World’s Top Restaurant: On Tour with the Roca Trio

The trio behind Catalonia’s El Celler de Can Roca, voted top restaurant in the world, are taking its avant-garde cuisine on the road. With the Roca & Roll World Tour, the brothers will showcase their fare in locales as far flung as Medellin and Mexico City

THREE’S COMPANY | The brain trust behind El Celler de Can Roca. From left, head chef Joan Roca, sommelier Josep Roca and pastry chef Jordi Roca. Photography by Nacho Alegre for WSJ. Magazine

WHEN YOU REACH NUMBER ONE on the influential San Pellegrino list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, suddenly everybody wants a piece of you. For the Roca brothers, the Catalan triumvirate whose El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona just north of Barcelona, ascended to the top spot last spring—knocking Denmark’s Noma down to number two—reservation requests hit the stratosphere overnight, with hundreds of calls pouring in daily for just 50 spots each at lunch and dinner. In February, sold out for the year, the restaurant opened up bookings for 2015.

A torrent of speaking and cooking invitations followed, along with lucrative inducements to open new restaurants—in New York, Singapore, Paris, Shanghai. “Every month a new proposal comes in,” says Joan Roca, eldest brother and head chef, standing in the kitchen at lunch one recent afternoon. “I got an offer from London this morning, and I said, ‘No, thank you.’ We’ll never open another El Celler de Can Roca anywhere else.”

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You don’t stay number one for long by selling your soul to the highest bidder. But all the attention, they realized, deserves a response. Joan and his brothers—Jordi on pastry, Josep on wine—devised a novel way to appease their new far-flung fans: They would take their restaurant on the road for a while.

In August, El Celler de Can Roca will embark on something called the Roca & Roll World Tour 2014. First announced on their blog in December, the tour is a three-year project with a corporate sponsor, Spanish bank BBVA. This summer they’ll hit Mexico City, Lima, Medellin and, if all goes well, New York. Next year they’re hoping for stops in Istanbul, Houston and maybe Santiago, Chile. With 26 cooks and waiters coming along, the restaurant will shut down for five weeks. “We prefer to be closed,” says Joan, “it’s more honest. If the restaurant travels, it’s really the restaurant that travels.” At each stop, the brothers will work closely with top local restaurants—with old friends like Enrique Olvera and Gaston Acurio as well as some new ones—tailoring their food and drink to the particular locale. Collaboration is, after all, in their professional DNA.

El Celler de Can Roca may in fact be the world’s most collaborative high-end restaurant, a fraternal enterprise built on interdisciplinary cooperation. At every opportunity, the three brothers have eagerly consulted each other, along with great thinkers outside their business. Fine artists customize plates for their food; industrial designers and scientists help solve kitchen conundrums. Last spring, a special gastronomic presentation called El Somni (the Dream) made its debut in Barcelona, with contributions from a team of performers and visual artists. A documentary on the project premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Though they are enjoying their moment in the spotlight, for years the Roca flagship was overshadowed by another sibling endeavor, Ferran and Albert Adrià’s nearby El Bulli, which shuttered in 2011. “The great attention Ferran got, for a long time, allowed us to work quietly in the shadows,” says Joan. “When he stopped being so visible it was our moment to shine.”

In the late ’80s Joan spent a month working with Ferran at El Bulli, back when both chefs were just starting out. The restaurant wasn’t yet the hotbed of experimentation it would become, but, says Josep, “we knew things were happening.” The sense of freedom, evident in the kitchen already, inspired an avant-garde shift at El Celler de Can Roca. By the mid-’90s both restaurants were exploring a mix of cutting-edge science and high-end gastronomy—the Rocas breaking as much new ground, in their own way, as the Adriàs were but with far less fanfare.

In 1995, Joan, with two friends from catering school in Girona, developed the Roner, the first serious professional sous-vide cooking device, based on lab equipment for keeping test tubes warm. (Sous-vide—a cooking process developed in France in the ’70s—involves sealing ingredients in airtight plastic bags and submerging them in water maintained at precise temperatures.) A sous-vide cookbook followed in 2003. Looking for a way to capture pure, concentrated aromas, Joan turned an industrial distillation device—a rotary evaporator—into a customized kitchen tool that other chefs have embraced.

AT YOUR SERVICE | A view into the dining room at El Celler de Can Roca, which has broken as much gastronomic ground as Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. ‘When Ferran stopped being so visible,’ says Joan, ‘it was our moment to shine.’ Photography by Nacho Alegre for WSJ.

Josep, meanwhile, has broken just about every wine rule there is, and made up a few of his own. He mixed two wines in the same glass to come up with the perfect pairing for a complex dessert—”if we can’t find a match with one wine, why not a cocktail of wines?” he says—and once served a Pedro Ximénez stripped of its alcohol beside an eau-de-vie made from that same intense wine (“its body and soul”). Working with a chemist and a Cava producer, he developed a sparkling wine, to be poured over oysters, that’s effervescent despite having a thick, sauce-like consistency.

In 2001, youngest brother Jordi, a sort of Iberian Willy Wonka, began transforming commercial perfumes—25 in all—into a series of exuberant desserts based on their grace notes. The idea had started with a passage from Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume. “He mentioned bergamot,” says Jordi, “an ingredient we didn’t know.” A client, who sold fruit, brought in seven cases for Jordi to play with. The citrus aromas called to mind Josep’s cologne, Eternity by Calvin Klein, which became the inspiration for Jordi’s first perfume creation.

Two years ago he released his own fragrance, developed with a Barcelona perfumer, based on his “lemon cloud” dessert. “Anarchy,” another sweet provocation, featured 50 intense disparate elements—including black olive, chocolate, coffee, yuzu, licorice, lychee—arranged with no rhyme or reason on a single plate. “It’s like a sociological experiment,” says Jordi. “It’s insanity, a dish with endless possibilities. Everybody has a different experience eating it.”

Each brother has his particular niche, but they’re forever tasting, sharing, bouncing ideas off each other. “I’m lucky that my brothers are so generous,” says Josep, “to be able to go into the kitchen and find someone who listens. Not everyone has that chance.”

As they learned to work closely together, the Rocas had a fine example to follow: They grew up in the restaurant business, surrounded by family—aunts, uncles, grandmothers, cousins—who all lent a hand at their parents’ working-class tavern, the original Can Roca. Every morning at 6:30, their father—Josep Senior, a bus driver by vocation—opened up the place, as he still does every day. Later their mother, Montserrat, would arrive in the kitchen to prepare her simple Catalan fare. Before school and after, the boys were expected to do their part.

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