EL BULLI, KNOWN AMONG chefs and the people who follow them as the best restaurant in the world, performed its final dinner service last summer. Since then, the man behind the restaurant has been busy, among other things, teaching a culinary physics course at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In what forum or form we will next experience the food of chef Ferran Adrià is a mystery. But in the meantime, we have reading material and time to sort out just how much the man has altered the international culinary landscape — and which of his innovations will be but beautiful, passing follies, a chef’s bravado that called on ephemera like air and foam to bring him the fame of the world.
Sometime around the year 2002, public consensus conferred upon Adrià the title of Greatest. For little more than the chance to chop his garlic, world-class chefs left their nests and headed to Spain to work at the globe’s most famous restaurant, the place that had pioneered what the chef called avant-garde cuisine. There, Adrià and his staff playfully mixed flavors and ingredients and served them up in unexpected forms, as in an early dish of smoked tuna with gelatin triangles made from tomato, licorice, and pistachio and garnished with figs and pine nuts. In the service of deconstruction, he has forgone carrot soup to serve carrot air with mandarin orange accents (made with the help of a siphon bottle equipped with nitrous oxide cartridges). Another dish, a concentrate of green peas that arrived in a spoon, looked and moved exactly like an egg yolk: it was dinner as trompe l’oeil. International travelers flocked to the tiny town of Roses, where they were told not only what they were eating, but how to eat it. Serving a single strand of spaghetti and parmesan, a waiter might instruct: “Try to do it complete. Put it in your mouth and suck.”
According to Adrià, each year two million requests came in for 8,000 spaces available at El Bulli (which served 50 diners per night, 160 days per year). Not surprisingly, restaurants from all over the world picked up Adrià’s signal that food could be more than nourishment; it could express ideas about form and function. It could be art. Adrià was compared to his compatriots Picasso and Dali, who had lived just a few miles from El Bulli on the Costa Brava.
For El Bulli’s final service, Adrià’s menu stretched beyond even its usual ambitious standards, encompassing 49 courses, starting with a dry martini featuring the restaurant’s trademark spherified olives — a teaspoon of pureed olive wrapped in a thin, transparent oval skin which bursts in the mouth to release its flavour (made with the help of sodium alginate and calcium chloride). It was an appropriate public send-off for chef and restaurant alike. The following night was devoted to family and friends, a grace note to the 20-plus years of Adrià’s tenure at El Bulli.
Since 1987, El Bulli had been closing its doors for six months out of each year since 1987, reopening in the warm months, when Roses swells with tourists. The lengthy breaks provided Adrià with the opportunity to travel, and to research and develop new techniques and new dishes. The generous dose of R&D time is one of the several...read more