Joan Roca – Kitchen Spy

Joan Roca (left) in his home kitchen with daughter and mother. Photo: Joan Pujol-Creus.

Well folks, this wraps it up from me for this column. Kitchen spy is winding down and Fairfax is commissioning no more in this series. It’s been a lot of fun to work on spy these past three years and I’ve learnt so much. There was Gilbert Lau’s recipe for fried rice, Marieke Hardy’s infatuation with vegan cuisine and Joost Bakker’s addition to fermented rice, to mention just a few.

Thank you to all the people who welcomed us into their homes over the years and spilled the beans about how they really cook. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with you. My last spy is a cracker: an interview with Joan Roca, a wonderfully innovative chef from Spain whose restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca wows people from around the world. It was published today in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Joan Roca, executive chef and co-owner of El Celler de Can Roca

The Spanish restaurant Joan Roca runs with his two brothers, El Celler de Can Roca, has previously been named No. 1 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list,  but when he’s not wowing guests with sophisticated dishes – distilled soil, anyone? – Roca likes cooking at home with his family, including children Marc (19) and Marina (12). In a conversation translated by his wife, Anna Roca, Joan says he tries to keep a balance between traditional (Catalan) and modern techniques. “I don’t keep a distillator in my home kitchen,” he says. “Guests come from all over the world to El Celler de Can Roca and they have big expectations about the food. It’s not easy but we have really good staff, they’ve been with us for a long time, and the three brothers, we try to manage together with all the team.”

The staples

My pantry

We always have salted anchovies from a small fishing town called L’Escala, on the Costa Brava, which we eat with bread and tomatoes and olive oil. We also have tins of clams and mussels preserved escabeche-style; olives, onions, potatoes, garlic (we use a lot), and not so much bread but we make it in the restaurant. For breakfast we might have fresh fruit and blueberry jam on toast (no butter, just olive oil) and a coffee. And we also eat a lot of nuts.

My fridge

We like cheese, and we cycle to the market next to Girona on Saturdays, especially to buy La Garrotxa (a Catalan cow and sheep milk cheese). The kids drink milk but Anna and I don’t. We’ll also have organic eggs in there and fish from the restaurant – bluefish, which is a bit like a sardine, and squid.

The most important idea is healthy eating; and then to taste new flavours. We want our kids to try different things and understand the nutrition of all the different ingredients

Secret vice

Cheese at two o’clock in the morning when I’m back from the restaurant. I love Comte, with bread and olive oil. Or chocolate. We’ve started to make our own chocolate at home.

Last night’s dinner

I cooked fish with Marina. It was a mero (grouper) and we made it with garden peas and a traditional Catalan suquet sauce (made from garlic, onion and tomato). And our secret ingredient: ginger.

I’m drinking

Lots of water. I don’t drink alcohol at home but I love wine. My favourite varietals are old white and red burgundies, and biodynamic natural wines. I also like gin and tonics (Beefeater, Bulldog) and I drink coffee; espresso in the morning and in the restaurant maybe four or five in a day. Too much!

My toolkit

My favourite things are my cast-iron pan, my fork, my induction stove (it’s easy to keep clean), and my custom Japanese knife, which was a present from chef Ichiro Hattori .

My inspiration

I get inspiration from my memory, the Catalan tradition and travel. I’m also inspired by the landscape of Girona, going to the market and old cuisine books. And authors like Harold McGee, who wrote On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.


Twenty-five years ago we bought some scales in an antique market and it still works really well. My favourite dish to cook at home is a soup called escudella. It’s very traditional with pork, beef, chicken and vegetables, boiled for a long time (four hours). You cook pasta in it and eat this first with the soup and afterwards, the meat and vegetables: one dish eaten in two parts. In Catalonia every house has its own recipe.

Most unforgettable meal

We have a lot of relatives over for Christmas dinner. Last year we had 32 people, including a Mexican family, who made lunch on Christmas Day.

Recipe stalwart

Paella. I’ll open the fridge, pick out some ingredients and make it from that – sometimes vegetables, sometimes fish, sometimes meat.


We have a dish in the restaurant called “sea and mountains” that has a distillation of soil. It’s impossible to eat soil but using a special process we can recreate the flavour of humid soil. It reminds you of being a child playing with soil or walking through the forest after rain. It’s all about activating your memory.