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A Chat with El Celler de Can Roca's New Apprentices From Houston

Meet the two Houston Art Institute students picked as apprentices to one of the world's best restaurant.

BBVA Compass has announced the names of the Roca brothers apprentices. Four Texas culinary students won apprenticeships with the Roca brothers at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain for next year. Earlier this summer, the trio closed shop and spent five weeks with their entire restaurant staff on a six-city Roca & Roll World Tour. During the tour, the brothers had the chance to meet with Art Institute culinary students in Dallas and Houston, selecting two from each location to join them on a four-month once-in-a-lifetime apprenticeship at their restaurant.

In addition to hands-on experience at El Celler -which was ranked one of Restaurant Magazine's World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2013- each student will receive expense-paid airfare, lodging and meals sponsored by Spanish BBVA. The company is funding the scholarships as part of their three-year partnership with the restaurant.

Eater caught up with Houston winners Beatriz Martines and Carol Bonner to hear their reactions and expectations on being awarded this extraordinary opportunity.

Why did you apply for the Roca apprenticeship?
Beatriz Martines: I applied to participate in the Roca event to work with the best and learn from best. To be one of the best you have to learn from the best. Doing [an] apprenticeship with the Rocas is like winning the lottery as there are students from all over the world [who] wait 3-4 years to be accepted for [an] apprenticeship. I feel very fortunate and honored to be part of this dream.
Carol Bonner: Initially I was asked if I would like to volunteer to help the Roca team when they came to Houston for their Roca and Roll tour sponsored by BBVA. I was not aware at the time that an apprenticeship was being offered. I was just thrilled to work in the kitchen along side them. After working in the kitchen for a approximately a week is when I found out about the apprenticeship. I was excited and thrilled to be in a group of individuals that were being considered for such an awesome opportunity. I continued to work hard and more than anything I tried my best to absorb as much information from the experience as I possibly could. I saw this as an experience of a lifetime and I am so honored to have been chosen.

What skills do you hope to add to your repertoire through the experience at El Celler de Can Roca?
Martines: Chef Joan Roca is a pioneer in sous-vide, a technique where food is vacuum packed and cooked in water. That is a skill I would love to master. I know there are other techniques the Rocas use that create magical wonders. [I] would like to come back to Houston and share with other students, co-workers, and offer everyone this magic the Rocas provide in Spain.
Bonner: There are so many skills I am looking forward to adding to my repertoire. From the impeccable Sous vide techniques that Chef Joan possesses to the creativity and presentation genius of Chef Jordi on the dessert side [and] even the amazing pairings of wine by the sommelier Josep. I truly see learning and gaining valuable insight from all three dimensions.

In what ways do you expect your experience during the apprenticeship to impact your career interests and goals?
Martines: What I am going to learn firsthand at El Celler de Can Roca will be fundamental to reach my goals. It will also give me certain prestige having learned from the Rocas.
Bonner: The impact has been tremendous already. The skills I gained while working with them briefly in Houston have been phenomenal. The apprenticeship is an opportunity of a lifetime. Not many can say they have worked alongside and been trained by "world renowned" or Michelin Star winning chefs. My desires to be a success have been further challenged. I realize that being a culinary innovator is important, however, having a distinct purpose and reason behind the culinary creations is also important. The Roca Brothers have a story to tell behind each dish they create. It is a subtle message but it is felt from working in the kitchen, to watching the process and in the end tasting the creation. I want my career to have that type of impact on my clients. I want my story to be told through my creations. I want my heartbeat to felt.

In what ways do you feel your background will influence what you are able to gain during the apprenticeship experience?
Martines: Being a leader [and] maintaining positivity and not finding excuses to not accomplish a goal will help me with the apprenticeship. Being a cafeteria manager for CyFair ISD for many years and feeding hundreds of kids while maintaining a clean environment in the cafeteria plays a big role. I am currently sous chef at La Fisheria by Chef Aquiles Chavez which is a big responsibility to lead the kitchen crew and provide a great experience to our customers. Learning from the Art Institute and the great teachers there has also helped me reach my goals. The teachers/chefs have taught me to think big. Learning will never end. Everyday is a new learning experience.
Bonner: I have been cooking for clients for many years and at 51 years of age I decided to return to school. I enrolled at the International Culinary School of the Art Institute in Houston. I made the decision to go back to school to fulfill a dream and my children were instrumental in the decision as well. I come from a family of chefs and cooks. My father was a cook in the Army and owned several small restaurants. My maternal grandmother was an extraordinary cook. My father and grandmother laid the foundation. Also, working with my sister as a caterer has been an awesome experience. From clients to family traditions I have expanded my cooking skills, by curiosity, necessity and desire. I believe more than anything that those things have given me the drive to learn new things, explore new realms and to chase my dreams. It's never too late to learn and to follow your dreams; and if the drive is in you, you can get to your destination.

Are there any specific cooking techniques or ingredients you look forward to learning and/or working with in Spain?
Bonner: There are so many things I want to learn. It is hard to narrow it down to a few. However, I do want to learn more about the sous vide cooking method. As far as ingredients go...there is no limit. I would love to focus on local and fresh ingredients. That is one of my greatest ambitions is to focus on locally sourced ingredients and utilizing what is in season when cooking. I look forward to working with the seafood and local meats.

Likewise, any dishes you hope to learn how to make?
Martines: There's nothing like learning how to make a Paella from a Spaniard using ingredients from Spain.
Bonner: Making traditional paella would be great. Also, during the time the Roca Brothers were here for the Roca and Roll tour, they made so many extraordinary dishes. The roasted suckling piglet was awesome and all of the desserts were exceptional. To sum it up, I want to learn as much as I possibly can during my stay in Spain.

Have you taken part in any internships/apprenticeships in the past at other places or with other chefs?
Martines: My best experience has been doing [an] apprenticeship with Celebrity Chef Aquiles Chavez at La Fisheria here in Houston. There I have been able too meet and work alongside other professionals. I've also done an apprenticeship at Tex-Mex restaurant "7 Leguas" in Montgomery/Conroe where its a fast-paced environment which is great training.
Bonner: I have worked with several chefs in the past catering or helping to start up restaurants. I have learned a great deal and appreciate all the opportunities given to me. Of course the time spent with the Roca team in August was transforming. However, in the past working directly with Chef Sean Perrodin was a delight too.

Do you naturally gravitate to the style or specialties of one of the Roca brothers (wine, pastry, savory)? Do you particularly want to focus on one of those areas during your apprenticeship?
Martines: I want to learn it all. But If I have to choose I would incline more to the savory and working alongside the kitchen staff that is in charge of the cooking and tasting.
Bonner: I love the idea of working with all three specialties. At this time I want to just gain as much experience and knowledge as I can during my apprenticeship. However, if I had to choose then I would lean towards savory and pastry.

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