The Epicurean's Atlas: El Celler de Can Roca
ADDRESS Ctra de Taialà, 42, 17007 Girona, Spain
T he Roca brothers’ vocation was probably formed in the womb: they are third-generation restaurateurs. The family has been keeping Catalonia fed and watered since 1929, although these days their reach extends far beyond their province. The world goes to Girona to be amazed – at least, the part of the world that is able to get a booking does. El Celler de Can Roca has three Michelin stars, is frequently designated as the best restaurant in the world and has twice topped The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. That makes for a full reservation book.
Joan, the eldest, is the chef; the youngest, Jordi, is the pastry genius. Between them is Josep, the sommelier, who was apparently skating around the restaurant chatting to the customers, and probably poking his nose into the wine glasses, when he was just eight years old. Their mother – Montserrat Fontané, who is in her mid-80s – still cooks for her customers and El Celler’s staff (they are, she says, like her family). It is clearly her work ethic and value system that her sons have inherited, along with her passion for gastronomy. “The dishes have to be tasty,” she has said, fully aware that this is not always a chef’s first preoccupation, although it should be. “And beyond that,” she adds, “each one must have something special.”
“The brothers each rule their own domain, their areas of expertise intersecting at the table”
Her sons have taken her at her word. Joan’s team of 30 chefs (for a restaurant that seats 45) deconstructs prawns and introduces consommés, purées and gels. To a tartare of local veal, they add the sweetness of caramel combined with the saltiness of olives, the umami notes of a savoury ketchup and the spiciness of mustard ice cream, the sharpness of capers, acidity from lemon compote and Sichuan pepper. The result is that a piece of meat, which would probably taste great on its own, is raised to another level entirely.
Josep may call himself a wine waiter but, with no disrespect to him nor to members of that esteemed profession, he is not really anything of the kind. He oversees a vast cellar of 87,000 bottles – the list so hefty there is one each for whites and reds and both are wheeled to the table on a trolley – and astutely matches wines to his brothers’ exceptional dishes. In 2022, 50 Best named him World’s Best Sommelier, a trophy he can add to a very packed awards shelf.
In the quiet wood and glass-lined elegance of the restaurant, custom-built in 2007, the brothers each rule their own domain, their areas of expertise intersecting at the table, but also before that: Josep is not left in the wine cellar, vast and impressive though it may be. An oyster is combined with game and truffle but also Palo Cortado sherry; there is another style of sherry, Oloroso, adding a rich note to that veal tartare. Orange salad is served with orange wine. A Riesling where Josep’s fine palate detects scents and flavours of mango, melon, orange and beetroot is served with a dish of slow-cooked pork that features precisely those accompaniments. This will be followed, at some point, by one of Jordi’s remarkable dessert inventions… matched, should the diner so wish, with another perfectly complementary wine. The brothers aren’t always in perfect agreement – who could be? – but, Joan says, “We don’t get annoyed with each other.”
When they were children, they used to fight a lot – “Josep was very stubborn and still is!” – but since they began their joint enterprise, they have given themselves and each other time for reflection if they are not in agreement, “and we have the capacity to see things from one another’s perspective.” Josep may be the hardest to convince but, Joan laughs, “his intelligence and sensitivity, along with his knowledge and his continual questions, help us all to improve”. Josep is, adds Jordi, “a brilliant person who makes the restaurant brighter in every way”.
All three brothers learned their trade formally, at the Escola d’Hostaleria de Girona, and all of them now give back, teaching the next generation in turn at their alma mater, at the university of Girona and online. That belief in education is presumably what led Josep to add videos of the region in question and examples of soil types to each section of his wine cellar, which is organised geographically. There is an entire wine education on offer during a night at El Celler de Can Roca, but no swotting over books is required. Here, knowledge is absorbed as effortlessly and as pleasurably as sustenance, via the senses.
In an elegant touch, every table in the restaurant features three pebbles, which serve as a reminder that, while the restaurant is named after the cellar, not even the wine holds the premier place. The family does.
Photos by Sofía Moro, BDR/Alamy, Rosmi Duaso/Alamy, Westend61 GmbH/Alamy