Chef Joan Roca of the three-Michelin-starred of El Celler de Can Roca traces his culinary inspiration to his mother's cooking. When Roca was nine years old, he put on an apron to help his mother around the house and at their family restaurant, Can Roca, located on the outskirts of Girona, Catalonia, Spain.
Along with his two brothers, Josep, the maître and sommelier, and Jordi, the pastry chef, a 22-year-old Joan opened El Celler de Can Roca in 1986, next to their parents' restaurant in a working-class neighborhood in Girona. They served hake with rosemary and garlic vinaigrette as their first-ever dish, but the restaurant quickly became known for combining cutting edge techniques like perfume-based dishes inspired by Bulgari and Lancôme, molecular gastronomy, unique presentations (such as caramelized olives served on a bonsai tree) and cooking rooted in Spanish and Catalan traditions. Joan is also known as a sous vide master.
The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 1995, its second in 2002 and reached three-star status in 2009. El Celler de Can Roca moved to its current custom-made location in 2007 and boasts a famous 60,000-bottle wine cellar, while the original location is used for staff meals.
In 2014, Roca opened La Masia (I+R), a research and innovation space immediately opposite the restaurant. El Celler de Can Roca also leads a botanical research team called Terra Animada, cataloguing more than 3,000 wild species for its recovery and reintroduction in gastronomy.
(This interview has been lightly edited.)
What was the last thing you ate?
I just ate an oxtail stew at mother's restaurant, Can Roca, that was exquisite. It is a comfortable, traditional, home-style restaurant and also the place where me and my brothers grew up among the scents of her cuisine and my parents' daily customers.
The meat has a great tenderness and there's a richness to the sauce. This is due to a patient and slow cooking process—also to the fact that my mother always cooks it the previous day and lets it stand before serving it the following day, which concentrates the flavors.
It's your day off. What do you order for breakfast and where? (Outside of your own restaurants.)
I love to wake up early in the morning and bike to the old side of Girona where I indulge in a good Iberian ham sub at Porcus. The sandwich is just bread with a good ripe tomato rubbed on it, extra-virgin olive oil, and, of course, one of the finest products of our region, the Iberian ham—a delicious gastronomic jewel that is thinly sliced and much loved.
Controversial question: Do you believe in brunch?
I usually wake up early, so I rather prefer to have a good breakfast to energize my morning and then have lunch later. I'll have fruit, cereal and two poached eggs with toast.
What is your 2:00 a.m. food order or favorite spot?
By that time I'm still at the restaurant or at home, as I live on the top of my kitchen. Maybe it is not the most healthy option before going to sleep, but I usually eat artisan bread, olive oil, and cheese.
What is your local coffee shop and what do you order?
Espresso Mafia in the old side of Girona. It's my favorite place to grab an excellent cup of black coffee to go before biking back to work in the morning.
Where do you go when you travel to your favorite city?
There's a place in a little village in Costa Brava next to the sea called Toc al Mar. I love to order their local red scorpion fish in the summer season. It is prepared on oak wood embers and I love to accompany it with tomato-rubbed bread. If it is winter, the seasonal sea urchins are my favorite. The traditional and authentic flavors of the Mediterranean local cuisine eaten in front of the sea make a rounded experience for me and my family.
What is the "laziest" meal you put together for yourself this past week?
Scrambled eggs—I love them. Last week I cooked them with fresh black truffle. In spring, I love to prepare them with the wild green asparagus we forage. If it's summer, ripe tomatoes, and in autumn with white truffle.
What is your favorite snack food?
Anchovy-filled green olives. It's a very typical Mediterranean produce very popular in all homes. Our local varieties both for anchovies and olives are excellent ones and a delightful combination of land and sea.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I love all kinds of chocolate, which makes it dangerous for me. My brother Jordi is about to launch Casa Cacao by the end of this summer in Girona. It will be a street-level chocolate factory and shop with wide windows that will allow people in the street to see how the process is made.
Photos courtesy of El Celler de Can Roca.