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Joan Roca Breaks Down the Can Roca Creative Process at Harvard

Harvard University's annual Science & Cooking public lecture series brings chefs from around the world to discuss the intersection of science and cooking. And Eater Boston editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal is on the scene. This week: El Celler de Can Roca’s Joan Roca on “Roots, Innovation, and Creation.”

Joan Roca at Harvard, December 1, 2014
Joan Roca at Harvard, December 1, 2014
Photos by Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater

The key to the creativity behind El Celler de Can Roca, consistently ranked as one of the best restaurants in the world? An interior multidisciplinary approach and exterior multidisciplinary collaborations, according to co-owner Joan Roca, who spoke at last night’s final installment of this season of Science & Cooking lectures at Harvard University. "We are cooks, waiters, sommeliers at the same time," Roca explained through a translator, "and we are inviting people from other disciplines to collaborate with us more and more as we go along," constantly opening new dialogues and researching new things. The restaurant has a dedicated team of researchers who translate ideas into dishes, and the team often reaches out to graphic designers, botanists, artists, and others. "Each brings his own perspective, and from that we get interesting things," Roca explained.

The ownership team is a dynamic collaboration in itself. The three brothers — Joan, Josep, and Jordi — each have a role to play and are in "constant dialogue." Joan, who serves as the head chef, described himself last night as "the serious one," while Josep, the sommelier, is "the poet," and Jordi, the dessert wizard, is "the craziest of the three." (He spoke last year of "stratospheric chicken," desserts that evoke "the memory of a perfume," and more.) "We are very lucky because we understand each other very well," said Joan. "We’ve been working together for 28 years, and we get along well."

The brothers don't just want the food to be good.

At El Celler de Can Roca, the brothers don’t just want the food to be good. They want to be able to explain things through the dishes, so each dish has a "complex creative process" that continues to evolve and requires a lot of reflection. Roca presented a video that ticked off a list of sixteen jumping off points for dish creation at the restaurant. Everything that they serve is meant to touch on one or more of the following: tradition, memory, academia, product, landscape, wine, sweet, chromatism, transversal creation, perfume, freedom, innovation, poetry, boldness, magic, sense of humor. At the core, they seem to focus on a combination of product ("We are lucky to come from a region that has produce of a high quality, and we have a very deep and rooted gastronomic tradition in our region," said Roca); innovation (using interesting gadgets and technology, some of which they invent themselves); and both memory and tradition (seeking inspiration from traditional Catalan cuisine and from their parents and childhood).

In terms of their use of technology, the brothers draw a lot of influence from their father, who was "always tinkering and inventing and playing with things" while they were growing up. Recently, they’ve been experimenting with thermo-active material, and Roca demonstrated by pouring a hot broth into a thermo-active dish that unfurled as it warmed up to the broth. "There’s a surprise element" when something like this is served tableside to guests, and again, this highlights the importance of collaboration with other disciplines — industrial designers and graphic designers, in this case.

Joan Roca at Harvard

They're big proponents of cooking at low temperatures.

Texture is also a very important aspect of the Roca brothers’ food, and they’re big proponents of cooking at low temperatures to achieve that perfect mouthfeel. Roca demonstrated some of the preparation and plating of a skate wing dish, for example. The skate wing is cooked at a fairly low temperature of 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit) — and quickly browned in a skillet to finish it off — resulting in a silky, "melt-in-your-mouth" texture.

Roca showed a video demonstrating how texture also comes into play in a major way in their "milk dessert," which includes multiple components derived from sheep’s milk, like dulce de leche, ice cream, and mousse, as well as a cotton candy that symbolizes the sheep’s wool. And the most interesting part is that the elements are plated in a way so that when you run your spoon around the dessert, it produces a bell-like sound, as if a herd of sheep is nearby.

While local products are essential at El Celler de Can Roca, the team also finds it important to travel for inspiration, getting techniques from different cultures and bringing those techniques back to use with their local ingredients. Roca passed out samples of what he called a fermented corn ice cream, discussing how a Korean technique inspired the "fermentation" (although he later described it as not technically a fermentation but more like a long, slow roasting). While corn is familiar to all of us, whether it’s popped or on a cob or served some other way, his goal was to serve it in an unfamiliar way, based on a technique inspired by another culture.

"Keep the flame of interest high."

Roca ended the lecture with a question-and-answer session, and one person, most likely a young cook, asked what advice he would give to young cooks. "Study, work hard, and keep the flame of interest high," he said. "It’s a difficult profession but a very good one. Don’t get obsessed with recognition and success. The most important thing is that you’re happy cooking."

El Celler de Can Roca

48 Carrer de Can Sunyer, , CT 17007 972 22 21 57 Visit Website

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