If you’re the kind of person who knows about restaurants, you may have heard of the three brothers who run El Celler De Can Roca. It’s the best restaurant in the world right now. Literally. And if you live in New York City, or Mexico City, you’ve heard of Enrique Olvera—the man behind Mexico City’s Pujol (another World’s Best, No. 16) and flame-throwing NYC newcomer Cosme—who is largely responsible for establishing his country’s fine-dining scene on the contemporary world stage.
Jordi Roca—the youngest of the Brothers Roca, Best Pastry Chef in The World ‘14, and a guy who has created desserts so goddamn brilliant he once managed to synthesize the sweet taste of Lionel Messi scoring a goal—was flown in from Spain for a New York Food & Wine Festival event to cook at Cosme for a night with Olvera. BBVA, the bank that sponsors El Celler’s culinary tours, reached out to us to see if we’d want to pick their brains.
After laughing at our own stupid good fortune, we invited First We Feast friend-at-large Henry Molina—these days, cooking up the street from Cosme at another World’s Best (The Nomad, No. 67)—to sit in on the fun, and talk some of the issues of the day concerning chef culture, too.
As it turns out, the two star chefs have known each other for a bit, and together, they have a fun dynamic: Roca’s excitability and politeness against Olvera’s hilariously wry, cool-headed, but ever-honest demeanor. They also, together, make something very clear: That English might be the most spoken language in the world, and French—where cooking is concerned—the most classically culinary, but Spanish cuisine right now is so clearly the one making more waves than any other in the kitchen where it counts. Here they share their thoughts about kitchen hierarchy, why it’s difficult to find good servers in NYC, and the impending culinary revolution in Mexico.
This interview has been condensed and edited. All photos by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay)
On Meeting For The First Time, and Feeding Kids at the World’s Best Restaurant.
When did you first come into contact with each other’s cooking?
Olvera: I went to Spain in 2006. That’s the first time I ate his food. I remember it because my son was two-years-old. We took him there and they were super kind to us. But I was worried that having a small baby with us during dinner was going to be a problem.
Do you guys ever serve kids at El Celler?
Roca: Yeah, we’ve got families that come in with young kids who are able to have the entire menu and enjoy it. And enjoy it from a different perspective—that of a kid’s. As opposed to an adult’s, who might have a more intellectual interpretation of the cuisine.
Olvera: It’s a very personal cuisine. The first time I ate there, at the time, they were turning perfumes into desserts, [like the one based on Calvin Klein’s “Eternity”]. I’ve always enjoyed that. I find it amusing. I think in general their food is fun. They’re very serious cooks, but they’re also trying to have fun with their cooking.
On Whether Abolishing Tips Is A Good Idea.
Not to get too topical too quickly, but Olvera, last time we talked you said one of your big missions for this year was to figure out how to give your cooks a better life in New York. Danny Meyer just killed tipping at his places this week. When you see something like that, how does it make you feel?
Olvera: Fantastic. Great. I think it’s a relevant conversation for every restaurant to have, because starting January we’re going to have to make some changes. So I think a lot of restaurants will move into that direction. It’s great news, now that cooks will be able to eat at their own restaurants and afford the bill.
Have you thought about moving your restaurants over [to a no-tipping setup]?
Olvera: Yeah. We’re probably going to go…somewhere [with that]. We’re not going to announce it big [laughs].
Not in the New York Times, you mean?
Olvera: [Laughs] Right. No. But we’re probably going to do it.
Jordi, at Celler there’s not this enormous pay disparity between cooks and waiters that there is here, right?
Roca: No, no, no. Back home we have similar wage levels between kitchen staff and waiting staff. Common tips are shared between the kitchen and the dining room staff. There’s actually cases of people—say, someone that will work as a server, who started in the kitchen, and vice versa. So there’s also that interchange at play, the exchange of people that move from one area of the restaurant to another.
That’s fairly unheard of here—our front-of-house and kitchens are still pretty distinct fiefdoms from one another. Do you think it’s possible for those two cultures to merge in America like it’s merged in Europe?
Olvera: We were talking about this in Pujol last week. Cooking has changed so much in the last ten years. And service has changed so much [with it]. It’s important for it to change—not only in wages, but in the dynamic, in how people approach service in restaurants. It’s part of a bigger change in how restaurants will have to operate—due to wages, and just….the necessity of the customers. Because now, as restaurants, we’re competing with movies, theatre, other forms of entertainment.
“[Ending] tipping is a relevant conversation for every restaurant here to have. I think a lot of restaurants will move into that direction. It’s great news, now that cooks will be able to eat at their own restaurants. ”
And chefs might have to change how they do things as well. At Noma, for example, you’ve got cooks bringing out nearly every dish, and they’re not over-explaining things, they’re charming, they’ve really started working on mastering both sides of the house, making that transition seamless. At most places, cooks are not on the floor interacting with patrons and front-of-house. Cooks are generally known to be, um, brusque.
Olvera: You’re saying I’m not sociable?
Fine. Are all your cooks as sociable as you?
Olvera: I wish [laughs].
So how do you anticipate that change going?
Olvera: Each one of us will have to react differently, depending on the local economies. For example, in Mexico, it’s very easy to find waiters, because of the economy. But also it’s a culture of being hospitable. But as for New York? It’s harder to get good servers—people in general don’t want to be servers. They’re probably aspiring for another job. They’re waiting tables, but they don’t want to stay waiters for the rest of their lives. They’re not looking for a career in service—at least not a big part of [my] staff.
On Talent Gluts, Changing Kitchen Culture, and Chefs Holding Knives to Cooks’ Necks.
Another issue facing restaurants in New York right now seems to be a talent drain in the kitchen. Cooks aren’t as readily available.
Henry Molina: Also, they don’t want to be cooks, first—they want to be chefs, immediately. Do you think that the shift in wages could help the transient nature of the business, and maybe stem the issue of cooks hopping from place to place?
Olvera: Not just place to place—also, getting them to stay longer in New York. We see a lot of cooks leaving to go into some other city and some other place, because you get the same wage in a city that doesn’t have such a high cost of living, and you can make your money go so much further.
Jordi, is the issue of cooks wanting to graduate up the ranks too soon an issue in Spain?
Roca: Definitely. And not only that, but what’s happening now is an influx of people that work in other fields totally unrelated to food or cuisine. With all this exposure—these new TV shows about food, about cooking—we have people that now all of a sudden want to become not just cooks, but they want to become star chefs. Right now. And while it’s true and great that all these new shows and all this exposure has raised awareness about food, about cooking, about the different types of cuisine, it’s still a double-edged sword.
The conversations about what constitutes an “unhealthy” kitchen culture versus a healthy one are getting louder, and more defined—conversations about sexism, harassment, bullying, and so on. But the resistance to those conversations is that some people want to preserve the “pirate ship” mentality of kitchens. Is this conversation happening in Spain?
Roca: In every restaurant, people run their kitchens however they wish, or however they can. I’ve worked in our kitchen for the past 20 years, and while it’s also a family restaurant, run by a family, I’ve never encountered any hostile or aggressive atmospheres. Like I said: It’s a family restaurant, so respect and tolerance are an intrinsic part of the atmosphere. There’s no yelling. But at the same time, it hasn’t actually been something we’ve tried to enforce. It’s just been like that since the very beginning.
Olvera: I still beat the shit out of my employees. [Smiles]
Publicist: Please note that he’s joking.
Noted. But seriously…
Olvera: I’ve always thought that if you shout, it’s because you can’t talk, or you don’t know how to talk—a little lack of intelligence. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t produce the best results. I don’t see why you’d want to be an ass to your employees.
“The first job I had was in a famous French restaurant. Super high stress. I remember one time a cook put a knife on somebody’s throat. So I think, fortunately, a conversation has risen.
But that said, come on: We know a lot of really brilliant chefs who we also know shout. A lot.
Olvera: It’s an older generation. I think the younger generation of chefs who are much more educated in a broader perspective, their training was not only in the kitchen. They are well-read, well-traveled. We now realize how restaurants are a reflection of culture, and that [kind of atmosphere] will simply be unacceptable of modern cultures. Not only chefs being jerks to cooks, but also cooks being jerks to each other. This generation of cooks has much more consciousness about their behavior in the kitchen, and there’s that sense of collaboration. I do remember—to that point—the first job I had was in a famous French restaurant. Super high stress. [Pauses] I remember one time a cook put a knife on somebody’s throat. So I think, fortunately, a conversation has risen.
On Dessert vs. Savory.
Because we’re talking to a pastry chef, we’ve gotta ask—is it harder to make a great dessert than it is a great savory dish?
Roca: Any new creation entails a level of difficulty. It’s true that when it comes to pastries and desserts, there’s a technical complexity about it, but outside of that, I can tell you that there are desserts that have turned into savory dishes, and vice versa. We’re able to make different iterations of each course.
Olvera: Of course it’s harder! That’s why I’m not a pastry chef. But I guess everybody has different talents, and when you’re good at something, it seems very easy. [Pauses.] I don’t know. Probably not.
But it seems like the dishes that people take pictures of most, the dishes people remember the most all over the world are the pastry dishes. You know what this is like—the most Instagrammed, beloved dish here is a dessert.
Olvera: We thought it was going to be a taco.
Does it feel like a bit of a curse sometimes—that you’ve got such an iconic dish, and it won’t go away? And it probably overshadows so much of what happens elsewhere in the kitchen?
Olvera: Well, I do have to say: It’s a great dessert. [Laughs] I love it, too, so I can’t talk bad about it. It’s the end of the meal, right? In studies, they’ve shown that you always remember the first dish and the last dish. That’s pretty well-documented. In general, with me and the pastry staff, though, they don’t like me that much. Because I like weird desserts. I don’t like sugar.
On Mexico vs. Spain.
Spain’s full of brilliant chefs, but Mexico’s culinary evolution has been far slower. What’s in the water in Spain? And moreover, why has Mexico’s culinary rep taken so long to emerge on the global stage? And what are the commonalities?
Olvera: Mexico has a very strong Spanish influence. Our cooking is actually a combination of Spanish ingredients and techniques, and Colombian cuisine. As for the restaurant culture in Mexico, it’s fairly young. Mexican cuisine has been there for a long time, but it didn’t jump into restaurants until recently. Culturally, restaurants were more of a celebration, or a destination for the weekends, and most of us, as kids, stayed at home most of the time. That’s part of why Mexico has taken longer to develop more restaurants, and more chefs, that are doing Mexican cooking.
“That said, I really think the new culinary revolution—or restaurant revolution—I think it’s coming, and it’s going to take place in Mexico.”
It’s changing fairly fast now, and I think we’re catching up quickly. There are already a lot of Mexican chefs that are working at the same level as most restaurants in the world. Maybe they don’t have the spotlight yet, but soon enough, they will get it. Mexicans are also well-travelled now, and I think they’re generating a greater sense of movement within the country.
What about Spain?
Roca: It has to do with a very old and very rich gastronomic culture in Spain that revolves around having fun at the table. It is true that Ferran Adria was able to create a new vision of our cuisine in Spain. He broke a lot of taboos and encouraged a lot of other younger chefs to come forward, to travel the world, and to show what Spanish cuisine had to offer.
Something that’s worth mentioning is we begun holding gastronomic conferences fifteen years ago in Spain. Before that, people were very weary and very secretive about their recipes and techniques. Once we began all sharing our ideas, there were no longer that many secrets. Once this happens, then you have to re-invent yourself, and create new ones. The conferences catalyzed that whole new movement. That said, I really think the new culinary revolution—or restaurant revolution—I think it’s coming, and it’s going to take place in Mexico. Mexico after Spain—or Catalonia—has the second best food. I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about Mexico and its restaurants in the years to come. For sure.
On What Jordi Roca Eats In New York at 2am.
Last one. It’s 2AM, you’re drunk in New York, what’s your favorite thing to eat in the city?
Roca: Hot dog. I think. I once went to a bar—I’ll tell you which one it is.
We just really want to know what the world’s best pastry chef eats when he’s shit-faced at two in the morning.
Roca: PDT! It’s called PDT. They’re really good.