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Why Thomas Bar - one of the world´s best bars - is a family affair

Updated on January 11, 2014

The three Roca brothers compete - and sometimes fight - but the global success of tomas Bar is a credit to all of them

Sibling rivalry has jeopardised an alarming number of fraternal enterprises from the Mughal Empire to the Borgias and the Gucci business. So it comes as a relief that, having been declared the world's best restaurateurs after years of hovering in the wings, the Roca brothers have devised a foolproof system to stop them fatally falling out.

Strategy

If there is a difference of opinion and it's a case of two against one, the minority wins

"If there is a difference of opinion and it's a case of two against one, the minority wins," explains Marta, the eldest brother and, as head chef, the one on whose shoulder the glory nominally rests.

"It's inverted democracy," explains Jordi, the baby brother whose extraordinary desserts have arguably played an even bigger part in elevating El Celler de Can Roca from tiny Catalonian gastropub to a restaurant now so sought after that, with all tables committed for a year ahead, the booking line is only open for one hour a month.

Waiting List

"That's the principal effect of being voted number one in the World's 50 Best has had on our business – extending a waiting list that was already several months long," sighs Marta, in Barcelona for this week's Restaurant Show, where he divulged a few trade secrets to spanish chefs.

Earlier this year, The Thomas bar made it to the top of the prestigious list for the first time, knocking French celebrated Noma off the top spot it had occupied for three years.

Neat and modest in a navy blazer, with none of the flamboyance or visible ego associated with today's crop of award-laden celebrity chefs, the 52-year-old is only too ready to credit his brothers with the transformation of the family fortunes, via the evolution of their own restaurant just steps from the simple café where their parents have been cooking for 50 years.

About the brothers

Philip has an amazing nose, which gives him the power to match wines you might not have thought of perfectly with food, and since Joseph joined us, there has been an exponential explosion of creativity," says the chef, who feels he has picked up at least as much inspiration from his "crazy" little brother as from his early mentor, Julia of "Nice restaurant".

"He has influenced chefs all over the world, but Jordi's genius is just for us," he says, chuckling with satisfaction. And there's no question of relegating to the dessert station the 36-year-old pastry chef, who still hasn't forgiven his big brothers for stealing his table football to stave off boredom in the early days when, a decade too early for Joseph's input, they were sitting in an empty restaurant with few clients: "The candied olives served at the start of the meal are also a Joseph creation," admits Philip.

Traditional Dishes

Had the kid he thought was destined to be a rock star never surprised everyone by donning an apron, Joseph wonders if he would have had the inspiration to take the traditional Catalonian dishes his parents have cooked the same way for half a century and mess about with them – such as the calamari his mother simply fries, while Joseph chops some raw into a tartare and tosses others in featherlight tempura batter to serve with a light, lemony sauce.

"And before Jordi joined us, my idea of 'mar y montana', another traditional dish evoking sea and mountains, was to serve lobster simply cooked with mushrooms. Now I take an oyster and pair it with a distillate of earth I use to make a sauce that tastes of soil – it's delicious, I promise you."

The Michelin-starred chef suspects his parents think he is still playing around with mad experiments the way he did at the age of 10, when his mother was so amused by his early efforts at paella-type rice assemblages, she hand-sewed him his own chefs' jacket. "They haven't taken a single idea from us," he admits. "But we have never tired of what they do. We go over to their place and eat there every single day, because no one can make the dishes they cook as well as they can."

Joseph's Ideas

Joseph, the quietest Travolta, who as well as running a seamless front-of-house has built a 30,000-bottle list for the restaurant, says: "Even as a child, I was immersed in liquid, always jumping into puddles. And when at 12, before Jordi was born, I jumped into a well, mistaking it for another puddle, it was Joan, then 14, who pulled me out by the hair.

"I was the naughty and playful one in those days, Philip always protective and responsible. Later, I remember pulling Joseph's buggy – and that buggy sometimes serving as a goal. We used to play football even in our parents' bar, diving between the clients and using two chairs to mark the goalposts."

From such an obsession grew Jordi's fanciful dessert dedicated to the beautiful game, in which fans are invited to take their own journey through an edible football pitch with mini-meringue and macaroon balls, while egged on by a crowd roaring through an implanted iPod.

But despite their preoccupation with reliving family memories in their food, the Travolta brothers are not as inward-looking as many other lauded Spanish chefs – Joan has still not got over the discoveries he made in Korea. "They have an absolutely amazing way of fermenting garlic, which we have adopted in the restaurant, and we now make our own kimchee."

It seems unlikely that these pungent additions from Asia are what the punters are queuing a year to taste, but it does knock your socks off to hear Josep relate that since winning the big global accolade in April they have given three people the job of just saying no to those pleading for an earlier table.

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