When Hong Kong met Spain – El Celler de Can Roca comes to the Fragrant Harbour
[UDPATE: In June 2019 El Celler de Can Roca joined the newly created Best of the Best list as part of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. This “hall of fame” celebrates previous winners of the no 1 slot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and are not eligible to be voted for on the list going going forward.]
High above Hong Kong inside Felix restaurant at the top of The Peninsula hotel Joan Roca the head chef and eldest of three brothers behind one of the world’s most famous restaurants, El Celler de Can Roca, is assembling two dishes.
The first, a sous vide fish, Joan explains is inspired by his home of Girona in Spain and can be found on the menu at the Rocas’ three Michelin starred establishment there which has twice been crowned the World’s Best Restaurant.
The second, crispy pork, is a new creation that’s an homage to Hong Kong his host city today. The demonstration, and the reason Joan is so far from home, is part of an exclusive dining experience the Rocas are holding at The Peninsula organised by American Express Invites for Centurion cardholders.
The stunning venue was chosen partly because the hotel is iconic Hong Kong – suitably venerable for the Rocas’ inaugural dinners in the city – but also because the light flooded space at Felix is reminiscent of the atrium like El Celler.
Along with the aforementioned pork, Joan has created two other “Asian inspired” dishes (vegetable consommé cooked at a low temperature – pictured below – and vinegar marinated prawns with katsuobushi – pictured above) especially for the event. “When we travel we are always learning,” he says.
Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca; head chef, sommelier and pastry chef respectively at El Celler, grew up with their parents running a modest restaurant in Girona. They tell Chopstix there was no family pressure to go into the restaurant business, when we interview them later at one of The Peninsula’s sumptuous suites, it was simply what they knew. Although they only landed in Hong Kong the night before they look impressively alert and polished, Joan in his chefs whites and Josep in a smart suit (Jordi is holding the fort in Girona).
So how did they decide which role each would play? “I am the oldest so I decided first I wanted to be a chef,” says Joan with a smile. “And I wanted to enjoy the wines,” laughs Josep. “By the age of nine I had tasted all the alcohol in my parent’s bar, so I was an expert at a young age!” They say younger brother Jordi, who was only seven when they started the restaurant in 1986, always had a fondness for sweets. “Now we are a perfect triangle, totally in balance,” says Joan.
Do they ever argue? “No,” they both respond immediately. “We’ve been working together for thirty years, if it was difficult I don’t think we would have worked together for so long,” says Joan. “We don’t know what it is to work without each other,” says Josep. After some consideration Joan adds: “He buys too many wines.” Quick as a flash Josep replies: “He’s right!”
Joan says his startlingly complex approach to cooking – their kitchen looks more like a chemistry lab – has developed over the years: “It’s been a natural progression, I’ve added new techniques one by one just as the restaurant itself has evolved. A lot of our dishes are inspired by our parents and grandparents but using new techniques.”
One can’t help but wonder what the Roca seniors, both still working in their own restaurant, think of their sons’ stellar success. “Our parents worry,” says Joan “Because we travel so much.” “They are happy that we are together, more happy that we work together than about our awards,” adds Josep.
The pressures of maintaining three Michelin stars has been detailed by some chefs and restaurateurs in Europe but the brothers say they are unburdened at having been awarded the triumvirate since 2009. If they are acting then they deserve Oscars on top of their other accolades.
They seem similarly cool about their recent drop from number one to number two on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Perhaps because they have experienced this descent before, only to regain the place the following year in 2015. “Having three stars is something to maintain, being first in the world is to reach not to maintain,” says Joan. “When you reach the top of the mountain you may be frozen if you stay there.”
“We’ve won it twice,” adds Josep. “For eight years we’ve been in the top five, that’s more important than being first.”
El Celler’s East and West Dishes
Two dishes by Joan Roca representing the Mediterranean and Asia.
“We’ve brought our technique from Girona, a special way of cooking the pig. We use the rib side, cooked at 63 degrees in a vacuum for 24 hours. At this temperature the pig is very tender and maintains all its flavour. We’re serving the pork with green papaya salad, Thai grapefruit, apple, coriander, chili pepper, lime and cashew – inspired by a dish our grandmother made: pork with tomato bread.”
“This is inspired by our part of the world. The fish is vacuum cooked at 55 degrees for five minutes. It’s served with six sauces – olive oil, fennel, bergamot, orange, pine nuts and green olives – placed individually on the plate to dip the fish into. The colours of each represent our landscape in Girona.”