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“Hey guys, we have a big surprise,” Jaume Marin, marketing director for Costa Brava tourism, has a grin so wide it makes the Cheshire Cat’s look like the Mona Lisa’s. “Tomorrow we aren’t going on a balloon ride over the Croscat volcano, we’re going to El Bulli to meet Ferran Adriá.”
There are whoops of delight. I’m pretty sure someone faints. I’m gutted.
“We’re going where…to meet who?” I whisper under my breath.
Twenty four hours and a bit of Google searching later I’m standing at the gates to culinary heaven above a tranquil cove at Cala Montjoi. Around me, people talk about the man described by many as the world’s greatest chef in reverential terms. I’m still smarting at missing out on the balloon ride and the Google search revealed that not everyone worships at the El Bulli altar. The late Santi Santamaria, another renowned Catalan chef, said that Ferran Adriá’s culinary creations were designed to impress rather than satisfy and suggested he was putting the health of his diners at risk. A German writer went as far as saying that he was poisoning people with additives. Descriptions of his culinary foam sound pretentious in the extreme. I’m prepared to be not impressed.
El Bulli Restaurant
El Bulli is rather nondescript from the outside. The setting is lovely but the building ordinary. There is no wheelchair access and a wheelchair user in the group has to be carried up to the entrance. This surprises me.
El Bulli’s interior also takes me by surprise. I’m not sure what I expected, something chic, stylish, ultra modern perhaps; instead it’s cosily homely, almost old fashioned.
The kitchen, on the other hand, is modern, minimalist and sparklingly clean. It is also very, very quiet despite the fact that there are about 15 chefs working at stainless steel benches, heads down, focussed completely on unidentifiable objects in front of them. It’s more like a science laboratory than a restaurant’s kitchen even to the extent that a chef in front of me is using a scalpel.
While we wait for the great man himself, I ask a young Mexican employee, Mauricio Rodriguez, what it’s like to work at El Bulli.
“It’s demanding and hard work, everything has to be perfect,” he tells me, adding. “The first thing that Ferran Adriá teaches us is that to create is not to copy.”
Before I can ask anything else a quiet buzz runs through the room and Ferran Adriá enters the kitchen.
Ferran Adriá: Pretentious Prince or Culinary King?
Ferran Adriá approaches a chef in front of me. He inserts the tip of a pair of tweezers into what looks like a miniature uncooked egg with a pea instead of yolk. He tastes it, says something to the chef and smiles. I feel relieved on the chef’s behalf.
We’re led outside to the restaurant’s courtyard where Ferran Adriá tells us about the history of El Bulli and its raison d’être. As he speaks I find my reserve completely melting away. His eyes sparkle with passion; his face is a canvas of emotion as he talks of his objective of creating a new language in culinary terms at El Bulli. He is honest, forthright and compelling. He is hypnotically charismatic..and not in the slightest bit pretentious.
His eyes twinkle mischievously as he says things like, “In Spain they have something special and very rare. The avant garde is almost accepted. They don’t understand it but they’re very proud of it. Gastronomy is a fundamental part of life in Spain not a luxury.”
His expressions are an open book – you can tell what questions Ferran Adriá likes…or dislikes. He becomes more animated when asked about which nationality’s cuisine he prefers (Japanese because it’s a different world gastronomically speaking) whilst his eyes darken when he’s asked a question he clearly views as too frivolous.
He speaks of passion, of risk taking and of sharing. I find myself nodding to everything he says. I’m hooked on his appeal. But there’s still the huge question of the food at El Bulli. Is it really the food of the god.
Food at El Bulli Restaurant
We aren’t going to get to enjoy one of El Bulli’s famous umpteen course meals, but we are to be treated to a selection of canapés – 6 small creations from the World’s greatest chef.
What if they disappoint, I wonder? Would anyone actually have the courage to say ‘actually, I don’t think this is very good?’ I think not, but in the end it’s academic.
A delicate bite of the first, a tiny oval shaped cake topped with a green sprig, dispels the thought in a flourish of flavours: it has a fresh hint of lemon-grass and manages to be both sweet and bitter at the same time, the flavours evolving as it rests on the tongue. It makes me smile and think of a spring meadow.
The second is bright red with gold wrapping and looks like it should be decorating a Christmas tree. It explodes on the tongue unleashing flavours that veer from ripe tomatoes to saffron to fish,
These are followed by the world’s smallest baguette, prawn crackers which taste like sea spray on your face on a summer day, miniature creamy meringues and prawns with green tea and lemon grass that invoke a feeling of travelling through South East Asia at warp speed.
The flavours are extraordinary…and then I get it. I get why all the accolades and the criticism. This isn’t dining in a conventional manner, this is throwing out all gastronomic rules and starting again…of creating a new language. This is science, art and gastronomy combined. A bizarre thought enters my mind. Ferran Adriá is much more than a chef, he’s an alchemist; in fact he is really Willy Wonka.
As we leave, Ferran Adriá is presented with a T-shirt bearing the legend: In Ferran We Trust. It says it all really.
The most famous restaurant in the world closed its doors in July 2011 to become elBulli Foundation.
The reason being, in Ferran Adriá’s words, “In order to create something excellent you have to be fresh and not fall into the trap of becoming predictable…In order to create you have to be under pressure.”
El Bulli had achieved its aim. It will be interesting to see what happens next with Ferran Adriá and the gastronomy factory.
My visit to El Bulli was arranged as part of a blogtrip organised by the Costa Brava Tourist Board.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+