Jordi and the chocolate factory: the story behind the Roca family’s new Casa Cacao project

William Drew - 28/02/2020

Comprising a boutique hotel, chocolate atelier, cafe and shop, Casa Cacao opened in the Roca brothers’ hometown of Girona last week. The joint brainchild of El Celler de Can Roca pastry chef Jordi Roca and Anna Payet, wife of Joan Roca, the new initiative takes in unique chocolates and pastries, sumptuous accommodation, local history and international research. In this exclusive interview, 50 Best asks the two protagonists about turning their dreams into reality

Casa Cacao combines a hotel and a chocolate workshop. How did this come about?

Anna Payet: We both had our own dreams – and suddenly we had the chance to buy this old building and realised it could host these dreams. So the Casa Cacao chocolate workshop, shop and bar have a hotel in their upper floors, and the Casa Cacao hotel has a chocolaterie in its basement.

Jordi Roca: Yes, we share two dreams in one house: mine, to have a chocolate factory and bar where people could see how we work from the street; and Anna’s, to manage her own hospitality project and hotel. 

Jordi, tell us about the chocolate side of this venture...

JR: We have a chocolate factory, shop and bar where we create and serve our own chocolates following a bean-to-bar philosophy. It’s a venue to visit, with chocolates to buy and taste, and even roasted cocoa beans. In the shop, we offer six different chocolates with unique origins and vintages created from beans directly imported from the farmers and communities. These six origins include the Dominican Republic; Peru – where we buy the beans from the awajun community in the Peruvian Amazon area; from the arhuacos community in Sierra Nevada, Colombia; from Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. We also have five different types of chocolate bonbon boxes that we will change each season with new creations, as well as cocoa creams to spread, liquid chocolate, cocoa beans roasted at Casa Cacao, cocoa nibs and chocolate pieces with and without nuts.
Casa Cacao chocolates

And there’s a cafe-bar, too?

JR: Bar Cacao, next to the shop, is a degustation space – the perfect place to taste our homemade pastries, as well as liquid hot and cold chocolates, coffees and bonbons. Pastries include: fartonne, which is a sweet and elongated sort of brioche made from panettone dough that is ideal to dip into hot chocolate; our pain au chocolatxuixos, a sweet pastry typical of Girona and filled with chocolate; and our brownie, that instead of walnuts has the crunchiness of small pieces of cocoa beans. Everything is made with lots of love.

Anna, the hotel is your domain…

AP: Yes, my experience with the Roca family has nourished me with knowledge and values. The hotel was the result of taking the chance to make a dream come true. Rather than developing an obvious cacao-themed hotel, we have tried to be subtle, inspired by the organic colours of cacao beans as they mature, from mustard yellows, to browns and beiges, a touch of green from the cacao trees and also the grey of the stones of Girona’s historic streets. Each one of the rooms is enchanting. We have taken deep care in designing all of them, working once again with Sandra Tarruella, our entrusted interiors studio, which knows us very well from El Celler de Can Roca and Rocambolesc [ice cream parlour] projects. I have personally tested and slept in all of the rooms before considering them finished. Some pieces of furniture have been specially designed, such as our tables, one in marble, another in wood. They are rooms to be touched, where the textures transmit lightness, warmth and freshness. The silence and comfort, the restful and calm feeling – this has been our sensory focus. This very feeling is the door for love.
The 'cocoa bean' junior suite 

Is there a small detail of the hotel that you love?

AP: The first time I saw the facade of the building, before starting the refurbishment works, I noticed two ironwork birds that grabbed my attention on the first-floor balconies. I remember entering the old building and climbing upstairs to find those balconies to see those birds closer. That was the moment I knew, looking through that balcony, that the building was the place to create a new stage of my life. Those birds became the logo of Casa Cacao.

What is the crossover between Casa Cacao and El Celler de Can Roca, which is now part of the Best of the Best group within The World’s 50 Best Restaurants?

AP: First, hospitality. It is a key moto for the hotel and for the restaurant. Hospitality is an attitude, a way of understanding life, inside and outside of business.

JR: The [Casa Cacao] workshop is influencing my work at El Celler, no doubt about it. Actually, we already have a dessert on our menu that is an homage to bean-to-bar philosophy. It’s an oversized cocoa bean made of cocoa mousse from the Amazonian arhuacos community. It’s very intense and with an infusion made of its peels. 

AP: Every stay at Casa Cacao includes a special breakfast experience created by Joan Roca in the exclusive rooftop terrace, which is only for the hotel guests. Here you can have breakfast and relax while enjoying wonderful views of the Old City of Girona. We serve a breakfast designed by Joan with excellent crafted local products and, of course, chocolate is always present!
A corner of Casa Cacao's terrace

And will you alert diners booking a reservation at El Celler de Can Roca to Casa Cacao?

AP: As far as we have availability, yes. But not all the guests of Casa Cacao are foodies or have a reservation at El Celler de Can Roca; we are open-minded in offering warm accommodation to all travellers that wish to visit the wonderful city we live in. I love introducing them to our city’s history and culture from the roof terrace. The plants on the rooftop are Mediterranean bougainvillea, lavender, cypress – which is a tree that in our culture symbolises hospitality – rosemary and thyme.

Anna, explain how you came to join the Roca family business?

AP: When El Celler de Can Roca was just starting and Jordi was only three years old, Joan combined his job as a cooking teacher at the Hospitality School [where Anna was a tutor in tourism studies] with the restaurant project he shared with his brother, Josep. At that time, it was a small restaurant, with a couple of tables and very few customers. I went to help them at the weekends. During the evenings, when I was in reception or in the Can Roca dining room, I realised that my skills were more customer than kitchen oriented. I love the personal relationships, listening and getting to know people. From Can Roca to the first El Celler, and from El Celler to the banquet business, I covered a lot of ground over the years before taking charge of the Cap Roig music festival project. I remember the beginning with a lot of affection and nostalgia because it was a time with a lot of work, but less stress.

This professional training with the family has been essential for me. I remember how I used to hide because I didn’t know what to do. But I generously received the necessary knowledge in an environment where the energy was incredible. Without realising it, I became one of the first stagiaires at El Celler – a role that has been repeated in the family: first with Xani, Josep’s wife, who also joined the family restaurant. Years later, it was my other sister-in-law, Alejandra, who came to do a stage at Jordi’s dessert station before becoming his wife and partner in the Rocambolesc business adventure.
Jordi Roca, Damian Allsop and cocoa beans

Is the chocolate workshop a partner to the Rocambolesc ice cream business?

JR: They are two different roads that can cross at some point, but for now they are two different languages to express my love for the sweet world.

What prompted you to further explore the chocolate world?

JR: The idea of the project came to us at the restaurant when I considered a challenge with my brothers: “Would we be able to make our own chocolate?” We made it, at El Celler, and it was good. The experiment coincided with the reincorporation at our team of Damian Allsop, who had been my master in the pastry world. After working with us in that first stage, he developed a specialisation in chocolate, but neither he nor I had ever developed it from zero. This has been a new challenge for both of us.

We have dived into the world of chocolate with total immersion. We have studied its varieties, its different fermentations and conducted rigorous research and testing, as well embarking on field trips to select the finest cocoa beans from the finest plantations we have discovered.

You recently published a book, also called Casa Cacao. What was the inspiration for that?

JR: I knew how to work with chocolate, but the trip [through Latin America] related in the book was a profound education and central to my understanding of what is behind cocoa – the people that live and worship it. Although the original idea was to travel to Latin America to establish relationships with many of the local growers to supply cocoa to Casa Cacao in Girona, in the end it changed the whole creative process for me, causing me to revisit what I thought I knew about chocolate.
Casa Cacao's chocolate and Jordi's cocoa bean-inspired dish

What have you learnt from working with one another?

JR: Anna’s enthusiasm is very contagious; she is a great organiser and has an incredible amount of energy and good vibes.

AP: Jordi’s approach to cocoa is encyclopedic; I have learnt so much about chocolate. His enthusiasm, sense of humour and his way of always looking outside the box has been really enriching.

Finally, Jordi, how has the relationship between you and your brothers evolved?

JR: Maturity teaches you what it is really important, which is authentic relationships, such as those I have with my brothers.

Header images: Jordi Roca and Anna Payet; Casa Cacao's hot chocolate

The Best of the Best group was created in 2019 and comprises all the venues that have topped the list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants over its history. Members of the Best of the Best are no longer eligible to be voted in the annual lists.

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