We return to Catalonia for Volume 4, Episode 3 of Chef’s Table, an episode reminiscent of the one that featured Barcelona chef Albert Adrià. Today’s episode follows Spanish pastry chef Jordi Roca. He is the youngest of the three Roca brothers who manage El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. The previous installment featured pastry chef Corrado Assenza of Sicily and his quest to preserve locally-grown Sicilian ingredients.
I visited Girona once. It lies in the far northeast of Spain, at the foot of the Pyrenees, not far from the shores of the blue Mediterranean. Being an old city, its winding stone streets are nearly too small for cars. It was the one place in Spain I visited in which I had to speak Spanish. From carts on the street, I purchased Spanish gelato to cut the dry, blistering heat.
El Celler de Can Roca is among the best restaurants in the world. And with its success, the Roca brothers — Joan (pronounced Jo-ahn with a French J), Josep, and Jordi — have risen to culinary fame. But the story, as Jordi whispers to viewers in the first minutes of this episode, is not so simple. Stories are never so simple. Especially for youngest brothers with big noses.
Jordi Roca does have a big nose. In his early childhood photos, it’s positively gargantuan. At school, his peers bullied him about it. And his brothers, who are twelve and fourteen years older than him, were never there. By the time he was old enough to interact with them, they’d left their parents’ restaurant to found El Celler de Can Roca. They had every expectation that Jordi would join them when he came of age, though they didn’t know what to expect from him. Would he dedicate himself to cooking like they had? Joan was the chef, Josep the man who knew everything about wine. Where would Jordi fit in?
He started as a waiter, but hated the long hours. He wanted to go out to party at night, not wait tables. So, with his brothers’ approval, he moved into the kitchen. But his work was shoddy and unprofessional and he sometimes left it unfinished. Joan, at his wit’s end, consulted with Damian Allsop, the pastry chef.
Damian, British by birth, offered to take Jordi on as a pastry apprentice.
Under Damian, who shared his love of fun and partying, Jordi began to develop as a chef. Moreover, he saw Damian’s passion and began developing a passion of his own.
It wasn’t until Damian suffered a near-fatal accident, though, that Jordi came into his own in the kitchen. Forced to take over the role of head pastry chef, he struggled to recreate Damian’s desserts while learning to innovate his own. He describes his first effort as a “piece of shit” that came out nothing like what he’d imagined in his head when he’d conceived of it.
But little by little, Jordi’s talent became apparent. This is why I titled my guide to this episode La Mariposa — the butterfly. It’s as if Jordi came out of his cocoon when he realized that he could use the tastes and especially the smells of the world around him to create new and unique desserts. His first major success was “Voyage to Havana,” a dessert he created out of smoke-flavored ice cream piped into chocolate “cigars.” Voyage to Havana was inspired by the smell of cigar smoke that pervaded the kitchen of El Celler de Can Roca at that time.
Similarly, Jordi later created a dessert featuring water distilled out of mud. I imagine this dirt smells of petrichor, the smell that rises from wet soil. It’s a beautiful, earthy smell and a nostalgic one, and in my mind it’s truly a stroke of genius to implement it in a dessert.
But that’s how Jordi’s desserts are: beautiful, surprising, and unique. Today, his brothers readily admit that his genius as a pastry chef is a large part of El Celler de Can Roca’s success. As for the restaurant, the magazine Restaurant named it the best restaurant in the world in 2013 and 2015. And it has held three Michelin stars since 2009. Its success would not be possible without the combined contributions of all three Roca brothers.
Read more about El Celler de Can Roca in this column from CNN Travel.