A Day at Roca: My First Michelin Meal
I woke up at 8am in a room above Bar Brutal. I had gone to sleep about three hours earlier, after an event showing Georgian wine and food at Brutal, a natural wine bar in central Barcelona. It was day three in Catalonia, but for all I had seen and tasted it felt like a week had passed. I wasn’t tired though, I was nearly shaking with excitement. It was day three and we were going to Girona, we were spending a day at El Celler de Can Roca.
This is why we were in Catalonia. John Wurdeman, my boss and the owner of Pheasant’s Tears Winery in Georgia, was profiled in a new book by Josep Roca that examined fourteen winemakers from across the world. We were going to the book launch, beginning with a meal at Roca Cellers and then a tasting organized for four hundred people. He had brought me along to help transport wines, assist with cooking for the event at Brutal, and learn from a meal at a restaurant named, consistently, as one of the very finest in the world.
One of the wines we had brought in my suitcase broke in transit. Most of my clothes were soaked, including the only collared shirt I’d brought. When we got to Roca, in the middle of a suburban neighbourhood of low-rise flats, I was wearing a long sleeve t-shirt, feeling very very underdressed. Through the doors the hallway looked more like a law office than a restaurant. Two receptionists speaking into headsets behind a high desk, bright lights and well-dressed staff and guests. Perhaps the most jarring thing was a french woman, who looked more than eighty, chatting as her husband held the leashes of two small dogs. I later discovered she was a Burgundian winemaker, another honoured guest of Josep’s, dogs and all.
aiting for the other guests, a young nervous looking man named Juan walked us through his new line of artisanal spirits. We sniffed from huge green glass jars, taking in spirits made from honey, cardamom, and tangerine. As more guests trickled in about ten of us followed Juan down suburban streets to a garage facility filled with pot stills and alambiques, racks of bottles and plastic jugs. He walked us through his passion for spirits and his practice, single distillations cutting 15% off the head and 5% from the tail, and let us taste a mead he’d been brewing. After a brief chat about Catalonia’s near-extinct artisanal distilling traditions we headed back to Roca.
The hallway, and idyllic veranda, were full by now. Sixty or so european winemakers, writers, and hangers-on milling about, sipping champagne and chatting. Quickly exhausting my French I found myself stunned by the environment, chatting briefly with a few Spanish and Italian winemakers. John then asked if I wanted a tour of the kitchen. I couldn’t say no.
The Roca kitchen was dead quiet, two executive chefs hushedly chatting at the pass while an army of staff laid out delicate dishes. The three massive rooms felt more like a laboratory than the messy, cramped, cacophonous places I was used to. Every cook seemed sure in their movements and in each other. Speaking, it seemed, was unnecessary. The sheer unrecognizability of the unfinished dishes, from the bonsai olive trees to ceramic cracker-topped plinths, made me all the more curious about the coming meal.
A few more minutes chatting and we were ushered into the dining hall, down a ramp into a slightly disorienting space. To the left were tables covered with hundreds of different glasses, in the center was a glassed-off rocky courtyard. To the right were three large round tables, stones arranged at their centers. Each table was separated from the others by a sideboard. We were seated with a shocking array of legendary winemakers. Elizabetta Foradori, from Tuscany, Matthias Michellini from outside Mendoza, Reinhard Loewenstein from Mosel, Sara Perez from Priorat, and Pierre Overnoy from the Jura. Overnoy is spoken about in hushed tones around the world of natural wine. The octogenarian’s lifelong dedication to low-intervention use of the Jura’s endemic Ploussard and Trousseau grapes earned him a special moniker among the natural producers: ‘our teacher.’ When later we asked why we were seated with that group we were told, ‘yours is the terrorists table,’ the crazy low-intervention natural kids were all planted together.
The meal began with a popup diorama, depicting the three Roca brothers working at their parents’ Taverna. Joan, the chef, was cooking, Josep, the sommelier, was by the bar, and Jordi, the youngest brother now the pastry chef, was riding his bike. Those ceramic plinths were laid on the geometric diamonds of this plate, specially designed by a team of ceramic artists at Roca. Atop the plinths were microscopic takes on Catalonian tapas. A tiny baguette that tasted of jamon and butter, a ring of calamari, a bacalao croquette, and a small red bonbon which, when bitten, exploded with campari.
Next came Roca’s ‘tastes of the world’ a wooden pillar topped with a paper globe. The staff quickly untied the bows and folded back the globe revealing homages to global flavours. A korean sandwich of bacon and kimchi, a peruvian cup of lime and potato, a chinese ricepaper wrap of lightly pickled cucumber and radish, a Japanese miso beignet topped with ginger, and a Thai chicken meatball with red curry in a coconut cracker.
Next came a starfish, atop a coral cracker, made from an emulsion of five different kinds of seafood. Then an interwoven fractal tree of polished steel bearing four spoons, two for each person sharing the tree. One, a mussel topped with Albarino wine foam the other a dorada cevice redolent with chili. Then came the bonsai trees, two per table, with green olive oil and anchovy sorbets hanging from their branches like fruit.
The snacks ended with a cacao dusted truffle and a brioche stuffed with truffle aioli, garnished with black truffle. No dish was more than a few bites in size, but each explored and pushed limits of texture, temperature, and flavour in ways I had never experience before.
A flower of purple onion, garnished with comte and croutons, was laid before us. Staff poured into each bowl a small portion of onion soup as our waiter declared that the menu was now beginning. That soup, refined but comforting and eerily familiar to my grandmother’s, was followed by a lightly poached piece of mackerel served with white bean tempehs at one, two, and four weeks of fermentation. It was subtle, but an easy standout.
Next came a dish John was particularly excited about, a bowl of buttery prawn flesh, marinated in rice vinegar, and crispy fried shells served in two sauces. One, red, was made by cooking prawn heads for seventy two hours. The other, green, was derived from phytoplankton, an ingredient I’d been reading about as a new cutting edge aspect of Spanish gastronomy. Simple, and innately satisfying, it felt as though I was eating whole live prawns standing waist-deep in the Med.
The next dish, a signature of Roca, was a slow cooked filet of sole, finished on the grill and served with five olive oil emulsions: orange, bergamot, pine nuts, anise, and green olive. Though beautiful, it was the let down of the meal. The grill flavour overwhelming everything but the intense green olive emulsion.
What followed was a trio of buttery morsels of Iberian suckling pig’s belly, each topped with a crispy piece of skin. The classically Spanish pig was paired with Southeast Asian flavours: green papaya salad, tamarind and shisho puree, apples, thai grapefruit, coriander, chili, lime and cashew. Finally there was pidgeon. Slices of dark burgundy pigeon magret atop a red wine reduction served beside a pigeon liver parfait painted onto the plate to resemble a flock of birds alighting from a tree. For the weight of its components the dish was shockingly delicate and balanced.
The experience vacillated between reverence and relaxation. My nerves before the meal were assuaged by the remarkable approachability of the food. Nevertheless, I found myself stunned into silence by nearly every dish. Nothing felt overworked or intensely complex, rather it elevated the feeling of home cooking or the Tarragonese taverna we’d gone to for breakfast the day before. Michelin starred and elite though the restaurant was, it did not try to be removed from its setting or origin story. The Roca Brothers grew up in a simple taverna, their finest offerings retained a sense of continuity to that place.
Walking out in a daze, trying to relive every dish, I followed John back to the car. We had to drop our bags at the hotel and then head to the restaurant's event center outside of town. Our day with Roca wasn’t over yet.