Inside the El Celler de Can Roca Pop-Up Dinners in Phoenix

Chefs from El Celler de Can Roca, named "world's best restaurant" twice, dazzled Phoenix diners this week at a series of pop-up dinner events.EXPAND
Chefs from El Celler de Can Roca, named "world's best restaurant" twice, dazzled Phoenix diners this week at a series of pop-up dinner events.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

The Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale has hosted plenty of formal, multi-course meals over the years. But it's safe to say it hasn't witnessed anything quite like a dinner party thrown by the Roca Brothers, the chef-owners of the famed El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Girona, Spain. 

The Roca Brothers are in town this week to host three invite-only pop-dinners at the Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale as part of the 2016 BBVA-El Celler de Can Roca cooking tour. The five-city international jaunt is being sponsored by the Spanish multinational bank BBVA.

During the Phoenix leg of the tour, the Spanish restaurateurs – whose restaurant has twice been named "World's Best Restaurant" by Restaurant Magazine – offered a private cooking class to Arizona Culinary Institute students, schmoozed with local press and Phoenix-area BBVA customers, and of course, did a lot of cooking.

The BBVA-El Celler dinners are mostly private, invite-only affairs, offered as a unique treat to BBVA Compass clients. We nabbed a seat at this week's Wednesday night dinner, a minor feat considering that there are only about 100 seats available at each event.  

The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale hosted 100 guests at each of the invite-only events.EXPAND
The Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale hosted 100 guests at each of the invite-only events.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

The evening kicked off with a cocktail hour, with BBVA customers mingling with sommelier Josep Roca and sampling the Andalusian wine shipped in just for the occasion. Trays of freshly sliced Jamón ibérico were laid out for guests, and a classical trio played Beatles, Coldplay, and Leonard Cohen songs in the background. 

Dinnertime was announced by the tinkling of a xylophone – the Roca Brothers are not immune to whimsy – and then the ballroom doors opened and dinner guests shuffled in to find their assigned tables. 

The first course was an appetizer entitled "The World on Our Tour," which featured small bites intended to represent London, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Santiago de Chile – the other cities of the 2016 BBVA-El Celler tour. There was a mini-Scotch egg with salmon roe (London); a slightly chewy and savory octopus ball (Hong Kong); a pino empanada (Santiago); and a crunchy "golden nugget" constructed from California walnut, plum, and chipotle (San Francisco). To represent the Roca's native Catalonia, the tour's point of departure, there was a Mediterranean olive stuffed with gazpacho, anchovy, and tomato. 

Over the course of the next nine or so more plates, guests were treated to tiny, delectable bites like a grapefruit-campari bonbon inspired by a childhood memory; calamari wrapped in an edible plastic 'jacket'; a fresh oyster wrapped in a puff of mushroom-flavored foam; and a sweet-and-sour "pork rib," where the bone was replaced by a lookalike sliver of mushroom. 

Some of the dishes that elicited the most oohs-and-ahhs from the crowd included the two dessert courses, which were designed by the youngest Roca brother, Jordi. There was a refreshing dish called "Green Chromaticism" – the concept of chromaticism is a reoccurring theme in the Rocas' cooking – which featured lime and nopal.

And there was an aromatic, sweet finish with an Arizona-inspired dessert called Desert Garden, which featured orange blossom-flavored gelatin, a few gooseberries, watermelon shaved ice, slivers of nopal cactus, crumbled butter cookies, and a sprinkling of edible flower blossoms.  

The Roca Brothers specialize in high-concept haute cuisine, where sous vide technique and high-tech equipment in the kitchen is standard, and plates are often assembled using tweezers. Their dishes are not merely food, so it seems, but carefully rendered ideas designed to evoke specific thoughts and emotions.

This all seemed a little mystifying for some dinner guests, who joked good-naturedly about the dollhouse-sized portion of many of the dishes. 

Indeed, the bites were tiny, yet almost always delicious. Every course was accompanied by a different wine – the dinner leaned heavily on California white wines – and by the time the final course rolled around, many belts had been loosened, and it was clear it was time to call it a night. 

Though the plates were tiny, they each demonstrated the chef's thoughtful, high-concept approach to cuisine.EXPAND
Though the plates were tiny, they each demonstrated the chef's thoughtful, high-concept approach to cuisine.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

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