What happens when you unleash some of the country’s top gastropub operators on the best restaurant in the world? Top 50 Gastropubs tags along on the culinary excursion of a lifetime, to El Celler de Can Roca…
James MacKenzie is carousing what is probably one of the biggest restaurant kitchens in Europe – a behemoth of an operation with over 40 chefs each dedicated to the tiniest of tasks, surrounded by equipment that wouldn’t look out of place on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. He’s awestruck.
MacKenzie, chef patron of the Michelin-starred Pipe and Glass Inn, in Yorkshire, along with numerous other operators whose pubs were listed in this year’s prestigious Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs, has been invited by the Spanish brewer to visit the three Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, currently crowned the best eatery in the world by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
For Mackenzie and the group of fellow British operators that includes Andrew Fishwick of Maida Vale’s Truscott Arms, Michael Buurman, owner of the Empress in Hackney and Matthew Edmonds, chef patron of the Grantley Arms in Wonersh, Surrey, the trip is a pilgrimage.
The night before travelling to El Celler de Can Roca, the group dine at El Nacional, a “multi space” restaurant with four dining areas, each focusing on a different area of traditional Spanish cuisine: charcoal grilled meats, griddled, baked and steamed fish, a Taperia serving traditional small plates and a Paradeta, the Spanish interpretation of a fast deli restaurant.
Do they think the concept works? The atmosphere is buzzing and the place is full to the brim, the group admits. But, one chef concedes, he can’t help but feel like El Nacional’s concept is perhaps overly ambitious, leaving it feeling like a high-end food court rather than a singular dining establishment.
Fishwick of the Truscott Arms says he relishes the chance to go and experience different concepts and business models.
“It’s absolutely vital and it’s something I don’t do enough of,” he says. “In pubs we need to be looking at what street food is doing, what pop-ups are doing, what fine dining is doing, what classical dining is doing and taking it and using the bits that are relevant.
“Obviously not everything is – it would be silly to claim so – but there are so many elements from the service, to the style of the décor to the approach to ingredients, flavour combinations and drinks pairings that you can learn from.”
El Celler de Can Roca is run by three brothers, Joan (head chef), Josep (sommelier) and Jordi (pastry chef) and, situated in an expansive, walled-off compound in a leafy suburb of Girona, produces food that – to the untrained eye – is about as far away from gastropubs as you can get.
After a brief coach journey from Barcelona – during which the majority sleep off the previous evening of riojas and riberas – the group are given an exclusive glimpse into the kitchen at work.
Over the course of roughly three hours, MacKenzie, Fishwick and the rest of Estrella’s guests sample a barrage of dishes – from modernist twists on classic Spanish dishes to the downright avant garde.
Highlights include red mullet with prickly pear foam, sea anemone, Salicornia and Katsuobushi vinegar and “semi-liquid prawn”, marinated with rice vinegar and served with prawn’s head sauce, crispy legs, seaweed velouté and phytoplankton – both of which elicit a symphony of joyous groans from the party, now a fair few wines deep into a paired flight.
It’s not so much in the technique, but the attitude where the gastropubs operators draw similarities between El Celler and their own businesses, particularly in the way the Roca brothers pay homage to the surrounding terroir.
“There’s so much local and seasonal produce,” explains MacKenzie. “They’re using St George’s mushrooms for instance (St George is the patron saint of Catalonia as well as England and are served at El Celler in a miniature brioche with an accompanying bonbon). It’s funny to see that – they draw so much on the local area and the selection of local wines really matches the food.
“You have the very traditional elements [on the menu] which are then totally modernised, which is the way a lot of gastropubs operate – they take traditional, British pub grub and build on it, creating what we have which is a mixture of fine dining and pub food.”
Elements of several of the traditional dishes tried the previous evening at El Nacional are present but ‘modernised’, as the operators put it.
For instance, in place of traditional rock mussels there is a single ‘escabeche’ mussel served as an amuse-bouche and caramelised olive ice creams are delivered to the table at the beginning of the meal in place of the real ones so commonly picked at in Spanish restaurants the world over.
It’s fundamental – not just as a chef but as a hospitality business owner – to eat in as many different places, high and low-end, as you can to push your points of reference, Mackenzie says.
“You may not be going to take the dishes you’ve had somewhere like [El Celler] and put them on at the Pipe & Glass but you absolutely get the inspiration from going to places like that.”
For the chef, who earned his culinary stripes in the pub trade, working closely with Andrew Pern at the revered Star Inn in Harome, Yorkshire before opening his own award winning pub (which is currently in second place in the Top 50 Gastropubs), it’s a mark of the recognition pubs are winning in the gastronomic arena that he and his peers are there.
Pastry chef Jordi Roca is known for taking inspiration for his desserts from the world of perfumes, analysing the aromas and elements that make up a fragrance then recreating that fragrance with edible components.
The “Turkish Perfume” dessert, with rose, peach, saffron, cumin, cinnamon and pistachio served on this occasion is based on a perfume created by the Rocas themselves. It’s followed by “Orange colourology”, which resembles a small, glass balloon until it is cracked open and eaten.
The desserts leave Matt Edmonds, chef patron of the Grantley Arms in Wonersh, Surrey, in a state of disarray.
But whilst the trip has provided Edmonds with a healthy dose of inspiration, he says the people of Wonersh may have to wait a while before they start seeing Roca-esque creations gracing their plates.
“I don’t think they’re quite ready for that,” he laughs. But, he goes on to say, gastropub chefs should not dwell so heavily on what does or does not constitute ‘proper’ pub food.
“To me a pub is a pub,” he says. “If you can go in and have a beer and some nuts and a burger, it’s still a pub regardless of whether I have a more restaurant-style dining room or a private dining room doing high-end food.
“You’re still fundamentally a pub – you can go to the bar and have a pint pulled for you regardless of what you’re serving.”
And it’s not just the food and service on this trip that Edmonds has found inspiring. “You’ve got so many different venues from the Top 50 that are here and it’s really funny to hear the stories and the trials and tribulations that we all go through.”
As well as chefs like Edmonds and MacKenzie, several of the Top 50 Gastropubs are represented on the trip by their front of house and general managers, including Melvyn Strange, GM of Newcomer of the Year-winning site the Kentish Hare in Bidborough, Kent.
“With the front of house managers and GMs, it’s interesting to see their points and pick up information and tips that you can try because [as a chef] you face different types of issues.”
And for the whole group, Josep Roca’s sublime wine pairings provide surprises and inspiration.
“The whites were very European (Rieslings, Savigny-les-Beaune, Vigneti delle Dolomiti),” says Edmonds. “But the reds were from much closer to home (Ribera, Priorat, Penedés).”
Fishwick adds: “The pairings unsurprisingly focused on Spain, but with a few exceptions such as a remarkable 2007 Rebolz Albersweiler Gewürztraminer.
“Josep’s taste was more on the ‘natural’ wine scale than I usually appreciate but that said, it was wonderful to be shown wines that I would never have picked. The section was so varied – and so perfectly matched – that it is hard to pick out favourites.”
However, you get the sense that the 2004 Loxarel 109 – the first organic Cava Fishwick has ever tasted – as well as the 2011 Mazoni, will not be quickly forgotten when he returns to his London pub, which has already been the recipients of numerous awards (including Top 50 Gastropubs’ own) for its stellar wine offer.
Like all beautiful moments in life, even a meal the length and breadth of that served at El Celler de Can Roca must come to an end. The bus back to Barcelona beckons, as does an evening of wine and endless discussions over just how good ‘that’ prawn dish was. Ni modo, así es la vida.
(Words by Daniel Woolfson)