The Catalan genius of molecular gastronomy is tired of cooking people meals, and is set on closing his restaurant El Bulli. But the final few months, and very last meal, is the maximum of foodie exclusivity.
ROSAS - This is a farewell dinner, a sort of epilogue to a story that began 25 years ago, when El Bulli was just another hole in the wall where people would go to have a tomato salad in between dips in the nearby sea.
We are in the Cala Montjoi, a bay on Catalonia's Costa Brava, 150 km north of Barcelona. On July 30, this lost paradise – which is accessible only by a torturous road, or by sea – will see its famous El Bulli close its doors. Restaurants nowadays close by the dozen, of course, but it is rare to see a Michelin three-star do so, especially one whose chef, the Catalan Ferran Adria, is considered the best in the business (the British magazine Restaurant named him the world's best chef from 2006 to 2009) and the epitome of conceptual cuisine.
One evening earlier this month, on May 6 at El Bulli, a total of 47 plates were displayed before our eyes from 8:30 p.m. and midnight. They were served at a furious pace by 25-year-old waiters, all dressed in black, who coolly described each dishe. That night, we were able to experience everything that has made the reputation of the place: a fixed menu, no bread, no knife, plenty of tapas to eat with our hands or with a spoon, frothy or liquid delicacies, a shocking gap between appearance and taste, a deconstruction of food into emulsions.
The experience falls somewhere between bewilderment and sheer pleasure. "El Bulli isn't just a restaurant, it is a journey into the unknown," says Jérôme Malet. Owner of the Sarda Malet wine label in the French city of Perpignan, he is a frequent visitor to Cala Montjoi. "El Bulli is a spectacle," says one of the waiters.
The legend of the place is built on Adria's exquisite cuisine, but also on its lack of accessibility. El Bulli serves dinner for a mere 50 people each evening, and only during the warmest six months of the year. Two million people compete each year for only 8,000 settings.
Dishes of extreme complexity contrast with the restaurant's pizzeria-style decor, dark ceiling beams and rustic chairs. In the mineral-cold atmosphere of the kitchen, 50 staff members - all in the 20 to 30-year-old age range - work in a space of 350 square meters.
Before closing its doors for good July 30, the restaurant will have the time to receive and amaze another 3,000 lucky guests. They will be given the chance to taste a sort of El Bulli's "best of" dishes of the past 10 years. Many will come especially for Ferran Adria, the undisputed star of El Bulli. He has already planned out the final evening: "I have invited six or seven top chefs who have rated El Bulli. Staff members and their families will also be present. Friends will arrive by boat for the party. It will be lovely," Adria says.
In the global world of cuisine, no one really understands why Ferran Adria – who has only turned 49 –, announced, on Jan. 26 last year, that he would close down his restaurant. Still at the height of his career, his fame could bring him enough customers to fill El Bulli for the next 10 years. To many, his untimely bowing out had to be hiding something.
There is hardly the time to question him about the circulating rumors. He brushes such queries aside with a smile: "They think I am sick? I've never been in better shape. They say I'm financially ruined? I do not lack money. They say my cooking is bad for the health? Fifty people dine at the restaurant every evening; we cut up the hare right here in the kitchen, we take the peas from their pods. This is not chemistry what we are doing. But avant-garde cuisine always stirs up controversy."
Ferran Adria and his associate Juli Soler were also rumored to be locked in an obscure legal proceeding over the ownership of El Bulli. "It's not true," Adria says, "they are trying to discredit me. (…) For a long time, I just couldn't understand why there is all this talk about me. And then I understood. El Bulli is not simply a restaurant, but a social and cultural phenomenon."
The truth is that Ferran Adria is simply fed up after having spent the last 25 years preparing food every day. He had the feeling of "going to the factory." He says that he "could continue, but I am at the peak – I have received all the awards, I am in all the guides, what more could I hope for? Above all, I would lose my creativity. And it's good to leave the path open for other chefs. So I only have two possibilities: to close the restaurant and take a vacation for the rest of my life, or continue on a different path, invent a different style of creative restaurant."
The Catalan chef chose the second option: he will close his restaurant, and for the next two years, he will take a step back, reflect, teach at Harvard University in the United States, write books and go to conferences. "For the next couple of years, I am going to keep and continue paying my 10 closest associates," he says.
Then, in 2014, he and Juli Soler will open a private academy that will take the place of El Bulli, which will be converted into a museum. The new buildings will be built in the garden, including an algae pool for experiments. The academy will be a center of creation and research on products, different techniques and ties between cuisine, design, the visual arts and architecture. No other chef has ever done something like this before.
For whom is Adria building this? For everyone, he says: for the public and the chefs themselves, who will be able to see the results of the research carried out by the El Bulli Foundation on its Internet site. "The 50 people who can now eat at El Bulli every night is nothing compared to the thousands of people whom I have influenced and who unfortunately could never come here. Thanks to the foundation, everyone will be able to apply our culinary experiments in their own kitchens."
Ferran Adria says he will continue cooking for people – children, teenagers, foodies or friends that he will invite over to his home. He, Juli Soler and other sponsors will finance the foundation. "We will have 8 million euros in 2014. I am confident that the money will come because we are a myth. It may be a disaster. But I have always functioned this way, always being free, and I have never failed."
Read the original article in French.
Photo - Charles Haynes