Recent Bangkok visitor Chef Joan Roca, whose restaurant was voted as No. 1 in the world in 2015, shares his thoughts on Thailand as a gastronomic capital, among other related topics.
by Anita Zaror.
Bangkok’s nights had more stars than usual in early March, when a bunch of the most renowned chefs in the world gathered here to celebrate Gaggan claim the No. 1 spot in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. We had the pleasure of talking to chef Joan Roca—whose restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, was voted No. 1 in the world’s homonymous ranking in 2015—about this award, which was celebrated for the first time in Thailand this year.
Q: What’s the importance of Asia’s 50 Best for the dining scene in Asia, and particularly for Thailand as one of the gastronomic capitals in the continent?
A: What it’s telling us is exactly that: that Thailand is a gastronomic superpower – we already knew that. There is a very energetic, diverse, and warm cuisine here, and also a very complex one, with different styles in every part of the country. This folk gastronomic power is the basis for high-level, creative, innovative cuisine to develop, which is what international rankings—such as Asia’s 50 Best—value. These listings give restaurants great visibility across and the world, and this is good for them, for Asia, and for each of the countries they represent.
Q: Where does traditional cuisine end, and where does modern cuisine begin?
A: This is very difficult to answer because the line is very thin. And I think this is exactly our restaurant’s case: it’s an evolving, slow, progressive, constant process based on nonconformity – this is critical as, if there is conformism, traditional cuisine keeps on being that. When nonconformity is in your DNA, you question that cuisine you grew up with, and you rethink it. Then you travel and realize some things can be modified and enriched, be made more diverse, and also more fun… because the diner wants to have fun. He wants to come and get to know where you live, and how your country and your culture are. But he also wants you to tell him stories: how you are, where you have travelled… all this will show up in your cuisine. Then the shift to the next level takes place, but there is no clear inflection point, it’s a constant evolution, rather.
Q: What elements are required so that a dining experience captivates the five senses or, since we are in a Buddhist country, the six senses, including the mind?
A: That’s the million-dollar question [smiles]. To a greater or lesser extent, all chefs want to excite the diner. We not only wish to satiate the appetite (of course this comes first), but we don’t conform with just that. We want to modify the diner’s mood, to create emotion. We do that by trying to make our dishes tell a story, and also thanks to a committed team who is happy to work at the restaurant, and who will transfer that emotion that comes out of the kitchen to the diners when explaining the dishes to them. The key is that the client knows he will eat well, that employees are happy working there, that he will receive good service, and that the restaurant also cares about corporate social responsibility.
With its well-known gastronomic excellence, a psychologist in the team who manages potential conflict among its 65 employees, and a project by which El Celler makes containers and dishes out of recycled glass, among other initiatives, brothers Joan, Josep, and Jordi Roca, indeed succeeded in continuously exciting their customers.
In 2013 their restaurant premiered El Somni, a multi-sensory experience that gathered 12 diners from different walks of life in an art center in Barcelona, to explore an oneiric story where the dishes and wines, the images projected, and the music played on that occasion had been planned “to excite.”
“The story started with a girl’s birth, growth and maturity; she experienced falling in love, carnality, conflict, war, and even death. All this was represented in dishes, wines, images, and music – it was very powerful, and a very interesting creative exercise that allowed us to understand where we could push our cuisine to,” he explains.
And this is fresh from the oven: El Celler will soon launch a concept in Barcelona’s opera house where, in 25 minutes, with simpler food and at more accessible prices than El Somni, the Roca brothers will tell diners a story where they will be able to go through some of Cataluña’s most popular gastronomic traditions with the same audiovisual, musical, and gastronomical technique.
Q: What advice would you give to today’s aspiring chefs?
A: I would tell them to think twice if they really like this [laughs], because it’s not easy. Many youngsters get confused nowadays because they see chefs on TV and they think this is wonderful – and it is wonderful, but it’s also tough. It’s a beautiful job, although one you’ll give your life to. I’d tell them not to get obsessed with recognition, prizes, Michelin stars, or international rankings, but what they have to do is to be happy cooking everyday. Success is in happiness.