At the nexus of food, art, and soul
ROSES - Standing in the kitchen of what may be the best restaurant in the world, I shake hands with Ferran Adrià, the chef behind it all. Every year, it’s said that millions try for the few thousand seats at his restaurant, El Bulli, for the six months it’s open. The odds are not in their favor.
If, like me, they are lucky enough to be invited by a friend, they drop everything and hop on a plane. Now, after all the hype, spectacle, and anticipation this man in front of me and his avant-garde cuisine have cultivated for 20 years, I don’t want to talk to him. I just want to eat.
Dining at El Bulli has taken on a sense of urgency. Adrià will be taking a sabbatical of sorts in 2012 and 2013 and the place will become either a culinary foundation or a different style of restaurant in 2014.
On our drive there, we ask the only non-foodie in our foursome, our quiet friend Edu, how much he knows about El Bulli (which is colloquial Catalan for a bulldog breed).
“I know it’s a good restaurant,’’ he says.
“Do you know it’s been called the best in the world?’’
Edu grins an uncharacteristically large grin and stares at the road ahead.
From Barcelona, it’s a two-hour slog north to Roses, then several beautiful windswept miles through the Cap de Creus nature preserve. Once at the restaurant our table is set slightly apart from the main dining room, giving us the sense that we are both looking in on a play and taking part in it.
The menu immediately sets an informal tone. Apéro “mojitos’’ and “caprihinas’’ are rectangles of sugar cane set in ice and soaked in white rum and cachaça, a sugarcane liquor. These are followed by a black currant and eucalyptus “tea,’’ presented like part of a Japanese tea ceremony, where a single green drop of concentrated eucalyptus floats atop molten red liquid in a tiny silver bowl. We cradle it in our hands, liquid bits of heaven and hell in one sip.
One of the first dishes to arrive is a Gorgonzola globe with fresh-grated nutmeg, presented in the center of the table like an ostrich egg we break into and share. We’re several courses in before someone realizes we’ve yet to see a fork. By meal’s end, we’ve used mostly our hands, lifting bites to our mouths and dabbing up sauce with our fingers.
For some courses, the tableware is as artistic as the food, for others, the receptacles are living things; pinch the end off a hummingbird-friendly flower and suck out the “nectar’’ inside in one dish or lap drops of honey from pine needles in another. In both cases, the vessel’s flavor is transferred to what we eat.
The meal creates personality shifts at our table of four. We talk and touch more than normal, as if the route to our emotions has been shortened.
There are themes that run through the meal: “Tender pistachios’’ are a meditation on about 10 ways to prepare them. Later, soybeans are presented at least 15 ways in one dish - every conceivable form presented like an abstract abacus. Other moments push a diner’s limits, like rabbit brains in consommé and a chicken cartilage canapé. Some tease perceptions with trompe l’oeils like “artichoke’’ leaves that turn out to be white rose petals or a “shark fin’’ made of clear, spaghetti-like pumpkin strands.
We share the food as a group or as couples; we guard it like cavemen and savor it like it’s the last thing we’ll ever eat. Edu breaks out of his shell. The man I’ve never associated with the word “goofy’’ is posing for pictures, making funny faces, clenching the rose between his teeth, and hanging a spoon from his nose. Out of the blue, while eating tiny sea anemones, he growls, “Mar!’’ (“Sea!’’)
We’re served a whole grilled passion fruit and once the top’s cut off, we find it’s been filled with chicken broth. The dish mixes sweet and savory and makes us pucker and giggle. Later, tiny cubes of marrow lie atop an oyster in its shell, which we spoon onto an oyster leaf and pop into our mouths.
Along with moments when we say, “Is that food? Should it be?’’ it seems Adrià is also showing us how we should treat food daily. There is a world of technology and science in his work that has fascinated me for years, yet seated at our table, it all falls away and I’m interested only in the glow of its effects. This food is privilege and deep pleasure, appreciated as art, slurped with a drip running down the chin, served with a dose of surprise, considered delicate or devoured sensually.
Two weeks later I interview Adrià and spend the first hour shooting photos in the kitchen and watching him work. There are 45 cooks, each practically glued to the 2 square feet they’re allotted, but Adrià never stands still. He is a conductor, constantly moving in and out of the frame. Before dinner, he checks kitchen stations, looks over product orders, and tastes everything he walks past, silently considering what he has in his mouth for several seconds before pronouncing a verdict.
Along with the customary things you see in a kitchen - bubbling pots, whisks and knives, the bent-head position of a cook at work - there are people walking around with blunt-ended syringes that they use to extract liquids from silver bowls. In a back alcove, there’s a machine that looks like a miniature cement mixer with a copper bowl and behind it, a cook runs his fingers across the top of a silver balloon, spinning it atop a liquid nitrogen bath that spills fog onto the table and across the floor, making the Gorgonzola “egg.’’
This is Adrià’s domain, the nexus of food, science, and art. He is known for foams, spherifications, and essences, reduced and reconstituted versions of products that are futuristic versions of a perfect past. Yet while other chefs struggle to understand his concepts, he simply uses them as a tool.
“It would take three days to explain spherification, but that’s not important,’’ Adrià says. “I’m after the emotions science brings out. We want happiness, not comprehension.’’
There is a world of culinary references and another of science and technique that would wreck the meal and its surprises - and leave you with lots of cold food - if someone took the time to explain it all.
I push Adrià a bit and his reply is enigmatic: “Bulli always talks about the past.’’
He’s not after old techniques, but the nostalgia that new ones can create. If he can come up with something in a near-perfect state, Adrià bets it will knock something loose in the heart or the mind. It’s an imperfect process.
“There’s no direct line,’’ he says. “If you make a salad with artichoke and lobster, that’ll do one thing for one person and something else for someone else. A flower brings out emotions in some people and not in others.’’
So he conducts. He breaks perceptions that border on what he calls “kitschy’’ to put customers at ease. He makes you eat with your hands. He plays with themes and juggles with the spots where sweet and savory show up during the meal.
“It’s complicated. It’s like editing a film,’’ he says. “If you don’t have a good rhythm, you fall asleep.’’
Yet when he gets the elements to line up, he creates a direct connection between your food and your emotions.
I think back to our dinner, to a squab consommé so clear and pure that it’s served in a wine glass and savored like a grand cru. There was also a perfect cockle floating on a gel seemingly made of a weekend by the sea and there you are, feet in the sand, face in the sun. Beaming.
“I want to do more than eat,’’ he says. “There is emotion in food and I want to feed the soul.’’
A few days later, I receive an e-mail from Edu:
“I’m sending a leftover sensation from our night at Bulli.
It was 6 hours and 44 dishes.
Is it food? Should it be? This is why we go. Now, after 20 years as a restaurant that turned food on its end, perhaps only two years remain. It flew.
Joe Ray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.