"Our creative process is a three-way collaboration, a synthesis of the disciplines of 3 brothers,” explained Joan Roca, chef of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. In an interview, we discussed Roca's childhood upbringing, leadership lessons he learned climbing the culinary world, his approach and philosophy towards food, inspiration and creativity, and much more. Twice ranked No. 1 in the world (2013, 2015), Roca’s restaurant was named No. 3 in the 2017 rankings of the world's best restaurants. In 2011 and 2012, the restaurant was ranked second best worldwide.
Was there a moment of inspiration or a particular experience when you were younger that made you think, "Ah, I should be a chef!"?
This moment would maybe be all my childhood. I was raised in a restaurant bar, Can Roca, the restaurant opened by my parents in 1967 in Taialà—an outlying district of Girona. For me and my brothers, the family restaurant was our living room, the place where the three of us grew up, played heads or tails, and did homework amongst the scents of my mother’s kitchen. After school, I loved helping my mother at the kitchen in any way I could. I enjoyed being in my mother’s kitchen so much, that as young as nine, she had a chef jacket tailor made for me. Unknowingly, I was beginning to engineer my future. When the time came, I didn’t hesitate to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up, I saw that people were happy at my parents’ restaurant and I wanted to keep making people happy, following my mother’s transferred values: generosity, hospitality and work.
As your career developed and you began to master your craft, what were some of the hardest things you had to learn along the way in order to grow professionally?
On one hand, accepting that the time devoted to cuisine could disconnect me from my family and friends, so the solution was making my profession a way of living, avoiding this separation. That’s why I live on top of my restaurant kitchen, or I have my restaurant kitchen under my house.
Another important challenge was the big jump from working in a small kitchen with 2 persons the first days of El Celler de Can Roca, in 1986, to work with 40 cooks in my kitchen. I’ve learnt in these years that managing such a team in an inclusive way for all their talents, and here I include all the restaurant team and collaborators, depends on managing their abilities, creativities and emotions. The only way to do so is the active listening, that’s why since 2 years ago, on Tuesdays, we decided not to have lunch service at the restaurant, rejecting the economic benefits of it, and keep this time for the team. So on Tuesdays we are able to have some time with them to share our projects, to give them training master-classes, and we decided to contract a Human Relations Psychologist expert, Imma Puig, who worked with FC Barcelona and takes care of our staff and ourselves through group dynamics.
How would you describe your approach and philosophy underpinning the menu at El Celler de Can Roca?
It’s about an internal and intimate sense, that is the result of many years of work and a certain accumulated or gained experience, as well as a consequence of a life devoted to the search of balance. It’s complex to explain, it has to do with work, research, commitment to the product and to the original taste.
Our creative process is a three-way collaboration, a synthesis of the disciplines of 3 brothers: Josep is the liquid mind, the world of wine, Jordi is the sweet mind, and me the salt. Each of us provides his own vision for a new dish or a new project, in every step we take. Then, we could define our philosophy in 16 key concepts which we draw creative roads: sometimes the starting point is product, other times it can be the landscape, that reminds us our commitment to the environment, academicism, memories and the sense of humor are often inspiring too, or boldness, innovation, perfume and the olfactory sense, poetry or magic, the world of wine or the colors. All these always form a transversal vision, as an unlimited creative exchange from a humanist conception of the culinary creation. It is ultimately the result of different worlds coming together. A fluid dialogue with the common thread of passion, fun and rigor.
What kinds of dishes and drinks stand out the most to you at El Celler de Can Roca, and how do you maintain the inspiration and creativity necessary to continually reinvent and maintain such a high bar of excellence?
The most remarkable thing is the confidence that people give to us, they come to our place to eat and drink what we offer to them, that at the end is what we think is the best that the natural season in our land offers to us at the moment. We cook it in the best way we know, with both respect and creativity. Then I’m very lucky to have a brother that is considered one of the best sommeliers of the world, and is generous and sensitive to suggest the better wine for pairing and enhancing each of the dishes.
Is there such thing as a perfect dish?
A dish cooked and served with love. By this I mean love for cooking, love for the product in your hands, love for being a chef, love for your natural environment that gives you the ingredients, love for the people that are going to eat what you cook, and love for the team you are cooking with. Then, it must be eaten with love.