A “Culinary Opera” – The Roca Brothers: taking gastronomy to new depths of innovation

On the 6th May, The Arts Santa Mònica, Barcelona, saw a radical development in the world of gastronomy.

The Roca Brothers – owners of El Celler de Can Roca (the North-Eastern Catalonian restaurant recently voted into the ever-coveted top slot of the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards list) – premiered their new and exciting idea: a ‘Culinary Opera’ (yes, you did just read those two words together).

A tantalizing concept – yes, indeed – but does the experience itself sound as though it could live up to this endearing notion?  In short: absolutely.  The title itself – El Somni, which translates as ‘The Dream’ – gives you a little insight into what kind of experience this is intended to be: all consuming, extraordinary, removed from the real world.  It should be noted, however, that El Somni should not be conceived in a purely fantastical sense; it is not an experience of the bizarre and forcibly surreal but, rather, an environment unaffected by the influence of the outside world, created and manipulated in order to elicit pure states of, and the extremities of, human emotion.

This all sounds rather profound and intense…mainly because it is.  To what greater degree of intensity can be reached, after all, than to be immersed entirely in a delicate concoction of our world’s art forms?  It is this – this wholly absorbing, uniquely artistic experience – that is El Somni.  Gastronomy is, of course, at the heart of the work (I say ‘work’ because that’s exactly what it is: the result of collaborative, exceptionally accomplished craftsmanship) but where does the operatic element lie within this culinary ‘dream’?  Well, consider each course of the meal as an ‘act’ of an opera – a section of the complete work pertaining to a theme, the unveiling of an ambiguous emotion or desire or a storyline. Each course is designed to make you both feel and understand, and, resultantly – to understand what you feel.

The twelve courses, each with their own ‘theme’ through which they are intended to evoke certain emotive states, are accompanied by other art forms such as poetry, projected visual imagery and robotic musicians (innovation is, indeed, at the core of the project), taking the guests – the audience, if you will – on a journey, not only through the story of the ‘opera’ itself, but a journey of self-exploration.  You could, perhaps, call it intrusion at its most beautiful and sublime.  ‘Acts’ of the banquet include a variety of rather engaging titles, such as ‘Space’, ‘War’, ‘The Garden of Hesperides’ and ‘Carnality’, the courses of which contain food arrangements to match their particular imageries.  The cuisine for Act 9, ‘War’, for example, is Goose Royale complete with beetroot “blood droplets” and Act 7, ‘Carnality’, involves a rose theme – juice of pigeon hen breast displayed in the shape of a rose, accompanied by grilled roses and rose water droplets.  Similarly, Act 4, ‘Under the Sea’ is a delightfully varied seafood platter; and the final act, ‘Awakening/Sweet Spring’, resembles a Spring landscape – a candy floss “cloud”, flowers, honey, and even butterflies.  What’s more, each course is paired with a specially selected wine, each of which aspires to “stimulate new sensations”; “achieve new reactions.” Some of the wine on the menu even has not yet been distributed to the public.

So, what does this project mean to the Roca brothers and their ideals?  Firstly, it’s about familiarising and engaging with the human mind: “we want to see how human beings react, getting to know them better”; it’s about capturing a moment, and “pushing it to the limit”.  It’s about experimentation on the limits of human emotion, “expressing difficult emotion through dishes”.  Secondly, it’s about “cookery as a poetic language”: the freedom to express, to create, to refine, employing a new level of communication that encourages an opportunity to reflect, to encourage a heightened sense of familiarity with oneself.  Thirdly, it’s about challenge: a desire to explore the unexplored, to develop and perfect their craft: a craft that has, quite clearly, evolved from a deep-rooted and unwavering passion.

The twelve special guests of the Barcelona premier included leading figures in the fields of art, literature, science, music, film and gastronomy, amongst others, allowing the Roca brothers to first cater for the experts in the core constituents of El Somni (a rather challenging yet exciting prospect indeed).  Although the invitees of this initial presentation of the project were a select (and, it is probably quite safe to say, enviable) few, the Roca brothers are looking to expand El Somni out of Barcelona over the next couple of years, as it is an experience that they believe should be open to all. It goes without saying that this is, most certainly, something for the whole world to look forward to.

More on the restaurant from the website

words Jess Onacko


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