When the news broke that El Cellar de Can Roca—consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in the world—was coming to cook two pop-up dinners in Denver in early November, it was a pretty big deal. Immediately, emails were sent and calls were made by local food writers (ahem), chefs, and food industry pros, all vying for an invitation. Because the meals, cooked by Jordi Roca, El Cellar’s pastry chef (and the youngest of the three famous Roca brothers), and his team, were once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Tasting the Roca’s food without international travel and extensive planning deemed a bit of pleading.

BBVA Compass has sponsored El Cellar’s “the Cooking Tour Experience” since 2013, sending the Roca team around the world, from Mexico to Hong Kong and Miami to Phoenix, to cook for and impress capital clients and prospects. Denver, where there are more than 40 BBVA branches, was a natural fit for a stop on the 2017 tour.

But as it turns out, the dinners—as avant garde and striking and memorable as they were—are not the real story, nor the best thing to come from the El Cellar visit to the Centennial State. What is: Two local culinary students are now heading to Spain for four months to learn alongside the Roca brothers and the staff at El Cellar.

During both dinners, twelve Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU) students and four of their culinary instructors worked behind the scenes to plate each of the ten courses just so. Four of the students attend MSU’s Hospitality, Tourism, and Events program, two study nutrition, and six are American Culinary Federation (ACF) apprentices. The latter receive 4,000 hours of on-the-job training and wages at “sponsor houses” (restaurants, hotels, catering companies, etc.) while taking weekly classes at MSU; it takes two years to complete the program, which is run in partnership with Emily Griffith Technical College. Chef Jackson Lamb, an MSU associate professor of hospitality, helped to organize the students’ participation in the El Cellar pop up kitchen, which included applying by submitting a resume and letter of intent.

The students and their instructors worked side by side with the Roca team of nine and Jordi Roca himself, putting in about 40 hours over four days. They used squeeze bottles to drop a licorice-infused cream mixture into a can of liquid nitrogen, where each drop instantly froze into a perfect “pearl” (think Dippin’ Dots). It took five students five hours to make enough pearls for the 200 dessert plates. They dipped frozen spheres of sweetened Campari into melted cocoa butter, watching as the butter solidified into a thin shell; served at room temperature, the amaro having returned to liquid inside the shell, the bonbons exploded in the mouth in a rush of bittersweet flavor. And, finally, the students worked in two teams to assemble the 2,000 individual plates that made up the two dinner’s 10 courses.

On Thursday morning, Jordi Roca gave a presentation to a class of MSU students that weren’t on the team of twelve. In tandem with a translator and a video, Roca explained, in whispers of Spanish—he’d completely lost his voice—how El Cellar works. There are 70 staff members that contribute to feeding 50 nightly guests. There is a Catalan country house, La Masia, adjacent to the restaurant, where the El Cellar team studies, experiments in culinary and sensory laboratories, and plays foosball; there’s even a staff psychologist to provide emotional support. Roca also shared the El Cellar “Creative Method,” which spans concepts like freedom and memory, landscape and perfume. The students were rapt.

Finally, after the second night’s guests had eaten and sipped and wondered what it would be like to do so in Girona, two students were awarded a four-month, all-expenses paid stage (training session) at El Cellar de Can Roca. Eosther Fajardo-Anstine, one of the winners, shared her excitement with us: “I am more than honored—when they announced my name my jaw dropped! I’m most excited to learn the skills of the Roca Brothers, but also to learn how they think,” Fajardo-Anstine says. “I’m truly excited to see how my career and style of cooking changes after this internship!”

Brandon Hart, the winning ACF Colorado apprentice, felt the same. “Working with the El Celler de Can Roca team was unforgettable. I am still in shock about the win and cannot believe that I have this opportunity,” Hart says. “I will do my best to represent the ACF while studying in Spain, and I will show team Roca that they made the right choice.”

“These two students will be just like any other members of our team,” Roca says, “and will work their way through each section of the restaurant. But they will also study in our training facility, La Masia, across a number of disciplines, from botany to science to technology to oenology. They will be a part of the El Cellar de Can Roca family.”

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.