Three Gentleman of Girona

By Nikki Werner
Photographs by Brandon Amron-Coetzee

“The wine is the starting point for the food, the ‘ignition’ for dishes,” explains Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, the restaurant he heads up with his brothers Jordi and Josep in the historic Catalonian town of Girona, one hour drive north of Barcelona. 
At El Celler de can Roca, wine receives appreciation and attention equal to food, with a particular emphasis on Catalan wines. So it is apt that we are first met by Josep, middle brother and sommelier, pivotal to the El Celler operation. Dressed in a black suit with a bright emerald-green tie (in a perfect Windsor knot), he greets us with a smile and introduces us to Joan, eldest brother and chef, and Jordi, youngest brother and pastry chef, both of whom are dressed in pristine chef’s whites.

We have just arrived, late and flustered, after many wrong turns and, to be honest, not many words of Catalan fully mastered. But Joan, Josep and Jordi welcome us with utter graciousness even though they are just about to launch into full lunch service. One by one, they take turns to sit with us and patiently explain their philosophy and their food. “The wine is just the beginning,” continues Joan, “the second stage is the evolution of the dish, the adaptation and refining, taking traditional Catalan dishes to new-cuisine Catalan. And the third stage is incorporating memories, of travel, work, home and the kitchen.”

All three brothers are so intently focussed on their craft, it feels as if they have no idea of how lauded they really are. On doing a quick canvas in Barcelona, chefs furrow their brows unable to decide who they looked up to more, Ferran Adria of El bulli or Joan Roca. When it comes to the Roca brothers’ credentials there’s no doubt that they are among the world’s best. El Celler has two Michelin stars and was rated 11th in Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2007. They are responsible for Restaurant Moo in Hotel Omm in Barcelona (although chef Felip Llufriu executes their vision) which was awarded a Michelin star shortly after opening. And Joan Roca authored the bible on sous-vide cooking (sealing food in a vacuum and cooking at very low temperatures) one of the corner-stone techniques of deconstructionist cooking or the new cuisine (popularly classified as molecular gastronomy).
Just as the brothers are unassuming, so is their restaurant. The name is engraved on a discreet wooden door which is easy to miss. There isn’t a lot of drive-by business in this quiet suburb of Girona but one clue to finding El Celler is the loyal lunch trade that heads to the establishment next door. On the other side of a shared wall is a humble but highly-regarded canteen belonging to Joan, Jordi and Josep’s parents. Their mother and father have been feeding local workers good traditional Catalan fare for many years. And in this kitchen the Roca brothers grew up, playing at their mother’s ankles while she cooked Catalan rice for her customers and then later learning by her side.

They are not unique in their situation. In Catalonia there is a strong sense of prioritising family and respecting what has gone before, giving both a valued space alongside all that is new. In Barcelona, it is not uncommon to see cutting-edge chocolate shops making chocolate-covered pink peppercorns and confectionaries inspired by John Lennon’s Imagine sitting happily next to the chocolatier’s father’s pastry shop, which still sells the custard and pine-nut pastries they have been making since the 50s. I can’t help but feel that they’ve got their priorities straight. And somehow being so physically close to their roots and projecting from a solid foundation seems to enable them to reach even greater creative heights. The brothers couldn’t have a better grounding for the second step in their three-tier approach to developing a dish: advancing traditional Catalan to new-cuisine Catalan.  
“Once they eat here, they want to taste the great dishes of my mother on the other side,” says Joan. The only time his voice takes on a slightly more determined tone is when I ask him to describe his mother’s rice dish, “It is not paella,” he says, “it has more liquid and it’s made in a pot, like risotto. It’s the only way to make rice in Catalonia and Catalonia is not Spain.”

His parents still work seven days a week and clearly the work ethic is genetic. A painted portrait of their grandmother Angeleta (who ran an Inn with her husband in the 1920s) is propped up on a table in the reception. At the age of 94 she would still come into the restaurant to help where she could, shaking her head, at their cuisine (incomprehensible to her) and saying, “This is crazy!” 

Although the Roca brothers’ story is a PR’s dream and their name sounds like they should be signing contracts to roll out celebrity chef television shows, they are remarkably free of the hype characterising some of their contemporaries. Their food has a light touch, refined, delicate and almost feminine even though it utilises ground-breaking techniques. As we are led to our table, we pass a contraption totally incongruous with the elegant sideboard on which it sits. It appears better suited to a bench in a science lab, its protruding glass bulb lined with a film of condensation. “This is our ‘distillation of earth’,” explains Joan, “we go up to the country and take up the earth and then we put it into the distiller. We serve it with the oyster to bring out its minerality.” 

On opening the menu, the influence of wine is evident. All the classic dishes are listed with vintages, the year each was created. One that remains a favourite with Joan is their famous foie gras torrone, a deceptive little ‘truffle’ of foie gras. It not only resembles, but on eating also gives the impression of a neat square of Swiss chocolate—cold, smooth, silky, melting instantly against the warmth of your palate. It’s still so relevant, mind versus senses, what you expect from sensory interpretation versus what you know. 

But the next dish to evoke surprise and delight is the smoked tuna with peach compote and ginger. Each plate is brought to the table covered with a cloth and they are all lifted at exactly the same moment, not just for ceremony, but to release a petit cloud of smoke that wafts up to our noses and then dissipates to reveal the tuna. 

The next course is Josep’s favourite pairing, an oloroso sherry served with pigeon and that classic, Catalan rice. Josep’s attention to wine can be fully appreciated at Moo where convention is reversed; rather than producing a dish and then finding a suitable wine to pair it with, they begin with the wine and construct the dish around it. “We might start with a Merlot,” says Joan, “which is herbaceous, so the extension of that is salad. And then it might lead you to think of truffles and anchovies—already you have the building blocks for a dish.”

When it comes to dessert at Moo, we take the third step in their evolutionary cooking process and enter into the Roca brother memory bank. The most awe-inspiring Roca memory you can engage with is Jordi’s ‘Holiday in Havanna’. Looking uncannily like an authentic cigar, complete with grey ash dropping off the end (a permutation of dried violets), it is an immaculate tube of chocolate filled with cigar-smoke-infused ice-cream—with a mojito granita on the side. You really have to taste it to believe it but if you can imagine, it’s like eating cigar smoke, in the most delicious way. 

Back at El Celler, Jordi’s desserts are inspired by colour and deconstructing the notes of well-known fragrances to take the form of desserts, this is a memory of the kitchen. “One day a supplier walked in carrying a huge box of bergamot as part of a delivery,” says Jordi. He recognised it as one of the notes in Calvin Klein’s fragrance Eternity and it sparked his curiosity, if it works in a fragrance, why can’t it translate into food? Vanilla, mandarin, orange blossom work in a fragrance and they also work together as ingredients. Eternity was his first experiment and the greatest success. After our bowl of highly sophisticated jelly and ice cream, incorporating rose, vanilla, red fruits and coconut, it comes full circle and we are given a strip of card to sniff the fragrance, the original inspiration.

When Joan reminisces about opening El Celler de can Roca in 1986 he says, “It’s incredible, I never thought my child would go up and up.” His humility is touching as is his admiration for his brothers’ respective talents. “Josep is the science, Jordi is the sweet and I am the orchestrator, we all have to work together.” I have fleeting feeling of being in Fernando Trueba’s film Belle Epoque where a Spanish soldier meets four sisters, each with their own unique beauty and charm, and wants to marry them all. Besides their obvious talent, meeting the Roca brothers is similar, they are each so different, each so consumed by their area of expertise and yet all three so gentlemanly and modest, you can’t help but fall in love.
For more information on each chef and El Celler, go to Werner is the Food Editor of Fairlady.