Joan Roca talks about Catalan comfort food and the future of gastronomy

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Long before the pandemic hit gourmet restaurants around the world, the writing was on the wall in Spain: molecular gastronomy was over. The foamed, centrifuged and spherified wonders that put Catalonia and the Basque Country at the culinary forefront in the 2000s had all but lost their novelty. The pendulum had swung back to minimalist, terroir-driven dishes: a small fermented beetroot drizzled with single-source olive oil, perhaps, or a claw-roasted squab splashed with offal blood juice.

The question that many were asking then – and are still asking today – is: what’s next for Spanish gastronomy? And the chefs who defined Spanish alta cocina (haute cuisine) for so long, like Ferran Adrià, Martín Berasategui, Elena Arzak and Joan Roca, fade into the past or evolve to meet, and potentially define, the zeitgeist?

Joan Roca is culinary royalty. His restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, has three Michelin stars and took first place in the (controversial) World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in 2013 and 2015, dethroning René Redezepi’s Noma in Copenhagen. Rave reviews from diners made El Celler one of TripAdvisor’s Top 10 Restaurants of 2019. The enduring buzz keeps the waitlist at an average year-long fresh.

Today, the three Roca brothers – Joan (chef), Jordi (pastry chef) and Josep (sommelier) – are making a breakthrough in the United States, building on the momentum created by Netflix Chef’s table episode that spotlighted Jordi and his sci-fi desserts. The Rocas will soon open a gelateria in Houston called Rocambolesc as their first American business. Rocambolesc, with its popsicles in the shape of human noses and its ice cream coated in hot brioche, is already cult in Spain.

As Rocas grow in popularity, it seemed timely to take stock with Joan – to refresh his memory on Catalan cuisine and hear what he thinks is in store for the future of gastronomy.

Slow-cooked stews, like braised pork with chestnuts, are a mainstay of Catalan cuisine. Get the recipe > Photography by Linda Pugliese; Food styling by Jason Schreiber; Accessory styling by Elvis Maynard

What foods did you eat growing up?

I remember many stews, which are the basis of Catalan cuisine. Stews like beef and wild mushrooms or braised pork chops with chestnuts. You always start with a sofrito made with fried onion, garlic and tomato, to which you can add meat or seafood or both, as well as vegetables and broth. Before serving, you stir in a picada, which is similar to a Mexican mole in that it often contains peanuts as well as saffron, dried bread, garlic – whatever the cook has in the pantry. to eat. A picada really brings a dish together.

What dishes and flavors define Catalan cuisine?

It’s hard to know where to start! Catalonia stretches from the Pyrenees on the French border to the Mediterranean on the Costa Brava, and each region cooked with what was available. A dish that unites the region is escudella, a one-pot boiled dinner. You throw everything you have on hand into a pot – maybe a ham bone, bacon, chickpeas, root vegetables – and boil it all for hours. At home, there was always a “pilota” added to the broth, a huge meatball made from ground pork, moistened bread and milk.

So regional differences in food in Catalonia are mainly due to climate and geography?

Yes, but our cuisine is also diverse due to cultural waves. Over the centuries, we have absorbed the knowledge of Arabs, Jews, Greeks… Take pa amb tomaquet, for example. It’s an iconic Catalan dish, but we didn’t have access to the tomatoes until they were brought over from the Americas. It’s fairly recent in the grand scheme of things, which shows that we’ve always been open-minded, able to incorporate new ingredients and techniques into our food traditions.

Do you incorporate Catalan ingredients and techniques into the dishes at El Celler de Can Roca?

I enjoy applying innovative technology to familiar dishes. For example, I will flavor an oyster with a distillate that we make from the soil of a nearby forest. It sounds quite modern, but in reality it’s a nod to the very Catalan tradition of mixing land and sea – chicken with lobster, rabbit with prawns. In this way we are creating something new, something no one has ever done before, which is simultaneously deeply rooted.

Joan Roca of Catalan Spain

Roca believes the future of Spanish cuisine will place more emphasis on fire cooking, fermented foods and sustainability. Photo courtesy of El Celler de Can Roca

El Bulli closed ten years ago, and with it, much of the hype surrounding molecular gastronomy. Where do you think gastronomy is headed? What’s the next big thing?

Spanish cuisine has become public, in a sense, thanks to these technological advances in the kitchen, but there is no denying that we are now in a new phase. We absorbed all the creative freedom of that time, kept some techniques and abandoned others. The lines are open! Today, Spanish chefs are increasingly focusing on respecting ingredients rather than manipulating them. The future will be less interventionist with fewer additives and more subtle cooking techniques. And it will be more sustainable: we are moving away from vacuum packaging in plastic, for example. Fire cooking is on the rise, as are preserved and fermented foods, both of which are a throwback to habits forgotten by our ancestors. There’s a lot going on with algae right now too. Everything is in motion. And it is extremely interesting.

With inequality rising, it could be argued that restaurants like El Celler de Can Roca are exclusive by design, playgrounds for the super-rich. How about this review?

I understand why it is difficult to understand the relationship between haute cuisine and society as a whole, especially given the circumstances you just mentioned. My guess is that almost anyone can afford an expensive meal once in a while, if that’s what they choose to save their money for. Additionally, restaurants like El Celler de Can Roca are net wealth generators, providing a good standard of living for members of the community. Like any chef, I would like to solve world hunger and house all homeless people. Indeed, chiefs are often at the forefront of solidarity efforts to help the needy. Sustainability must be social as well as environmental. This is what we should focus on.

How did you make El Celler de Can Roca more socially sustainable?

During the pandemic, that meant preventing layoffs by launching new initiatives. For example, we transformed our event space, Mas Marroch, into a restaurant serving our most iconic dishes of all time. But more broadly, we thought about a simple question: how can we improve the lives of our employees? The most important thing was to reduce shifts from 14 to 8 hours – we wanted people to live full and stable lives outside of work. This meant reorganizing our personnel into two full brigades. It also meant adding a psychologist to our team to resolve conflict and keep excitement high. Excitement breeds excellence, which in turn gives customers the best possible experience.

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