne and London.

I was honoured to have been invited to interview Chef Joan Roca and here’s how I got on.

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Q1. I know that family are extremely important to you but what’s it like being the oldest brother to two younger brothers? Do you pass on your wisdom or do you all feed off each others creativity?

I would say I am kind of the good lad but it is true that being the oldest I sometimes have a specific role. My brothers say I am the one in charge but that’s what they say, I don’t believe that to be true. We make our decisions by consensus, so I wouldn’t say that I am in charge. However Jordi, my youngest brother was the one that use to play and not work; he was the little one and our mother would spoil him like an only child so we didn’t count on him. We most certainly didn’t think he would become a chef or a pastry chef but he surprised us immensely with his commitment, his capacity and his creativity. In the creativity or creation triangle that we build as three brothers, he’s the most transgressive one, the non-conformist, the most daring and I think he is an interesting contribution to this triangle. We’ve been working in this triangle for 20 years but still its really interesting.

Q2. What do you do when you get home after an 18 hour shift in the kitchen? Do you kick off your shoes, cook something and enjoy a beer at 2am?

I consider myself to be really lucky because I literally live upstairs in the same building. We have the kitchen downstairs and my family and I live on the first floor, so I have always considered myself someone who works at home. When my children were little I could actually tuck them in and then go downstairs and serve dinner to people. It’s this proximity that has allowed me to make the most out of my little time.

It is true that a chefs life is a tough life but we’ve been working to improve our team members lives. We have 5 members in our team that have small children, 2 kitchen chefs, 1 x maitre de and 2 x waiters and I want for them to have more time with their family than what I had. Six months ago we introduced a new way of working consisting of a double shift; with a team of people serving lunch and another dinner. We want our people to have a life and to find the right balance between social, family and work life and time. It is a big challenge though in gastronomy, its not easy but its possible to make gastronomy more human.

Q3. What does it mean to you when you put on your chef whites? Do you step into the role of a chef, is it like a mask where you become the best version of yourself? Do you become SuperChef.

I understand your question because it is true that this can happen; that a person can have two different personalities in whites but I would say that it’s very natural for me - I am the same person. When I was 10 years old my mother ordered me a tailor-made chef jacket because 40 years ago you couldn’t find children’s chef whites; 10 year olds didn’t want to become chefs but I did! I played around in the kitchen and I grew up there so being in the kitchen is a kind of natural environment for me and besides it is part of my life so I would say that I am the same person.

Q4. Mise en place – all chefs complete this but do you have any rituals in your kitchen or daily routine?

There is something that we do, but not something that I do just myself; a little ritual that we have in our team. There are 70 of us working at El Celler - 40 chefs and 30 front of house - and all of us, after mise en place, go to my mothers restaurant which is about 100m away at noon. She cooks for us and we eat together before service begins at 1pm.

Of course its about eating, but its also about going back to our roots and origins especially after being awarded 3 Michelin Stars and awarded the best restaurant in the world. I think its good practice to go have these lunches together, it keeps us grounded and not to take all the compliments over the years for granted.

Q5. You are the masterchef, the creator – how do you go about starting to create a dish? Whats the thought process. How do you come up with a dish with such lavish names and props/crockery? Do you like to play with your food?

I would say that the name of the dish and also the aesthetics of how a dish looks is merely an accessory; it’s not the most important thing to me. What really matters is taste and the story that I want to tell through that dish. I believe that gastronomy is a language to tell stories and you have to create something that tastes amazing but it also has to somehow appeal to you or move you. This is becoming more and more difficult to achieve, creating something that is as nice to taste but that conveys a message at the same time. In order to achieve this we have expanded our team, a very complex team; it’s not just chefs. There are 3 of us in the creativity department, there’s a female scientist working at La Masia which is a space for research, there is a botanist, an aromachologist who focuses on essential oils and capturing them and we work with industrial designers and many other profiles. We have this trust dialogue in order to get more ideas that we can transform into dishes. I’m more involved towards the end of this process, the final part. As I mentioned though, we are widening our team, enriching our ideas and thoughts which makes everything more fun and interesting. I see it as a game from beginning to end.

Q6. Where do you see the future of cheffing/kitchens?

I think cuisine is very powerful and has a future. I don’t think that in the future we are going to feed ourselves on the backs of pills that provide us with all the nutrients that we need. Years ago it was proven that a human being needs to eat not only physically but emotionally, the taste and the flavour.

Chefs have a future that’s for sure but I believe the future is the quest for authenticity. Our staff need to find a way to bond, to connect with the diners but I don’t think there is an ideal model for that. Different restaurants have different models, different settings and different cultures. For me the future is small restaurants with big chefs. Now-a-days there are more and more chefs learning the art of gastronomy in kitchen schools; they are getting better and better and some day I would like to think, they are all going to own their own restaurants.

Q7. What do you think of Scottish cuisine and whilst on the topic of Scotland do you have a favourite whisky?

My favourite Scottish whisky is Macallan. (a James Bond favourite too!)

Scottish gastronomy is really interesting. I really like haggis, and your sausages really stand out as well as your seafood ie lobster, razor clams, but also cheese and meat ie grouse. We use them in Girona at the restaurant.

Scotland is a country I would love to spend more time in. Every time I have been to Scotland it has been for short trips so I would like to spend a couple of weeks there and to travel around- it’s something that I am aiming for in the future.

Read my interview with brother, Sommelier Josep Roca - click here