Clay Oven Executive Chef Geeta Bansal Interviews Big-Time European Chefs! First Up: Joan Roca

Categories: On the Line
Thumbnail image for Bansal2.jpg
Photo by Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Bansal: Also a great interviewer!

It's funny how the world works. One of my Facebook friends is this college kid who's a huge fan of mine, who I always enjoyed reading for his crazy status updates--nothing scandalous, mind you, but just funny stuff. Last year, I found out that he was the son of Geeta Bansal, the chef-owner of the fabulous Clay Oven in Irvine--WTF?

It helps to have the son of a great chef be a fan of the paper, so the Bansals thought of us first when the son proposed a fascinating proposition: would we be interested in interviews that Geeta did with big-name European chefs? Hell ya! So consider this the debut of Bansal's occasional column of her sitting down with European chefs. First one: Catalonian master Joan Roca, one of the brothers behind the legendary Celler de Can Roca. Enjoy!

A Conversation with Spanish Chef Joan Roca
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef, Clay Oven Irvine

Photo courtesy of Geeta Bansal
Chef Joan Roca with Bansal

On a hazy October morning driving north on the A7 Barcelona to Girona, Spain I was remembering my first visit to Chef Joan Roca's restaurant Celler Can Roca many years ago. What has drawn me back for repeat visits is not only the food, but Chef Roca's personality and accessibility to his guests.

On this particular visit I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef Roca after another amazing meal where I had the good fortune to try his new creations for the San Sebastian Gastronomika the following week.

On my last visit in 2009, we had chatted informally about food, life , family and mutual foodie travel experiences. This time it was a more structured format and I actually had had a questionaire that he found amusing but gave it serious and thoughtful attention.

White Asparagus Comtesse and Truffles

After lunch, I waited in the lounge next to the humidor, overlooking the green courtyard while he finished his conversation with some local purveyors. In a calm, unhurried manner he wrapped up that conversation and we finally sat down to talk about his creative process and outlook on the future of cuisine in general. Incidentally this conversation as had my previous interactions with him was in three languages--Spanish, French, and English interspersed with much laughter. A very down to earth individual with no pretensions despite his three Michelin stars and a restaurant rated # 2 in 2012 in the world by Restaurant Magazine.

Chef Roca has a very gentle dignified persona with an almost beatific smile and is always excited to talk about his food and that of other Catalan chefs. I posed the questions and he gave his very thoughtful responses

What is your philosophy about food?
The creative process at our restaurant is the end result of the three minds of the three of us. Me the cuisinier, my brother Joseph the cambrer de vins and Jordi my youngest brother the pastisser. The three stems of the symblimatic R in the restaurants symbol.

The R with 3 roots

My approach to food is that every thing starts from the roots up (Geeta's note: this theme cropped up in subsequent conversations we had during the Gastronomika the following week and his presentation there as well) I am very proud of my Catalan roots and how it is clearly different from other regional cuisines of Spain. My food represents a genuine dialogue between the chef and the product. I like to keep my base local while respecting products and ideas from other parts of Spain and the world. The key to making exquisite dishes is using good ingredients and I cannot stress that enough.

My next question was one that throws off most chefs: What is the one thing you dislike about restaurant menus?

I like menus that encourage curiosity in the product and the process. Usually I like all menus. (this was the diplomatic Chef Roca!)

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