The Jordi Roca episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table: Pastry tells the story of how a rudderless young guy found his true calling in his older brothers’ kitchen, and in doing so, turned their restaurant into one of the world’s most acclaimed fine-dining establishments.
“I am much younger than my brothers,” Jordi says at the start of the episode. “They weren’t my parents, although they acted like they were. I felt small, inferior.” His brothers Josep and Joan Roca — who are 12 and 14 years older than Jordi, respectively — followed in the footsteps of their parents and opened a restaurant in their hometown of Girona, Spain. El Celler de Can Roca debuted with Joan in the kitchen and Josep managing the wine and the front of the house. Jordi started as a waiter when he was around 19 or 20 years old, long after it was established, but he eventually landed in the kitchen because the hours were less intense. By his own admission, Jordi was not anywhere near as ambitious as his brothers. “I didn’t see myself, in 10 years, being in a partnership with them,” he explains.
Jordi was not excelling in the kitchen, so the restaurant’s pastry chef, Damian Allsop, made an agreement with Joan to take the youngest Roca brother under his wing in the hopes that he might find more inspiration in the pastry section and also learn some discipline. “When I started with my brothers in the restaurant, I was treated like the boss’s son, and it was bad for me.” Jordi remarks. “Damian spoke man-to-man to me, like a normal person. And when I had trouble concentrating, he’d yell at me.” Jordi quickly got sucked into the world of pastry making, and working in this department helped him understand what he calls the “game of the kitchen.”
Around nine months after he joined the pastry team, Damian had an accident that put him out of commission, so Joan and Josep put their younger brother in charge of desserts. This was a risky move for the elder Roca bros, considering that they’d received a Michelin star, and were now asking someone with relatively little experience to be an integral part of the restaurant.
“I was forced to not do one thing at a time, but, rather, I had to keep track of 15 or 20 things at a time,” Jordi explains. “I had to run more, start to be more agile.” He did a capable job cooking Damian’s recipes, but his work wasn’t really doing anything to improve the restaurant.
Jordi decided to take a class in ice cream making to learn a bit more technique, and this unlocked something in his brain. The chef explains:
I didn’t know it was that possible to go that in depth into ice cream. One day, the teacher talked about how the air is important for an ice cream. It is very important that the air is completely clean. So the ice cream does not absorb odors. So it does not add another flavor. I went home and thought the other way around.
This inspired him to make ice cream that was infused with cigar smoke, a dish that completely blew his brothers’ minds. “The door opened for me, and I thought, ‘I can try new things and make mistakes,’” Jordi says of this creative transformation. “I felt recognized. I felt like a grown-up. I was part of the team.”
From there, Jordi began experimenting with this style of sensory-stimulating desserts. One of his most famous creations, “The Rainy Forest,” actually includes distilled dirt as one of its edible components, to evoke a sense memory from childhood. Another dish, made with sheep’s milk ice cream and edible spun wool, is inspired by spending time with his baby nephew. “It’s like putting a baby to bed,” he explains.
Jordi’s desserts helped propel El Celler de Can Roca to a new level of critical acclaim. The restaurant finally scored a three-Michelin-star rating, and it landed at the top of the World’s 50 Best list, twice.
Oh and one final note: This is a particularly dramatic episode of Chef’s Table thanks, in part, to Jordi’s husky whisper-narration of his own life’s story. The chef contracted laryngitis a few years ago, and his voice never fully recovered. “It’s a kind of silent life I’ve been forced to live,” he notes. “But I am saying much more in my work. That is incredible.”