Three Brothers, Three Stars: Joan, Josep, and Jordi Roca

 

 

The passion the three Roca brothers bring to their trade is channeled directly onto the plates and into the glasses of their guests, where it becomes almost tangible. Their dishes are lighthearted creations that enchant the taste buds and surprise even the most seasoned gourmets. Unsurprisingly, therefore, El Celler de Can Roca ranks second on the San Pellegrino list of World's 50 Best Restaurants, and this for the second year in a row. The brothers have featured on the list for seven years, and only the restaurant NOMA ranks ahead of them. Yet, whether this actually matters to them remains their secret ‒ they are far too busy creating new gustatory experiences.

Several older French ladies with a deep tan and high-heeled peep-toes revealing a flash of nail polish enter the small garden in front of the restaurant with obvious wonderment. Through wrought-iron bars guarding the ground floor windows of the old Spanish villa where the Celler de Can Roca is located, the cooks can be observed at their work in the kitchens. No less than 15 chef's hats can be made out. Constantly in motion and crisply white, they glint and mingle with the flowering jasmine that climbs the façade to the upper floor. There, a picturesque balcony catches the eye, calling to mind images of Verona and romance. The weather-beaten urns on it release vibrant floral cascades. Only when Josep Roca, the middle of the three Roca brothers, comes out to greet their guests in fluent French do the ladies succeed in tearing their gaze away from the fairy-tale setting. Almost immediately, Josep disappears again, only to reappear carrying several tall, narrow glasses filled with cava. In contrast to his brothers, he is not overly involved with what is happening in the kitchen; his talents lie in other spheres of the gastronomical operation – in short: hospitality and beverages. Taught by Josep Lluis Pérez Verdù, considered by many to be the founder of modern Spanish wine culture, Josep Roca learned all there is to know about the art of the sommelier from the master himself.

Suddenly, from behind a stone oven covered in ivy, a photographer jumps out and rushes away through the neatly trimmed hedge. In unison, the members of the French group turn their heads and lift their eyebrows questioningly. Josep laughs the matter away, saying: "Depuis deux ans, c’est la folie, vous savez." And madness is indubitably an apt description of the current situation. At times, the premises are invaded by journalists who take pictures and videos of every nook and cranny. Josep personally accompanies his guests into the restaurant to show them around. As he goes in, Manel de la Rubia comes out, the bustling man from the reception desk. Wearing a mobile headset, he gesticulates theatrically, rolls his eyes and with a French-like accent and international panache says: "Non, no, if we have to pay, we are not interested. This is our policy. Yes. Thank you, goodbye." Behind him Joan appears, the eldest of the three brothers. Following Manel's beckon, he approaches us and sits down. Joan appears calm and laid-back, although this relaxed condition seems to be more the exception than the rule. After raising his face appreciatively towards the warm sun for a few moments, Joan turns his attention to us. His rugged features impart a genuine warmth. In the background, Manell answers another phone call and ever more guests pass through the gardens toward the restaurant. Yet, all this does not appear to concern Joan in the least.

We have had lots of offers to establish branches abroad, but El Celler de Can Roca couldn't be El Celler de Can Roca anywhere else but here in the Can Suñer villa in Girona.

Two years ago, the restaurant was awarded its third Michelin star, and ever since customers have flocked to the restaurant in droves. Media, gourmets, and sensation-seekers with a deep pocket beat a path to their door. Joan finds the situation very gratifying: "It is wonderful that people want to come here, because we don't want to go anywhere else. This is where we live, this is where we buy our produce, so this is where we want to be able to welcome our guests."

A mild breeze rustles through the ivy climbing up the walls. Joan crosses his legs and swings his foot, clad in an Adidas Limited Edition, rhythmically. He tells us that his first attempts at cooking took place in the family-owned restaurant, Can Roca. It was his mother and his grandmother who taught him the treasured secrets of Catalan cuisine. Joan, the eldest, was the first of the three brothers to go to the Girona Catering School, and he even gave lessons there for some time. In 1986, he took over his parent's restaurant. Tacking "El Celler de" on to the existing name, he set the cornerstone for the next generation of the family establishment. Eleven years later, his youngest brother Jordi, born in 1978, joined him and went on to discover his particular passion for cooking. Starting to work in the family business at the age of 19, Jordi spent time at all the different stations of the restaurant. During his stint with Damian Allsop, a master chocolatier who worked in El Celler de Can Roca at the time, he found his true calling. Joan smiles in recollection: "It's wonderful, we're making our parents happy."

There is no strategy behind our concept; what we do has nothing to do with calculations. We’re just very lucky that the three of us, different though we may be, complement each other perfectly. Each of us contributes his own essential perspective to our creative triangle – otherwise it wouldn't work.

Ever since, the three brothers have been working together successfully, and currently only one small step separates them from being ranked the best restaurant in the world. Each of them is in charge of his own specific domain. On Tuesday mornings, the restaurant is closed in order for them to dedicate themselves to their shared passion. Joan explains: "The entire team gets together in the kitchen and tries out new things. Everyone reports on what's been happening and what they've discovered during the week. Creativity is our creed."

And this innate creativity is reflected in each and every delicacy that appears in every possible shape – and is never served simply in plates: the first amuse-bouche consists of caramelized olives that have been hung with minute hooks from the branches of an olive bonsai tree. This is followed by bite-sized interpretations of five different countries that reveal themselves when the lantern-like object served is opened. And a small, Campari-like cocktail served between the numerous, yet perfectly portioned courses, is made to be consumed in a single sip encased in a half-solid butter cream shell that bursts as soon as it comes in contact with the tongue. In short, the experience is enough to make all the senses spin – and not just because of the exquisite wines selected for each course. Feasting in this wonderland simply has nothing in common with ordinary eating habits.

And Joan is not in the least worried that their well of creativity might dry up under the pressure of success. "I have enough time for my family. And in the early morning, before the tourists show up in town, I go for a walk in the woods or in the old part of the city. While I read or ride my bicycle new ideas appear without any special effort on my part and the same is true for my brothers."

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