Chef News

Joan Roca, Executive Chef of 'World's Best Restaurant,' on Phoenix Food, Cooking with Cactus, and His Advice to Young Chefs

The Roca Brothers, chef-owners of the world-renowned El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, are in Phoenix this week to host three invite-only pop-up dinners at the Four Seasons Resort in Scottsdale. Their restaurant was named 'World's Best Restaurant' by Restaurant Magazine in 2013 and 2015. 

The visit is part of the 2016 BBVA-El Celler de Can Roca tour, which takes the three Roca brothers — executive chef Joan, sommelier Josep, and pastry chef Jordi, plus a small legion of 40 sous chefs and servers — on a five-city world tour that will span three continents in roughly five weeks.

Their whirlwind summer kicked off in London on July 31, followed by a week in Hong Kong. After Phoenix, the El Celler crew will head west to San Francisco, and then conclude the tour in Santiago de Chile. 

The Roca Brothers began their stay in Arizona with a quick trip to the Grand Canyon, which was followed by a visit to the Arizona Culinary Institute, where Joan and Jordi gave a presentation about the themes and philosophy that inform their cooking at El Celler de Can Roca. They provided a rapt audience of ACI students and alumni with a private cooking master class and previewed some of the dishes that they created for the Arizona tour dinners, including a prickly pear dessert. 

Executive chef Joan Roca is the recipient of Restaurant Magazine's 2016 Chefs’ Choice Award, which is voted for by chefs from the magazine's "World’s 50 Best Restaurants" list. After wrapping up his cooking demo at the Arizona Culinary Institute, he sat down with New Times to share his thoughts on cooking in Phoenix and what advice he would give aspiring young chefs. 

New Times: How are you enjoying Phoenix so far? And why did you decide to come to Phoenix on this summer’s tour?

Joan Roca: Phoenix is very nice. My initial impression is that there’s a good quality of life here. It seems like a peaceful place to live. We came here because we were interested in this southern zone of the U.S. and its ties with Mexico and Latin cuisine, in particular. We were also interested in that fusion that seems to occur along the southern parts of the U.S., in places like here and also places like Texas and Alabama.

What’s your impression of Phoenix’s local cuisine and Arizona gastronomy in general?

Well, it seems to be a kind of cooking that speaks to the survival of various cooking traditions, and reflects the multiculturalism of cooking near Mexico. But it also has the influence of many other cultures, like African American culture.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in executing this week’s dinners in Phoenix?

Well, every place poses its own challenges. In Phoenix, the challenge has been exactly that – gathering all the many influences in order to be able to filter all that local culture through our sensibility, our techniques, and our way of cooking.

You are going to be using prickly pear cactus, or nopales, in this week’s dinners. You mentioned during the cooking demonstration that prickly pears grow in Spain, but they are not considered a viable cooking ingredient.

Well, in Spain the prickly pear cactus is considered an invasive species. It’s mostly an ornamental plant. It has adapted so well in our region of the Costa Brava, it is displacing the local flora. We are actually a little worried, because they are modifying the local landscape. It’s not bad – but it’s different, and it has an impact. That’s why we’ve decided to try to cook with them, and not just that, but also to give them more widespread recognition in Spain. 

What was the process of sourcing local ingredients for this week’s dinners?

We have been lucky enough to work with the Four Seasons where we’re staying, who put us in contact with local growers. Also, our team was here last week. For every city we visit, there are five people from our team who come beforehand to check the quality of ingredients and to find the most interesting and best possible ingredients. We have a lot confidence in our team. If we were to learn that there is an ingredient that isn’t working, we would know about it. And since I haven’t heard anything, that must mean everything is okay. No news is good news. [Laughs]

Any advice for our local aspiring chefs?

To enjoy cooking. Once you’ve decided you want to be a chef, have fun and enjoy what you do. Don’t become obsessed with getting awards and attention. Obviously, getting acclaim will allow you to do more things. It allows you to do things like go on a world tour. For a restaurant, this is the most marvelous thing that could happen, and it happens because of the acclaim. So, it’s clear that acclaim is important, but more important, day in and day out, is that cooking brings you pleasure. And if you cook because you love it and you do it well, perhaps then someday you will be able to do more things.

Check back later for coverage and photos from the El Celler de Can Roca dinners. 
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.