The Roca Brothers: Cooking as the Language of Storytelling

A restaurant with 3 Michelin stars that pays homage to tradition.

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Real Academia de Gastronomía

Girona vista tipica by By Vilallonga - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, Academia de Gastronomía

Girona: On the Banks of the Onyar

In the historic center of Girona, in inland Catalonia, traces of the city's Roman, Jewish, and Medieval past can still be seen today. With the Onyar river running through it, the colorful houses on its banks have become the city's most recognisable visual hallmark, along with its Gothic cathedral.

Can Roca RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

A Family of Restaurateurs

El Celler de Can Roca is located in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. It is next to the Can Roca bar and bistro, founded in 1967 by Montse Fontané and Josep Roca, parents of Joan, Josep, and Jordi Roca.

There is a culinary tradition running through both the maternal and paternal sides of the Roca brothers' family tree. Montse, their mother, comes from a long line of restaurateurs.

Her father, Josep, was born in the bistro run by his mother, "Iaia" (Grandma) Angeleta, in Sant Martí de Llémena, in the north of Girona province.

Montserrat Fontané and her sonsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Montse Fontané, Mother of the Roca Brothers

Montse started working in the family business, Can Batista, when she was 13. Shortly after, she moved to Barcelona, where she learned to cook in her elder sister's restaurant. It was there that she fell in love with Josep, a man everyone knew and liked, and they got married not long after.

At that stage, they could never have imagined that their children would not only follow in their footsteps in the restaurant business, but that they would go on to achieve worldwide recognition.

Montserrat and Josep with their son JordiReal Academia de Gastronomía

Their Father, Josep Roca

It was Josep who found the premises for Can Roca. Shortly after that, he left his job as a bus driver to work in the bar and chicken rotisserie.

A skilled craftsman, he often helps his sons with the designs for the stands on which some of their dishes are served.

SquidsReal Academia de Gastronomía

When Customers Become Family

Montse has been at the helm of Can Roca's kitchen since 1967. Now 80, she continues to do things in her own way, refusing to take culinary advice from Joan or from anyone who suggests putting up the prices on the menu. "It's not my customers' fault if my sons—these boys—have become famous," she usually retorts.

Montse Fontané describes how she cooks the same traditional Catalan dishes as other ladies her age in the neighborhood, just as she learned to do when she was young: "escudella" (a Catalan soup and stew), "fideuà" (a seafood and noodle dish), and Catalan-style cannelloni, as well as the crispy battered squid that is now the restaurant's signature dish.

As Joan explains, "That anchor, those roots, are the basis of our cooking."

Jordi playing infront of Can RocaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The 3 brothers were raised in the bistro, doing chores and serving customers. Joan recalls that the restaurant was open every day of the year until he was 14.

"We lived alongside our customers as though they were our friends—part of the family. We saw our parents working happily and making the people who came to our place happy too. It was the same as it is now: a community bar for hardworking people, with a good, honest menu."

The Roca brothers at the old recepcionReal Academia de Gastronomía

Joan, who was the most reliable of the 3, used to help in the dining room, while Josep, as his parents recall, was only interested in finishing as soon as possible so that he could go and play soccer.

In the words of Montse, "Josep was terrible. He used to wear roller skates while serving customers. He used to ask them, 'Do you want your ice cream cold or hot?' And if they said hot, he would put it in the microwave."

As for Jordi, who has worked with his brothers for a decade, their mother says that he was "another rascal."

Hospitality School of GeronaReal Academia de Gastronomía

School of Hospitality Management and Tourism in Girona

The School of Hospitality Management and Tourism in Girona (with its Catalan name, L'Escola d'Hostaleria i Turisme de Girona) was founded in 1965, and it was here that the 3 Roca brothers trained. Joan completed his studies in 1983 and started teaching there soon after. He even taught his younger brother, Jordi, and both agree that he was particularly strict with him. Josep finished his studies at the same school in 1985, and Jordi in 1997.

Joan and Jordi RocaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Early Days of El Celler

In 1986, having traveled throughout France, Joan and Josep Roca returned to Girona with the idea of setting up an haute cuisine establishment in the style of the great French restaurants. They opened El Celler de Can Roca in a building next to the family restaurant and home.

"To begin with, it didn't go well because they didn't have any customers. There were nights when they spent the whole time playing on a foosball table, which they still have," says Montse. But it was not long before the kitchen was too small for them and they started to encroach on Can Roca's kitchen: "They renovated it and extended it, but then they needed more room again; I didn't know what was going on!"

During the renovations, they moved temporarily into the Torre de Can Sunyer building, which they had bought for holding banquets catered by Can Roca.

Hake with garlic and rosemary vinaigretteReal Academia de Gastronomía

El Celler's Earliest Dishes

El Celler's first dish was hake with garlic and rosemary vinaigrette, inspired by Joan's experience of Basque cuisine.

Two years later, they created a dish that is still served in the restaurant today: lobster Parmentier with black chanterelle mushrooms. "It's one of my favorites. They still make different versions of it," says Montse, who samples some of her sons' creations—especially those that are based on dishes from their childhood.

El Celler de Can RocaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The New Location

In 2007, the brothers tasked interior designers Sandra Tarruella and Isabel López with transforming the Torre de Can Sunyer building. The key elements were to be natural light, organic materials, wood, and a dining room with an intimate atmosphere for their guests.

The brothers themselves took charge of designing the kitchen, which is 4 times larger than the previous one.

Josep requested 5 clearly differentiated areas in the wine cellar: each one of them, much like a chapel or altar, pays homage to his 5 favorite types of wine: Burgundy, Riesling, Champagne, Priorat, and Sherry.

The Roca brothers celebrating the 3er Michelin starReal Academia de Gastronomía


El Celler de Can Roca received its first Michelin star in 1995, and subsequent ones in 2002 and 2009. In addition, it has been number one on the list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants twice.

As well as being renowned in the world of gastronomy, the Roca brothers enjoy the affection and support of their neighbors, who have had impromptu get-togethers to congratulate them on winning some of these awards, and to thank them for putting Girona on the world map.

The Roca brothers with their grandma AngeletaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Remembering Can Roca on the El Celler Menu

The Roca family values have always stayed with the 3 brothers, both in the kitchen and in their day-to-day lives. "A lot of the things that we do are about passing on those values; that way of being, of restaurant life," says Joan Roca.

Memories of a barReal Academia de Gastronomía

El Celler de Can Roca's current menu pays tribute to Montse's cooking by way of small dishes served in a unique way: framed by a model of the 3 boys in their parents' bar. It shows Joan aged 14, Josep aged 12, and Jordi, who hadn't been born yet, on a bicycle in the clouds.

"Our recipes are a reinvention of our mother's patatas bravas, "salpicón de marisco" (seafood salad), fried squid, kidneys cooked in sherry, Campari bonbon, and cannelloni," explains Joan Roca.

Can Roca: employees eating in the sunReal Academia de Gastronomía

Comfort Food

The team at El Celler eat at Can Roca every day, before the restaurant opens. At Can Roca, Montse and her team prepare the same weekly menu that they have been cooking for over 40 years, including "arroz a la cazuela" (rice casserole) on Wednesdays and "estofado" (stew) on Thursdays.

"The fact that it doesn't change is comforting. Sometimes there's no need to do things differently all the time," says Joan.

Montse looks after the students who are there on a placement as though they were her own children, aware that they too are spending periods of time abroad, away from their family.

The Roca brothersReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Roca Brothers

Three professionals with complementary skills, who research, create, and innovate harmoniously.

Joan RocaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Joan: The Chef who Broke with Tradition by Leaving it Behind

El Celler de Can Roca's kitchen, led by Joan, is a combination of memories, academic tradition (learned from studying hospitality and from the universal classic recipe book), and, of course, produce and creativity.

Above all, it is a union between the 3 pillars of the restaurant: a collaboration in which each of the 3 brothers does what they do best.

This is evident in their recipes, both savory and sweet, prepared using ingredients whose aroma can be found in some of Josep's favorite wines, or in cava-based sauces.

Onion flower with comte cheese, walnuts, walnut bread and curry-caramelised walnutsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Joan Roca, winner of Spain's National Gastronomy Award in the year 2000, is a pioneer and advocate of "sous-vide" cuisine.

Together with Narcís Caner from the restaurant Fonda Caner, he invented the Roner, a device for sous-vide vacuum cooking at controlled low temperatures that can now be found in the kitchens of the world's greatest chefs.

One result of his curiosity and research in the El Celler kitchen is the gastronomic technique of "perfume creation." It entails cooking one product with the aroma of another and is ideal for crustaceans and the oiliest parts of fish. Jordi later applied the same technique to some of his sweet concoctions.

The Roca brothersReal Academia de Gastronomía

Josep: The Sommelier who Loves Sherry

More interested in soccer than cooking in his youth, Josep (or Pitu, as he is affectionately known) eventually took his brother's suggestion that he study hospitality management on board. While there, he found that he had a skill for cocktail-making. It was then a short step into the world of wine, which he had some experience of as a child, when his parents used to send him to refill the restaurant's bottles with wine from the barrels.

Now one of the world's best sommeliers, he has received numerous awards including Spain's National Gastronomy Award in 2010.

El Celler de Can RocaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Josep Roca runs the dining room and is a great advocate of reinventing it in such a way that the waiter, besides being trained in and knowing all about gastronomy, must be able to connect with the customers.

Jordi RocaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Jordi: Aromatic Pastry Chef

It took Jordi longer to find his place in the family business, and he spent some time alternating between the kitchen and the dining room. But then he crossed paths with Damian Allsop, who had worked with Alain Ducasse and Joêl Robuchon, among others, and he introduced him to the world of sweet cuisine. As he has said in the past, from that moment on, he felt that he finally had a place: his own narrative in the family business.

Flower bombReal Academia de Gastronomía

In the early 2000s, Jordi's sweet cuisine went from strength to strength, virtually reaching the level achieved by Joan and his team.

Having also received training in the world of ice cream making, he decided to defy the teachings of his ice cream "maestro" on the importance of air purity in the process and, with Josep's help, he created a device for transferring smoke into a container.

He used this to create one of his signature desserts: the Cigar Smoke Ice Cream ("Puro helado de Partagás") in 2000.

Shortly after that, when he was sent some bergamot samples, he became obsessed with extracting the fragrance of some of the perfumes that were popular at the time. The idea was to translate them into the language of sweet cuisine and incorporate them into dishes bearing the names of the fragrances.

Chocolate anarchy (2014)Real Academia de Gastronomía

One of his latest signature dishes is "Anarquía" (Anarchy), which he defines as a "rebellion against order, opening up the concept to every diner's own perception." Its includes a selection of jellies, sauces, creams, truffles, sponges, crunchy pieces, and ice creams, presented as a visual explosion.

Jordi has made his sweet cuisine accessible to all through his Rocambolesc project: ice cream parlors based on El Celler's desserts with branches in several Spanish cities.

Roca brothers in the kitchenReal Academia de Gastronomía

Crossing Borders

The Roca brothers' influence is not limited to Spain. In 2014, they embarked on a culinary world tour, using local produce from the countries they visited, and it was a journey they repeated in subsequent years.

In 2015, Joan Roca was invited to take part in a debate on food and medicine at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

In 2016, the 3 brothers were appointed Goodwill Ambassadors for the United Nations Development Programme.

Great chocolate bonbonReal Academia de Gastronomía

Beyond El Celler

El Celler de Can Roca advises the gastronomic restaurant Roca Moo, at Hotel Omm in Barcelona, which offers a very particular perspective on Catalan cuisine, with a balance of flavors and tasting menus.

Meanwhile, the brothers and other members of their family have embarked on a project in an iconic building in Girona's city center: Casa Cacao. Customers will be able to sample chocolate made from high-quality cocoa, in the form of hot and cold drinks, solid creations, and pastries. The building will also include a hotel, run by Joan Roca's wife, Anna Payet—an expert in tourism who has been closely involved in the running of El Celler de Can Roca.

Credits: Story

Text: María García.

Image: Celler Can Roca Restaurant /

Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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