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Chef Joan Roca on His Culinary Opera Somni and Taking it Around the World

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 Jordi and Joan Roca
Jordi and Joan Roca
Photo: El Somni

Chef Joan Roca of the three-Michelin-star El Celler de Can Roca (currently ranked #2 on the World's 50 Best List) has been developing El Somni, a culinary opera, with his brothers Jordi and Josep and the video artist Franc Aleu. The project consists of twelve acts accompanied by twelve courses of food. The piece contains musical robots, state-of-the-art animation, and the contributions of major players in the worlds of art, music, and food. In keeping with its twelve acts and twelve courses, only twelve diners will be able to experience the cross-media event when it debuts in Barcelona at the beginning of May. In the following interview, Roca talks about the opera, the idea that he doesn't consider himself an artist and doesn't want to come off as pretentious, and how El Somni will make stops around the world.

How did the Somni idea come about?
It started in 2006, when we got to know Franc Aleu, the video artist who also has connections to the world of opera. We worked on a project commissioned by Pioneer that consisted of video art and food, which was fun and surprisingly enriching. We saw that there was potential to the relationship, so we kept in touch. Gradually, we figured out how to develop that relationship and come up with a formula for this project, which consists of music, art, and video.

Tell me about how the dinner/opera is structured.
There are twelve acts that tell a story, an oneiric story. Each act has a different piece of music composed by a different person from the world of opera. That accompanies a set of images, of video, that are actually developed in a workshop next to the restaurant here in Girona. It's kind of like Avatar [laughs]. But really, they're coming up with a story — a dream — where this young girl visits the moon, then falls to the sea, etc. For the moon portion, Jordi and I have made a dish that resembles the moon, and for the part when she falls to the sea, the guests will eat seafood. Those connections exist throughout the experience, sometimes in less literal ways.

The goal is to make the diner feel like they are on stage, not in the audience. They are immersed in it and not just watching.

Who comes up with the story? Do the dishes get developed after the acts are written, or is it more flexible?
It starts with the story, and then we work from that. In some cases, though, the story has changed and been adapted to the dish. It's been a really interactive process, since the cooks and the screenwriter has worked to come up with the story to make sure that everything meshes and compliments each other. The video, the music, the games enhance the food, and vice versa. It makes everything have more emotional impact, ideally.

Do you think this is food, art, or something else?
I wouldn't so pretentious as to say that it's art or something even greater than that! I think it's just gastronomy in dialogue with other art forms. It's an experiment, a dialogue between gastronomy and opera, which already has several disciplines packed into it. But I wouldn't say it's anything more than a dialogue and an exploration. We're not trying to change the world or even the course of gastronomy. It is fun and valuable to explore limits and see what we can learn from this. I don't think anything bad can come from this exchange. We want to do it with the utmost respect for these arts.

It's interesting that you say that, because a good number of people have criticized high-end chefs for trying to get involved in art and push the conceptual angle.
I understand that. We want to be humble and do it with respect for the arts, but that doesn't mean that we can't engage in that dialogue and extend a hand to them. We want to find similarities and connections, without us pretending that we ourselves our artists. That's really important to point out: we are nothing more than craftsmen, Jordi, Josep, and I. We're crazy about creativity and pushing ourselves, but there is no question that we are artisans and not artists.

Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I've always said that we are artisans, similar in many ways to goldsmiths. It's complex, it seeks to be excellent, but at the end of the day, it's a craft. The most important thing is that commitment to creativity — to finding new avenues, learning new things, experimenting. So, this move makes sense to us.

You said that this is about exploring limits and learning new things. What's something you've picked up so far, even though the dinner hasn't happened yet?
Right, we're still in it and there are things to complete, but we're realizing that the video, the music, and the food can't be experienced at the same time. So, what we're doing is the sounds and images first, then a pause, then the course. It needs to be sequenced and not simultaneous. It's just that it would be too overwhelming to have it all at the same time. It would be too intense and people wouldn't be able to really appreciate all the components. There will be some images during the food part, but the main footage will be screened beforehand.

And how do the playing cards fit into this?
It's a card game based around words that have inspired the creative process. That set of 250 cards will stay in Barcelona after we've done the first dinner at the Santa Monica faculty of arts as a memento of the event. But yeah, they are all kinds of words that have to do with the story, our way of thinking. It's pretty abstract, but it also makes sense.

Who will attend the dinner?
We haven't settled on the names yet, but yes, they will be invited by us. These will be people from the world of art, music, gastronomy, astronomy, architecture — people that represent values that are important to us as far as creativity is concerned, as well as social commitment. And they have to be people that are into food!

That meal will be the culmination of a movie that we're working on. This will all be documented.

Do you plan on doing it again after the May 6th date in Barcelona?
Yes, the dinner, the whole set-up, will make stops in cities around the world after the premiere in Barcelona. We don't know where exactly yet, but cities have already reached out so that we can keep it going.

I noticed chefs Gastón Acurio and Ferran Adrià listed on the website as collaborators. What's their involvement?
Yes, they appear in the film, the documentary. They talk about the project and share their thoughts on us and what this might mean.

Do you have a timeline yet for the movie or the book?
We don't have dates set for the book or the film yet. That's all still being figured out. But what we've just covered is pretty much everything that I know right now!

· All Joan Roca Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]

El Celler de Can Roca

C/ de Can Sunyer, 48, 17007 Girona, Spain

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