El Celler de Can Roca won the top spot at 2015's World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards
Those wanting a seat at the Spanish restaurant need to reserve 11 months in advance
When the first dish on the menu is called “The World,” you know you’re about to bite into something ambitious.
Ambition is something you should expect though when the restaurant – El Celler de Can Roca – is widely acclaimed as the planet’s best.
And how do you put the world on plate?
The answer comes when the waitress opens a black paper lantern to reveal five edible bites – each representing a different country.
There’s pickled vegetables for China; a mini burrito for Mexico; aromatic tastes of almond, rose, honey and saffron for Morocco; a stuffed vine leaf for Turkey.
I’m instructed to start my epicurean odyssey through the restaurant’s 21 courses via South Korea: a tasty and promising morsel of panco fried bread, bacon and kimchi.
With an 11-month-long waiting list, getting a table at this Spanish restaurant is no mean feat.
Thankfully I was able to grab a spot left by a cancellation – the very last day before the restaurant closes for the summer.
Located 116 kilometers northwest of Barcelona in the city of Girona, El Celler snagged the #1 title at this 2015’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards,” a list compiled by a panel of global industry experts.
It also holds three Michelin stars, earned over the course of 14 years.
Meet the Roca brothers
The restaurant is run by the three impassionate Roca brothers.
Joan, the eldest, is the executive chef, Josep is the head sommelier and Jordi is the pastry chef.
El Celler’s growth, slow and steady, spans nearly 30 years.
Joan says what they do now is simply a reflection of what they did in the past – only now they’re better equipped.
“We have a new restaurant, a new kitchen, but in the end we always pursue this idea of seducing our guests with one simple message: food is the language we use to tell stories,” he says.
“Here we tell a story that starts with a journey around the world, from South Korea through the Mediterranean, and that travels back in time… to our childhood here in Girona.”
The Roca brothers spent their childhood in Can Roca, a restaurant still run by their parents on the outskirts of the city.
“My mom is 74 years old, my dad is 81 and they continue on working with passion, which is fantastic,” says Joan.
“I believe chefs have to be in the restaurant, because guests come to our home.”
Joan and his family live just above El Celler.
Familiar tastes in unfamiliar forms
Meeting the Roca brothers is part of the El Celler dining experience.
During my visit, a smiling Josep wanders around the room, greeting and welcoming guests.
Drawing their inspiration from traditional Catalan cuisine, they reinvent it in a modern and (in the words of Joan) “avant-garde” way.
There’s an element of fun and theater in every dish, along with sophistication in the design.
“Green Olive’s Icecream” is an unexpected treat – olives, hanging from a bonsai olive tree, are served not as desserts, but as precursors to the main dishes.
A pop up scene with cardboard cutouts of the brothers as children appears on the plate alongside miniature tapas.
Playfulness aside, the menu also showcases the best seasonal ingredients, so there are several fish courses.
The “Elderflower Infusion” contains cherries and smoked eel, not usually to my taste but I clean the plate.
My favorite dish, the “Summer Vegetable Stock,” is a delicate vegetable emulsion with gelatinous drops of vegetables and a colorful sprinkling of flowers and leaves.
Three excellent meat dishes follow and then, just when I think I can’t possibly eat any more, it’s time for desserts.
Jordi Roca’s creations are so beautiful they’re almost too pretty to eat.
The “Suspiro Limeno,” inspired by a Peruvian classic, is extremely refreshing. “Chocolate Anarchy” includes the dark substance in many different textures.
But my favorite is “Orange Colourology” – orange (of course) elements encased in a sugar bowl with a hint of violet: evoking my grandmother’s favorite perfume.
I mention this to Joan Roca, who nods and smiles knowingly.
“The restaurant goes on tour…just like a rock band!”
The Roca brothers call themselves gastronomic travelers.
“Our cuisine is local, but our inspiration is global,” says Joan.
“There are dishes that are inspired by other cultures but it’s important that the ingredients are seasonal and local.
“We learned about fermenting vegetables in Korea and we are using local black garlic that is fermented using that same technique.”
Traveling is a huge part of their research and development. This year, the restaurant closed for five weeks while the brothers – along with the 40-strong El Celler team – went on a culinary journey through Argentina, the U.S. and Turkey.
Through a series of pop-up events, the brothers created a special and exclusive menu for each destination, inspired by the local culture and cuisine.
This formula was first tested last year, when the team traveled through the U.S., Peru, Colombia and Mexico.
“For a few years now we have been asked to open El Celler de Can Roca in Paris, Las Vegas, Shanghai… and we always say ‘no”,’ says Joan.
“We can’t replicate this restaurant if we can’t be in the kitchen. By taking the entire team to different cities, we feel confident our guests are getting the best experience: wherever the team is, that’s where you’ll find El Celler de Can Roca.
“The restaurant goes on tour… just like a rock band!”
Dream dining guest? “The boss”
After its 2015 summer recess, Celler de Can Roca re-opens its doors on September 14.
The brothers aim to produce a menu that reflects the regions they’ve been exploring.
“The idea is to adapt to these cultures: it’s a way to learn, it’s a way to look for inspiration, start from scratch with the produce and culture from a new place,” Joan says.
Having cooked for international celebrities, sports stars and Spanish royals, is there anyone else Joan would love to see sitting in their restaurant?
“Bruce Springsteen,” he says.” I’d love to cook for Bruce Springsteen.”
And with that, it’s time for the chef to return to his kitchen, leaving me just enough time for one last question: what does their mom think about the brothers’ “World’s Best Restaurant” title?
“She thinks that they are all crazy! The best restaurant in the world, in my view, is hers.”
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