Hubert Burda Media

Joan Roca's coming to Hong Kong

Ahead of his trip to Hong Kong this summer Joan Roca – of World’s Best Restaurant El Celler de Can Roca – talks taste, travel and technique.

The brothers behind the World’s Best Restaurant (as deemed by the voting academy of the 50 Best Restaurants) go home for lunch every day, where their mother cooks them the same traditional Catalan food they’ve consumed since they were children.

El Celler de Can Roca is run by three brothers: youngest Jordi helms the pastry desk; middle brother Josep runs the front of house and curates the wine list; while the eldest, Joan, oversees the rest of the menu. And while the inspiration for inventive dishes – which run the gamut from a canapé of caramelised olives stuffed with anchovies, dangling from a bonsai tree, to a dessert idea named “anarchy” for the crazy number of elements plated on a single dish ­– is rooted in Catalan tradition, then broadened by travel experiences and technological innovations, the reliance is primarily on nostalgia, mood and other senses.

The scent of a wine or a childhood memory could thus equally be the starting point for a new dish, but the brothers have also become experts at emotional eating, so to speak – harnessing their own to create new inventions, but also evoking them from patrons. Although as “the salt mind” (to Josep’s “liquid mind” and Jordi’s “sweet mind”), Joan may seem to hold the largest responsibility, the brothers insist that with their holistic approach to dining, each role is both important and influential.

Travel also plays a big part in providing fodder for culinary ideas, and the brothers jump at opportunities to do so. Joan visited Bangkok recently as a guest of the Thai King to visit farms supported by a Royal Projects  initiative and cook at a dinner alongside Thai and international chefs. And every year since 2014 the restaurant has closed for five weeks as the entire staff jets around the globe for pop-up dinners – this August will see them hit up Hong Kong.

We hear that you’ll be coming to Hong Kong this year.

We’ll be coming to Hong Kong in August – we haven’t said yet where the [restaurant pop-up] is going to be, but [the trip is] mainly to go visit and learn about the cuisine and the ingredients, so that we can make tribute to the cuisine of Hong Kong. It’s a learning process, and we will study everything so that they come ready for our trip.

What do you know about Chinese cuisine and how do you think it fits in with what you do?

For me, it’s a challenge, the biggest challenge ­– the cuisine there is very varied and complex.

What do you normally do on these trips?

We stay a few days in each city; only four days in Hong Kong, for example. We bring the whole team – the restaurant closes for five weeks and we travel with the whole team of 38 people. It’s like El Celler de Can Roca itself is there, because the whole team shuts down and moves around. We study the region before going, and then we go to the culinary schools so that we can learn from them, get ideas from them. We also teach in Girona [where the restaurant is based]. So the most important thing is that when we go to the schools, we pick two candidates to go to Girona as well and stay with us for four months, so they can study with us, and we too can learn from them. The BBVA [Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria] sponsors these scholarships for the students.

Now despite being an avid traveller, when you’re in Girona, you and your brothers still head to your parents’ restaurant for family meals. What do chefs at the World’s Best Restaurant have for lunch?

Traditional Catalan food – the comfort food that’s always in my memory. There is a lot of influence of the traditional in my current dishes, as well as influences from my travels. We look at old books, old recipes, and reconstruct them in a new way. Wine is very important to my cuisine and my brother Josep is our sommelier. Many of our dishes are constructed based on the aromas of wine. Our pastry chef Jordi is also important, and together we make a team that can create something very complex.

You were an early adopter of the sous-vide technique, which has since become used and abused by chefs. Do critics and consumers today value innovation over taste?

There has been a revolution in technology, and we are all worried about it, as chefs. It used to be the best products that we were worried about, and these revolutions are important, but nowadays, what I’m most concerned with is emotions and the human part of things. How to take care of the team and to how to make sure they can transfer our emotions into the cuisine, and to the customer. Technology is still very important, but the dishes nowadays should have a message, that’s what’s critics want. A true message, and a story that relates to the chef.

Restaurants, cuisines and chefs have become very “celebritised”, so to speak. Why do you think that is?

Cuisine was always important, but in this new era of social media, food is not just a source of enjoyment nowadays. It’s a social tool that we use to promote countries. So now people are more aware that food is about more than just eating. It’s about health issues; it’s about tourism. Anyone related to any of these areas is interested in food now, and people find pride in cuisine.

How has El Celler de Can Roca changed in the 30 years since it opened?

Slowly. We retain that promise of creativity and innovation. There was a big change when Jordi joined us, because he was much younger and from another generation, with a very different perspective on creativity. The three of us working together over the last 10 years has really pushed us to be more innovative, and I really enjoy this. We’ve really seen a lot of improvements in this decade.

How will it continue to change in the near future?

We have been working on distillation. And fermentation, which is an Oriental technique. These are my interests lately.