A pilgrimage to El Celler de Can Roca

The world’s best restaurant in 2013 according to Restaurant Magazine. Second best this year only after Noma in Copenhagen. This is the story of our visit to the home of the Roca brothers.

Food critics make a living by constructing leading opinions that aim to inform, inspire and influence their very own audiences. It’s the nature of these opinions to be diverse and unique. So on those rare occasions when pretty much every single food critic out there shares the same complimentary opinion about a restaurant, it’s time to raise suspicions and check by yourself whether the place can really be that good.

Last year Lara and I decided to tackle our curiosity and book a table. Making such a trip to just check a restaurant might sound extravagant. But at the end of the day we absolutely adore the Girona province. This is where we got married and it’s also the haven where we try to escape to at least once a year.  So visiting the restaurant was a more-than-perfect excuse to plan some few days off around the area, visiting good friends and eating great food.

 

Booking a table

Bookings are better done by ringing the restaurant. Every first day of the month, bookings open for 11 months later. They do it this way to avoid reaching ridiculously long waiting lists, which I think is only fair. So we waited for the 1st of June and then rang 17 times before someone picked the phone on the other side. Being the first day to book a table for May, we were hoping to choose a date. However, only some few hours after the bookings had opened, we were told that the only table available was for a Tuesday at 9pm. We booked it.

 

Can Roca and the book of life

11 months passed by and here we are, at the main entrance of the restaurant, all excited about what’s to come in the next few hours.

The restaurant is located in a traditionally working-class suburb of Girona, in a beautiful traditional Catalan villa with a modern glass extension. It sits across the road from where the Roca brothers’ parents still run Can Roca, a family restaurant responsible for decades of feeding thousands of workers and where the team from El Celler still walks across every day to enjoy their staff menu.

This is a very special spot in the life of the brothers. It’s here where they started helping their parents, where they learnt the job and where they fell in love with what was to be the passion of their lives. But most importantly, this is the place where they witnessed first-hand the moral guiding principles that would impregnate the rest of their careers forever.

And this will be our first key learning. This is a luxury restaurant that most people can’t even dream of affording. And that is an unquestionable fact. But what it isn’t is a stuffy place targeted to pretentious elites. You won’t find extravagance or ridiculous opulence in here. El Celler de Can Roca is rather a place where high-cuisine, creativity and poetry are served together with a noticeable presence of well-rooted values. Values coming from a reality where effort, generosity, humility and dignity are the driving engines for the local community.

 

The dining-room

So the door opens and Josep Roca himself welcomes one by one, all and each of the customers for the night. If at some point we worried about El Celler being ran in the absence of the brothers – now that they’ve nearly turned into pop celebrities – this is an early warning that we’d be wrong in continuing walking down that delusionary path.

The dining-room is fantastic. A triangular corridor revolves around an inner glazed courtyard with a few tall birches growing inside. We are sat at our table and offered a complimentary glass of cava. We love the quietness of the place. All you can hear is silence. No ambient music. No rushed service scampering around. No high-heels hitting the wooden floor. Just tranquility. And plenty of late evening light coming through the glazed walls. There’s something magic about it, like the calmness of those silent seconds preceding the instant in which the orchestra conductor marks the beginning of the concert.

 

The food menu & the wines

There are two menus to choose from. The ‘Classic’ one features a selection of the all-time favourites at 155€. The slightly larger ‘Feast’ menu takes you through a 14-courses sample of the most recent creative work coming out of El Celler’s kitchens at 190€. We’re more excited about experiencing what the team is working on right now – plus it’s very likely they are too – so we go for the latter. 

The wine list is simply sublime. Although with such a broad selection, it can also feel rather overwhelming if like us, you are not an expert. So we take the safe route of asking for the wine matching menu, curated by Josep Roca himself and a bull’s-eye decision which is worth every penny at 90€ per person.

The menu is so special that we have written a separate dedicated post to go through each of the courses and wines in much more detail, including pictures of the food and tasting notes on the wines.

Generally though, this is an outstanding menu from whatever angle you look at. An extraordinary selection of 7 aperitifs plus 14 courses (2x veggie, 5x fish, 4x meat and 3x desserts) taking you through unexplored flavours and impossible textures. All in all, a sensational, unique and multi-sensorial experience that will very likely remain in our food memory forever. Plus something very special that really caught our attention. As well as an impeccable presentation and an endless concatenation of sublime and perfectly balanced flavours, the food at El Celler de Can Roca is super entertaining, full of humour and really good fun!

 

Pitu, Mexico, neurogastronomy and Jordi’s pastry lab
Josep Pitu Roca Celler Can Roca

Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca

So far, it seems that our visit resulted in a total success and the food critics were spot on. The restaurant venue is stunning, the service friendly, attentive and discreet. The atmosphere is calm and peaceful, a perfect place to relax your senses before rewarding them with one of the best presents they will ever get. And I can say this because if food and wine can ever reach absolute perfection, this is it.

But then, when we thought the evening couldn’t get any better, something really special happened. Josep (Pitu) Roca came to say hello. Nothing abnormal there. He does it with all the customers and to some extent this is something you can easily expect. So we thought this would simply be a very quick exchange of some few courtesy words. But again, we were wrong. Perhaps because there were not many other customers left in the room, the conversation turned into a passionate 20 minutes confession of their current professional drives, their forthcoming research trips to Mexico and South America, their next business challenges and finally, their growing interest for how neuroscience can influence the future of gastronomy.

I must admit the conversation was enlightening. What a smart, smooth and lovely chap! Of course it’s his job and he’s very good at it. But we didn’t get the impression that it was only that. You don’t invest 20 minutes of your time after a 14-hour shift with some customers – who are clearly very pleased already – unless you hold an immense passion for what you do.

Celler_Can_Roca_05

Jordi Roca’s tour of the kitchen

 

The conversation ended with an invitation to meet his brothers. At this point and if he hadn’t noticed it just yet, he probably realised we were absolutely over the moon. Unfortunately we couldn’t get hold of Joan, but we were lucky enough to meet Jordi and get a private tour of the kitchen. We can’t thank him enough. He had started working at 9am. It was 2am. You could see the effect of the fatigue on his face. Yet after 17 hours working, he still had plenty of time to show us around. For me personally, a moment of inspiration and the realisation that nothing in life comes for free.

 

The secret of the Roca brothers

At the end, we only needed one visit to learn something we already suspected. There is so much more to this restaurant than any of the many awards, industry lists or Michelin stars could possibly show.

El Celler de Can Roca is a beautiful and touching fable of three super talented brothers who inspired by the good values they learnt from their parents, have created something wonderful. A place where eating the best food you’ll possibly taste in your life is only a humble complement to a masterclass in measureless creativity, effort and generosity. A place where to find happiness and inspiration.

No doubt we’ll be back.

 

El Celler de Can Roca

Can Sunyer, 48
17007 – Girona

Tel +34 972 222 157
cellercanroca.com