This month Joan Roca, the executive chef of El Celler de Can Roca, traveled to New York City to both cook and award a scholarship to one lucky culinary student.
There are few restaurants at which it is more difficult to book a reservation than Spain’s world-renowned El Celler de Can Roca. This family-run establishment, which offers tasting menus starting at 180 euros per person, combines the creativity and skills of the Roca brothers—executive chef Joan, sommelier Josep, and patissier Jordi. The restaurant has garnered many accolades and awards throughout its 30 years of existence. It was rated number one in the world by Restaurant Magazine in 2013 and 2015, although this year it dropped a spot to number two (still an incredibly impressive feat), and is also the recipient of three Michelin stars. Joan’s style of cooking is artful and avant-garde, with firm roots in the traditional food of his native Catalan. He uses fresh and local ingredients like paint upon a canvas, creating beautiful, whimsical, and most importantly delicious dishes that are rich in flavor but light in touch.
The Roca brothers have partnered with the bank BBVA Compass as brand ambassadors for the past five years. They embark upon an annual tour to various cities in the U.S. where they prepare a special dinner using local ingredients translated into their unique style. Most recently, Joan visited New York City, where he put together an eight-course meal paired with a spectacular array of Spanish wine and sherry. Through a translator, Joan explained that transplanting his culinary vision to different locales is both a challenge and an opportunity to branch out. “In places where there are defined seasons, we tend to start from the ingredients… that are in season,” he said. “We apply our ideas that match the local character of the city.” The meal took three months to prepare, with Joan sending a team to the city in advance to scout locations, ingredients, and venues.
The New York City meal began with small bites representing different countries, from Mexico (guacamole tomato with coriander) to Thailand (chicken with coconut, curry, and lime) to Korea (fried bread with pork belly). The main courses were carefully executed, fantastic examples of Joan’s fanciful style of cooking. Prawns marinated in rice vinegar lay in a bright red sauce made from prawn head juice. Lobster coral complemented perfectly cooked lobster tail meat served with a dark, almost jus-like sauce made with mushrooms. A sous-vide veal oyster blade, cooked for 70 hours at 55 degrees Celsius, was served at a perfect medium rare along with tender pieces of marrow and tendon. And for dessert, a dish called “Old Book” stole the show, a puffed butter cookie pastry and Darjeeling cream decorated with rice paper that was doused in “essence of old book,” perfuming and flavoring the dessert in a magical way.
Joan’s visit to New York City wasn’t just about cooking spectacular food, however. He was also here to help out aspiring chefs, teaching a master class at the International Culinary Center and awarding a scholarship to one lucky student who will get to participate in a three-month training program at El Celler de Can Roca. This year’s winner was Jeffrey Kim, who should expect a fully immersive and challenging few months in Spain learning everything from kitchen prep to maintaining a healthy mental attitude. “This scholarship program enhances and adds meaning to the project,” said Joan, who also teaches at a culinary school in Girona, Spain. “When we travel around the world, we are eager to learn, but are happy to share our knowledge.”
The Roca brothers will also be holding a special event in conjunction with American Express. On September 30, American Express Platinum Card members will be able to attend a special dinner at El Celler de Can Roca, as well as attend a cooking demonstration and wine tasting at Espai Mas Marroch, an old farmhouse owned by the brothers in the countryside outside of Girona. The Roca brothers have been partners with American Express since 2014.
Despite all of the accolades, awards, and Michelin stars, what it comes down to for Joan is recreating the indelible sensory memories of the food of his youth, when he lived above the restaurant that his parents ran. “I keep going back to the dishes my mother and grandmother used to make,” he said. “Every time I would come back from school, there was this vivid memory of the smell of onions being poached or my grandmother making Crema Catalana. Those things made me feel at ease and inspired me to start working in the kitchen.” It’s this focus on family and tradition, combined with a forward-thinking vision of fine dining, that continues to make Joan Roca and his brothers unrivaled figures in the culinary world, and El Celler de Can Roca a bucket list destination for any foodie.