Arts & Leisure

Joan Roca: Kitchen wizard

Posted on April 12, 2016

IT’S NOT everyday that you meet a wizard.

Joan Roca, Head Chef and one-third of the famed Roca brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca (which, in 2013, was ranked first among The World’s 50 Best Restaurants by Restaurant magazine), came to the Philippines last week for Madrid Fusión Manila.

We called him a wizard, but how else can you explain the things he does? For his conference presentation, he showed a video on how to project the idea of sheep onto a plate, and all without using a single shred of lamb or mutton. His brother, Jordi, is in charge of desserts, and the video showed how he used sugar and butter spun along with roasted flour to create a substance with the look of sheep’s wool. Tucked into this was cheese and yogurt made from sheep’s milk, and the plate was made in a way that when one hits it with a spoon, it sounds like a bell to call sheep. Magic!

Mr. Roca also showed different techniques the brothers use in their kitchen: how the humble egg can be transformed and mutated to something else, with the use of dehydration, steam, or freezing. He also showed how the restaurant, one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy -- although he confessed in a later press conference that he doesn’t like the term all that much, preferring “progressive cuisine, modern cuisine, creative cuisine” -- incorporate scents into fat molecules to form an ice cream base (in the video, smoke from a cigar was used to flavor the ice cream). For his actual presentation, he put his twists on lechon (roast pig) and on cocoa (using cocoa pulp, for example, and serving it on a plate shaped like a cocoa pod).

For a man who pulls off tricks like this, making food look, taste, feel, and sound like a surrealist artwork, he sure talks a lot about doing things “that make sense.”

Mr. Roca explained this at a press conference, saying: “I will say that there are many ways to confer sense or reason to a dish,” he said through an interpreter. “You want to... be looking for contrast in flavors, you also want to look for an affinity with these flavors. Also, think... [of] something that you... want to reproduce a memory, something that you ate when you were little. Reproducing memory, that makes sense,” he said.

“You can also reproduce in your own kitchen, maybe with different ingredients... something that you ate somewhere else. That also makes sense.

“All of this, and many more things, make sense. I will want to say, is precisely, every piece that is present on a dish, or the plate, are there for a reason. They have a reason to be there. For the flavor, for the texture, for the color.”

For a man who displays such a cerebral approach to cooking -- with precise temperatures, with techniques more associated with a laboratory than a kitchen -- one would be surprised to find out that one of his firm beliefs include “cooking with your heart.” With this approach, he ends up marrying art and science in the kitchen. “[The] restaurant is the place where you can... give happiness to others, no matter what you cook. The important thing is that you cook with your heart, that you want to please.”

He later added: “Cooking with your heart, it’s cooking to make... the people for whom you are cooking [happy]. Loving to do it, and loving to do it well.” -- Joseph L. Garcia