Latin America

The world’s best restaurant goes on an American tour

Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca closes for five weeks to travel to Argentina and the US

Two of the Roca brothers' culinary students.
Two of the Roca brothers' culinary students.R. Ceppi

After 10 main courses featuring 25 specialties and 15 different wines, it seems inconceivable that anyone would have room for dessert. But it is precisely the last dish of the evening that is the star attraction of a dinner that has stretched out over four hours since the first appetizers were served.

The 100 people in Buenos Aires who had the opportunity to sample the culinary delights served up by El Celler de Can Roca, the recently crowned best restaurant in the world, at the start of its American tour all “ooohed” and “ahhhed” when the waiters placed what looked like half a soccer ball covered with green grass on the table.

The Roca brothers have had dozens of offers to open restaurants in different parts of the world

Inside you find drawn the path of a perfect dribble in which an ice-cream ball dodges round two smaller balls of mango- and passion-fruit flavored ice cream. Using the larger ball you need to break what looks like a net covering made of meringue to uncover more ice cream. Voila! The “Messi’s goal” dessert – named after the famous Argentinean forward who plays for Barça – is now served.

“Ice cream is pure fantasy,” says pastry chef Jodi Roca, the youngest of the three brothers who run El Celler de Can Roca.

The Rocas have had dozens of offers to open restaurants in different parts of the world far from the original eatery they founded 30 years ago in a working-class neighborhood of Girona, Catalonia.

“A restaurant needs to have soul, not branch offices,” says Joan Roca, another of the brothers.

El Celler de Can Roca is this year’s winner of Restaurant magazine’s prestigious best restaurant award

Maybe El Celler is non-exportable, but that doesn’t mean the brothers can’t head out on tour like a group of rock stars.

The Rocas have decided to close their restaurant for five weeks and take 35 employees on a tour sponsored by BBVA bank that began in Buenos Aires and will continue to Miami; Birmingham, Alabama; and Houston in the US, before a final stop in Istanbul, Turkey.

And there should be a lot of excited and hungry fans along the way. Back in June El Cellar de Can Roca was for the second time crowned the winner of the prestigious best restaurant award handed out each year by Restaurant magazine, which compiles an annual list of the 50 best eating establishments around the world. The Rocas first took the prize in 2013.

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The Buenos Aires stop, however, offered the brothers some serious challenges after they discovered Argentina’s strict import laws. They had to do their best to cook their cuisine using local products; they couldn’t even bring over Spanish ham to combine with the Argentinean specialties.

But it didn’t matter – the brothers triumphed during their five nights of cooking in the Argentinean capital, where they offered 500 people a chance to taste their own gastronomical takes on the local cuisine.

Before the first plate was served, Josep Roca did some legwork by traveling the country with his team, especially in the northern part of Argentina, to get acquainted with the best traditional cooking, flavors and wines.

“Every place we go, we have to start from scratch. That way we pay tribute to the local culinary customs and take back ideas for our own restaurant,” he says.

From lamb to barbecue to the popular choripán – a simple chorizo sausage wrapped in bread – the Roca brothers and their chefs offered their own takes on classic Argentinean dishes.

Every place we go, we start from scratch. That way we pay tribute to local culinary customs and take back ideas”

Pastry sweet blood sausage, corn and meat-filled empanadas very different from the typical versions, a simple fainá (savory pastry) pizza pared down to its bare essentials, and choripán turned into a brioche are just some of the ways the Rocas transformed Argentina’s popular staples. Even though there remains a trace of the original flavor, the tastes become more intense and sophisticated after the Rocas add their own touches.

Prawns from Ushuaia, a provincial capital on the southern tip of Argentina, are steamed in grappa – a lot of the country’s cuisine is influenced by the Italians who migrated there in the latter part of the 19th century.

The original flavor remains, but the tastes become more intense after the Rocas add their own touches

Locro – a stew from the northern regions that is served in a clay dish – becomes a mosaic on a plate, with the tripe and sauces used to paint the white dish in a kind of deconstructed version of the original.

Even lamb is deconstructed and served in different ways in the same dish: necks stuffed with gizzards, loins and ribs.

After their long American and Turkish tours, the Roca brothers will take back all of these creations to the working-class district of Girona that, from America, they champion as a “place of immigration and blending,” which to them form the essence of fine cooking.

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