October 24, 2010 by bethanjthomas
Last month my copy of Vanity Fair arrived at the doorstep and greeted me with news that El Bulli was closing.
I devoured the article in a matter of minutes as I’d long been interested in this fifty seat restaurant in the Costa Brava that closes its doors to customers for six months of the year but serves them thirty five courses when they are open. Reputed to be the best restaurant in the world, and adorned with three Michelin stars, three and a half million people try to visit each year. The article itself was a brief snap shot into the workings of the restaurant and their focus on food research and scientific techniques in cooking. But it left me wanting more…
So when I saw that the chef at El Bulli was coming to London to promote a biography that had been written about him by Colman Andrews, I booked a seat immediately.
Packed into the Royal Geographical Society, we were given a copy of the book – ‘Reinventing Food – Ferran Adria, The Man Who Changed The Way We Eat’ and eagerly say flicking through the pages, looking at pictures of solidified martini’s, liquid olives and truffle water. My mind boggled.
The scientific style of cooking that Adria pioneered has led many to thrust huge amounts of criticism on his shoulders, with some saying that his dishes should come with health warnings and that they are designed to impress rather than satisfy diners. The author of the book, Colman Andrews, certainly does not share in these opinions and structured the discussion to crush critics, despite the fact that few were to be found in the room.
As we were plunged into darkness, a fifteen minute video started the evening, showing the isolated surroundings of El Bulli and the locally sourced ingredients being transformed into haute cuisine dishes. The skinning of a rabbit was shown in graphic detail to the shock of many delicate ladies, but there were reassuringly no test tubes, defibrillators or liquid nitrogen on show. The visuals of the food and kitchen were stunning, showing food prepared with skill and traditional techniques along with considerable amounts of gelatine sheets and sferification.
Adria’s biographer could not contain his admiration for the Spanish chef, and spoke with wit and ease about the writing of the book and it’s importance in removing what he sees as the misconceptions of Adria’s cooking and of El Bulli itself. He spoke with charm, holding the audience’s attention with his anecdotes before handing over to the man himself.
Speaking in Spanish with a translator, Adria was humble, humorous and honest. Describing the fifteen years in which El Bulli couldn’t pay their staff any wages after they rebuilt their kitchen and became bankrupt, the foundation of their research kitchen in Barcelona, his work with Japanese chefs to develop his unique cuisine and the reaction of the press to him closing El Bulli’s doors to the public. I had a smile on my face as he spoke and it became easy to see how he has successfully managed a team of chefs with his natural charisma and drive. His story certainly seems to be an example of bloody single minded determination and passion for experimentation, creativity and food.
It is the ‘predictability’ of work at El Bulli that has led Adria to ‘take a break’ from the restaurant, but it will continue to run as an NGO, working on researching and creating food throughout the year and serving it’s creations to a select range of non-paying diners. Exceptionally lucky diners.
He was insistent that this did not mean the restaurant was closing, but it’s hard to see how it could reopen without becoming predictable. Given that I’ve never eaten at El Bulli and am unlikely to make it on to the select list of non-paying guests, I can only hope that the predictability of research gets Adria down at some point in the future and El Bulli’s doors can reopen. His food sounds exciting, interesting and unique. A once in a life time experience that very few people will ever have the chance to experience now.