Behind the Scenes as El Celler de Can Roca’s Roca Brothers Cook in San Francisco

"The World'' being assembled at the San Francisco dinner prepared by the Roca brothers.

“The World” being assembled at the San Francisco dinner prepared by the Roca brothers.

 

It was a little like getting a backstage pass to a U2 concert.

Only way better.

That’s how I felt when I was invited to hang around in the kitchen on Wednesday night when the three Roca brothers, owners of the illustrious El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, were in San Francisco to cook a series of dinners at the Julia Morgan Ballroom.

After all, in the culinary world — Joan (chef), Josep (sommelier and maitre d’) and Jordi (pastry chef) — are rock stars of the utmost magnitude. Their restaurant not only has garnered three Michelin stars, but is rated #2 on the current list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” (they were #1 in 2013 and 2015).

Jordi, Joan and Josep Roca in the Julia Morgan Ballroom.

Jordi, Joan and Josep Roca in the Julia Morgan Ballroom.

What’s more, the multi-course, three-hour dinners were not open to the public. Instead, they were by invitation-only, with the 100 guests each night predominantly clients of Spanish bank BBVA Compass, which was sponsoring the Roca brothers’ whirlwind cooking tour. It spans three continents in five weeks with stops in London, Hong Kong, Phoenix, San Francisco (this week), and finally, Santiago de Chile.

Although Joan had come to the Bay Area in the spring on a prior scouting trip, this was the first time the other two brothers have visited San Francisco.

The 2016 tour is the third time BBVA has sponsored such an endeavor for the brothers. And what an undertaking it is. El Celler Can Roca closes for the entire month of August just for this, and almost the entire staff comes along for the ride. We’re talking the brothers plus 40 others.

The ballroom before the guests arrived.

The ballroom before the guests arrived.

Some of the featured wines for the evening.

Some of the featured wines for the evening.

Besides their personal luggage, the brothers travel only with their knives, and a few special ingredients, such as distillations that would be too difficult to make on location. One-of-a-kind serving ware is sent ahead. They go through one Iberico jamon leg per dinner. They source most everything else locally, making a point to use a few key ingredients particularly indigenous to the cities they are cooking in.

In each city, they also choose two lucky local culinary students, who will spend four months apprenticing at El Celler Can Roca.

You need steady hands for this.

You need steady hands for this.

Putting together "Memories of A Neighborhood Bar.''

Putting together “Memories of A Neighborhood Bar.”

Plating garnishes for the vegetable consomme with abalone.

Plating garnishes for the vegetable consomme with abalone.

Joan adding the consomme.

Joan adding the consomme.

The menu:

The World On Our Tour (one bite wonders representing various cities):

London: Scotch egg with salmon roe

Hong Kong: octopus ball

San Francisco: gold nugget with California walnut, plum, and chipotle

Santiago de Chile: Pino empanada with Merken

Mediterranean: olive stuffed with black olive gazpacho, anchovy, tomato

Memories of a Neighborhood Bar:

Kidney in sherry sauce

Grapefruit and Campari bonbon

Crunchy cod with brandade, Olorosa sherry, spinach, and pine nuts

Calamari “A La Romana”

Squab parfait bonbon with Bristol cream and spiced bread

Main Courses:

Vegetable Consomme Cooked at Low Temperature with Abalone; Eisele Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Araujo Estate

Oyster with California Chardonnay, Iodine Sauce, Apple, and Champignon Mushroom Foam; Trout Gulch Chardonnay 2015 Arnot Roberts

Lobster Parmentier with Mole Sauce and Phytoplankton Sponge Cake Smoked with Spices; Mas Cavalis Pinot Noir 2013 Marimar Torres Estate

Halibut with California Flavors, Olives, Bergamot, Fennel, Orange and California Walnut; Enfield Chardonnay 2014 Wine Co. Haynes Vineyard Coombsville

Crunchy Suckling Pig and Sweet and Sour Pork Rib with King Oyster Mushrooms, Avocado Puree with Truffles and Sauteed Mushrooms; Dirty and Rowdy Monastrell 2015 Evangelho Vineyard Monastrell Ridge Zinfandel Ponzo Vineyard 2005 Russian River Creek Valley

Oyster Blade of Veal and Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa, Blueberries, Chili Threads, Cocoa; Valbuena de Vega Sicilia 2010 D.O. Ribera de Duero

Desserts:

Sourdough Ice Cream with Cocoa Pulp, Fried Lychee and Sherry Vinegar Meringue; Sake Karen “Coy” Niigata Prefecture Junmai

Phonograph/Dish Player (More on this jaw-dropping dessert at the bottom of the post); Green (Green Apple, Lime, Basil, Mint), Yellow (Lemon, Pineapple, Passion Fruit, Mango), and Red (Beets, Cherries, Raspberries, Tomatoes); Donnhoff Niederhauser Hermannshohle 2014 Riesling Spatlese VDP Nahe

Maybe it’s the always-famished natural look that I possess, but the brothers took pity on me and actually let me try a few of the courses, as I stood with fork in hand leaning against one of the stainless steel prep tables, trying desperately not to get in the way of the scurrying brigade of cooks.

The most tender lobster on top of a plastic-wrapped bowl in which herbs, leaves and smoke had been added to waft as you pressed on the dish with your fork.

The most tender lobster on top of a plastic-wrapped bowl in which herbs, leaves and smoke had been added. As your pressed down on it with your fork, the smoke billowed out, as if you were sitting before a campfire in the woods.

Halibut with a unique texture (almost if it had been smoked, but much more succulent) from being sous vide at a low temperature for only four minutes before being braised.

Halibut with a unique texture (almost if it had been smoked, but much more succulent) from being first cooked sous vide at a low temperature for only four minutes before being braised.

Suckling pig -- which I didn't get to try, unfortunately. Wah!

Suckling pig — which I didn’t get to try, unfortunately. Wah!

Melt-in-your-mouth veal with a hit of heat from chili threads and sweetness from blueberries.

Melt-in-your-mouth veal with a hit of heat from chili threads and sweetness from blueberries.

From my conversation with the brothers:

On where they’ve eaten here this time and on an earlier reconnaissance trip:

Atelier Crenn, Manresa, the French Laundry, and Jordi’s favorite — Dandelion Chocolate

Their favorite American foods:

Josep: olive oil

Jordi: Napa Valley wines

Joan: ice cream, particularly from Smitten.

On the ingredients for the San Francisco dinners:

The sourdough for the ice cream is from Tartine. They had never worked with live abalone before. Dandelions and local halibut also were new to them.

Joan busy in the kitchen.

Joan busy in the kitchen.

On how San Francisco compares to their other stops on the tour:

Joan: “San Francisco definitely ranks very high. The level of gastronomy is so high, the ingredients are fantastic, and the population really loves and craves fine dining. We haven’t seen that on such a level in the other places we have visited.”

The place they would most most like to cook, but have yet to visit:

Josep: Tokyo, Africa

Joan: Shanghai

Jordi: Reykjavik

What they have learned most from these tours:

Joan: “That we don’t really know that much and have a lot to learn.”

And now a final word from me about the desserts. They were mind-blowing.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the likes of the plate used to hold the sourdough ice cream. It looked a little like free-form paper-mache. But it was far more solid and boasted a motor inside that made the dish heave up and down as if it were alive. Jordi explained that he thinks of sourdough as being alive, and in that way, a metaphor for life.

Jordi scooping sourdough ice cream.

Jordi scooping sourdough ice cream.

The "sourdough'' plates.

The “sourdough” plates.

The sourdough ice cream balls.

The sourdough ice cream balls.

As if that didn’t make your head spin, the final dessert surely did. Puddles of fruit gels and purees were placed on a “dish player,” a cromaphone that translates colors into music.

Underneath each plate was an actual cell phone running an app that allowed music to play as each guest spun the top of the plate, with each color corresponding to a different sound.

The phonograph dessert.

The phonograph dessert.

The scene just before the phonographs went out to the diners.

The scene just before the phonographs went out to the diners.

It was wild and wacky to say the least. Even more so, because more than a half dozen cooks were crowded into a small, shuttered room, scrambling to test each dish just before it went out. Imagine an orchestra tuning up, and you’ll get the drift.

You have to hand it to the Roca brothers. When they come to town, they definitely rock it out.

The "sound" of dessert as created by @jordirocasan @cellercanroca @cellerrocabbva @juliamorganballroom #dessertmadness

A post shared by Carolyn Jung (@food_gal_carolyn) on

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2 comments

  • So excited to see this post after seeing your previews on social media. This looks like an amazing dinner. Even though not everyone can enjoy this type of dinner, thanks for giving us an inside peek at this part of the culinary world. Hopefully they inspire others who will then do similar things in their kitchen, which often happens. 🙂

  • Lucky girl!! That sourdough dessert is pretty wacky looking. 😉

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