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Clay Oven Executive Chef Geeta Bansal Interviews Big-Time European Chefs! First Up: Joan Roca

Bansal: Also a great interviewer!
Bansal: Also a great interviewer!
Photo by Kenneth M. Ruggiano

It's funny how the world works. One of my Facebook friends is this college kid who's a huge fan of mine, who I always enjoyed reading for his crazy status updates--nothing scandalous, mind you, but just funny stuff. Last year, I found out that he was the son of Geeta Bansal, the chef-owner of the fabulous Clay Oven in Irvine--WTF?

It helps to have the son of a great chef be a fan of the paper, so the Bansals thought of us first when the son proposed a fascinating proposition: would we be interested in interviews that Geeta did with big-name European chefs? Hell ya! So consider this the debut of Bansal's occasional column of her sitting down with European chefs. First one: Catalonian master Joan Roca, one of the brothers behind the legendary Celler de Can Roca. Enjoy!

A Conversation with Spanish Chef Joan Roca
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef, Clay Oven Irvine

Chef Joan Roca with Bansal
Chef Joan Roca with Bansal
Photo courtesy of Geeta Bansal

On a hazy October morning driving north on the A7 Barcelona to Girona, Spain I was remembering my first visit to Chef Joan Roca's restaurant Celler Can Roca many years ago. What has drawn me back for repeat visits is not only the food, but Chef Roca's personality and accessibility to his guests.

On this particular visit I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Roca after another amazing meal where I had the good fortune to try his new creations for the San Sebastian Gastronomika the following week.

On my last visit in 2009, we had chatted informally about food, life , family and mutual foodie travel experiences. This time it was a more structured format and I actually had had a questionaire that he found amusing but gave it serious and thoughtful attention.

White Asparagus Comtesse and Truffles
White Asparagus Comtesse and Truffles

After lunch, I waited in the lounge next to the humidor, overlooking the green courtyard while he finished his conversation with some local purveyors. In a calm, unhurried manner he wrapped up that conversation and we finally sat down to talk about his creative process and outlook on the future of cuisine in general. Incidentally this conversation as had my previous interactions with him was in three languages--Spanish, French, and English interspersed with much laughter. A very down to earth individual with no pretensions despite his three Michelin stars and a restaurant rated # 2 in 2012 in the world by Restaurant Magazine.

Chef Roca has a very gentle dignified persona with an almost beatific smile and is always excited to talk about his food and that of other Catalan chefs. I posed the questions and he gave his very thoughtful responses

What is your philosophy about food?
The creative process at our restaurant is the end result of the three minds of the three of us. Me the cuisinier, my brother Joseph the cambrer de vins and Jordi my youngest brother the pastisser. The three stems of the symblimatic R in the restaurants symbol.

The R with 3 roots
The R with 3 roots

My approach to food is that every thing starts from the roots up (Geeta's note: this theme cropped up in subsequent conversations we had during the Gastronomika the following week and his presentation there as well) I am very proud of my Catalan roots and how it is clearly different from other regional cuisines of Spain. My food represents a genuine dialogue between the chef and the product. I like to keep my base local while respecting products and ideas from other parts of Spain and the world. The key to making exquisite dishes is using good ingredients and I cannot stress that enough.

My next question was one that throws off most chefs: What is the one thing you dislike about restaurant menus?

I like menus that encourage curiosity in the product and the process. Usually I like all menus. (this was the diplomatic Chef Roca!)
 
Is there any particular world cuisine that you would like to master?
I am impressed by the cuisines of countries such as Peru, Morocco, Thailand,Japan,China Mexico as you tasted today (the first course that day was based on his recent travels to these countries).

Flavors of Mexico, Peru, Thailand, Japan, and Morocco
Flavors of Mexico, Peru, Thailand, Japan, and Morocco

The cuisines that I wish to learn more about at present are Japanese, Mexican and Korean (I joked that was I going to have Spanish Kimchi on my next visit which led to great amusement on his part). I wish to learn more and experiment with the various spices in Moroccon cuisine as well as wish to talk to you (moi!) about the Indian spices. I believe that there are no borders for cuisine and no boundaries for products.

What are some of the most memorable meals you had on your travels?
One of my favourite meals was at Jiro Sushi in Japan. I admire the respect for culture and tradition how this sushi master brings out the best in the products he works with. The concept of umami has also caught the attention of culinaires everywhere and this concept has come to us from Japan. I learnt a lot and experienced many new foods when last travelled to Asia and South America. I like the way food in Peru, especially Lima, is based on Asian fusion. (Ferran Adria's latest venture, Pakta opening in Barcelona, is a testament to the popularity of this cuisine)

Japanese influence is evident in the Bonsai Tree with Liquid Olives, presented as guests are seated at their table
Japanese influence is evident in the Bonsai Tree with Liquid Olives, presented as guests are seated at their table

Why do you think that this cuisine is gaining in popularity?
Simply because it is sexy and spicy!

Which one of your peers do you admire the most?
My mother.

I do respect your answer and your regard for your mother but I need a less diplomatic response?

Ferran Adria has influenced my cuisine and that of many of my peers. Everyone knows that my mother and grandmother initiated me into the kitchen and are a huge influence on my cuisine. The chef that I admire most in the world is my mother, Montserrat. Whenever I get the chance I go home for dinner before the evening service.

Let's talk about the role of women in the world of cuisine, and is it changing? And which female chef do you think is the most innovative?
Carme Ruscalleda is a fellow Catalan chef that I feel is most inspiring and creative and she has led the way for other women chefs. (At this point we veered off into our mutual admiration for the chef who has inspired me personally for over a decade. I understand why he named her because their approach and aesthetic, the heart and emotion they put into their food, the history of family involvement and not the least being proud fellow Catalans are some things they share in common)

What are your favorite cities in the US?
I like New York, Chicago and San Fransisco and have visited there many times and I like to go back there when I can.

What is your next dream vacation?
I would like to visit China. I want to explore the food and the culture and bring some of to my diners. I do wish to have more time to travel.

What is your comfort food, not your mothers cooking but something you like to cook for friends and family?
(After some cross-language clarification we were finally able to define comfort food) Riz Catalon or a cassola. Casserole rice can be found in typical Catalan restaurants on Thursdays. My mother still makes it the best.The recipe for that is in my book, Roots. . ( here we went off on a tangent discussing Indian biryani and pulao and the spices and the process I use). It is a seasonal dish in the sense that the ingredients depend on the season. It can have seafood, rabbit, pigeon,mushrooms and other vegetables.

**

Chef Roca trained in the local Girona Culinary school and he said the opportunity to travel and work with chefs such as Ferran Adria, Santamaria amongst many others has been instrumental in his ability to create and innovate. He continues to learn. R & D is a major theme of all the work at Can Roca by all three brothers.

He thinks it is important for young chefs to focus on training at catering schools, doing stages and interacting with academics, keeping up with current literature and scientific research in the culinary field. Harold McGhee and his contribution to food sparked of this particular conversation. Chef Roca constantly references all the books in his library, including his own, to constantly improve upon his own creations. Most reputable chefs constantly do this and I saw it repeatedly in my conversations with other culinary giants like Pierre Gagnaire, Albert Adria and others.

Chef Roca has been a personal favourite since I first tasted his food way before he moved his restaurant in 2007 to his present modern location. If you are heading to Spain, a meal at Celler Can Roca, Girona is a must do. Make reservations well in advance and prepare for a memorable experience.


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