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The Salt

The Roca Brothers, Famous For Fusing Food And Tech, Hit The Road


At a pop-up dinner in London, one of 20 courses served was this Mandala lamb with tangerine puree, lemon puree, beet impregnated melon, fennel and artichoke.
Lauren Frayer/NPR
At a pop-up dinner in London, one of 20 courses served was this Mandala lamb with tangerine puree, lemon puree, beet impregnated melon, fennel and artichoke.

Beef cheeks sizzle in a frying pan. Oysters float in melon puree. And culinary students from all over the world huddle in silent rapture around a stove in central London.

Food gods are in their midst.

The Roca brothers — Joan, Josep and Jordi — are the chef-proprietors of El Celler de Can Roca, a restaurant in northeast Spain that's among the top-rated in the world. To international foodies, the Rocas are rock stars of haute cuisine.

"It's just a completely different level. It's past just cooking for the people," says Thomas Muza, a Polish chef waiting in line to take a selfie with the Rocas at Westminster Kingsway College in central London, where they taught a master class. "It's about creating things. Unbelievable!"

The Roca brothers are famous for fusing technology and food. They may serve up edible moss, or pork disguised as fish — and vice versa. They often cook with blow torches. One signature dish is served under a glass dome filled with smoke.

El Celler de Can Roca, which is in Spain's Catalonia region, near the border with France, has three Michelin stars. A typical meal there will set you back several hundred dollars — if you can get a table. Reservations for all of this year sold out in just eight minutes online.

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But this month, the restaurant is shut while the Rocas go on tour. They're cooking gourmet pop-up meals in five cities over five weeks: London, Hong Kong, Phoenix, San Francisco and Santiago.

"Each new city means a new kitchen, new people to work with, new students. We don't even know where the spoons are!" jokes Ignacio Tena Rubio, who works with BBVA, the Spanish bank sponsoring the Roca brothers' tour.

Price tag: undisclosed. There's an entourage of 35 traveling sous-chefs — all part of the staff at the Roca brothers' restaurant — with hundreds of suitcases. Each cook brings his or her own lucky spatula or chopsticks. In Spain, the team has a research center and private farm. On tour, they're huddled into small, often sweltering hotel galley kitchens. Tena calls it the biggest logistical challenge ever attempted in the world of haute cuisine.

"Usually, at a high-end restaurant, they change the menu maybe one dish per year, or two to three dishes per year," Tena says. "This summer, we will have five different 20-dish menus for five weeks. It's madness!"

The Roca brothers did a reconnaissance trip last spring to visit local farms in each of the five locations. They choose local ingredients in every place. The brothers are UN Goodwill Ambassadors, supporting sustainable farming around the world. The middle brother, Josep, is just back from Nigeria, where he launched a program to cut back on food waste.

On tour, these private dinners are free, but most of those invited are BBVA clients.

The bank benefits from its association with top chefs, who are celebrities in Spain and the rest of the culinary world. The Roca brothers get to spread their recipes far from their home kitchen. Two lucky culinary students from each location will travel back to Spain with the brothers to work at their restaurant.

"It's a logistical challenge, and a creative one," says Joan Roca, the oldest brother and head chef. "Even if you're one of the best restaurants in the world, you still need to get out of your house — to learn and change."

The Roca brothers arrive in Phoenix on August 14th, and San Francisco on the 20th.

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