In Hong Kong, Roca brothers of world’s best restaurant talk about what inspires them

Joan and Josep Roca take time out from preparing invitation-only meal to explain how landscape, memory, foraging for ingredients and experimentation come together in dishes they serve

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 2:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 2:20pm

The Roca brothers, Joan, Josep and Jordi, may have the number one restaurant in the world and three Michelin stars, but they retain the humility they learned from their parents, who still run the family bar very close to their restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

It is this approach to life, along with their respect for tradition, use of local ingredients and modern cooking techniques that has been their recipe for success over the past 30 years.

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The two older brothers, Joan, 52, and Josep, 50, are in Hong Kong for a two-day special event at Felix in The Peninsula hotel, organised by a leading global credit card company to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its local operation.

At a media preview on Friday, the brothers talked about how they take inspiration from the land, and new techniques, to create innovative dishes that capture the flavours of Spain’s Catalonia region. The brothers have an organic farm, a flock of sheep, and forage for ingredients for their restaurant.

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They first learned cooking from their mother, then attended hospitality school in Girona and honed their culinary technique in France before returning to their parents’ place. Nine years ago they moved 100 metres up the road to open their highly acclaimed restaurant, where they have an area set aside purely for experimentation.

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“Our food is very complex, and part of it is inspired by memory, from dishes that our parents and grandparents made for us,” says Joan.

For example, their grandmother made a suckling pig with tomato bread, and he makes his own interpretation, with pork from the rib area that has been cooked sous vide at 63 degrees, then fried to make the skin crispy.

We’re Spanish. We don’t get stressed.
Joan Roca

Another concoction is grapefruit campari their parents make at the bar; here the flavour of the drink is transformed into that of a bonbon, which explodes with tart freshness in the mouth.

The modern cooking techniques the Roca brothers use verge on the scientific. They take herbs and vegetables and distil them into essential oils in a kitchen laboratory before using them on the plate.

Roca brothers work together to make El Celler in Spain an award-winning restaurant

They also manipulate ingredients at various temperatures to create exciting new presentations, such as distilling eucalyptus leaves at a low temperature. When served, the clear liquid, which has been chilled at minus 5 degrees, is poured onto the dish and becomes an instant frozen mini sculpture on the plate.

Joan says that landscape is also very important to their food; they work with a botanist to catalogue all the plants growing within Girona, such as garlic, fennel and oregano.

Complementing the food is the wine, and Josep is the restaurant’s sommelier, who looks after their cellar. He remembers fondly that by the time he was nine years old he had sampled all the alcohol behind bar.

He enjoys wines from all parts of the world - though he confesses he has yet to try any from China – but is particularly keen in showcasing those from Spain. “I am interested in the land where the grapes grow. Wines are complex and each bottle has a life, showcasing the landscape. I think the wines reflect the winemaker.”

He doesn’t want to make his own wines yet, but thinks now is a good time to be an ambassador for winemakers, particularly those from Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

The restaurant doesn’t just make food. Joan says his brother Jordi, the pastry chef, has made desserts inspired by perfumes – 25 of them – and they have even created their own perfume, Nuvol de Llimona.

“We are nonconformist. We fuse creativity with knowledge to create new dishes,” he says.

How stressful is it to keep the restaurant No. 1 in the world, having attained that ranking in 2013, lost it, then regained it?

“We take advantage of the title to be ambassadors of our land,” says Joan. We don’t take it too seriously because it’s a subjective list. They will announce the new list on June 30. We are very fortunate to be number one in the world, but we have also worked very hard to get to this point. We’re Spanish. We don’t get stressed.”