Flying for Food – The Legendary El Bulli
Five years between 2002 and 2009 it was awarded the title “Best Restaurant in the World” by Restaurant magazine. In 2010 it’s proprietor was awarded “Best Chef of the Decade”. Shortly thereafter, the legendary Ferran Adrià shocks the culinary world by announcing that 2011 will be the last season. The perpetual innovator had embarked on a totally new path creating a non-profit El Bulli Foundation. In a 2015 New York Times interview he describes the foundation as a “think tank for creativity”. One of the projects currently in progress, an online encyclopedia of gastronomy called Bullipedia.
Overlooking a small beach on the Costa Brava, El Bulli the restaurant was a culinary experience like no other. Only open six months of the year, Ferran Adrià and his team of close to 50 staff spent the rest of the year developing gastronomic concoctions in their Barcelona station more akin to a science lab. This 50-seat restaurant was only open for dinner and getting a reservation was possibly harder than winning a lottery. The window to make a reservation lasted just a few days, usually in October. The restaurant received close to 2 million reservations a year but could only accommodate 8,000 patrons a season.
It was October 2007 when I sent in a reservation request for the 2008 season. The request was for a table of 4 for “any date, any time”. I mentioned in my request that the previous year we had been unsuccessful and that we would be travelling from Asia just for the meal. In November I received the good news, a table for 4 people in August of the following year. A quick shout out to my friends asking if they would join me resulted in my table for four being instantly filled.
As the months past, I received an email confirmation from El Bulli who also asked if there were certain foods we didn’t like. As you know, people in Asia eat everything, so I passed them the message and they responded that they would create something special for our tiny group.
We flew in to Barcelona separately, two couples, back in Spain after many years. A couple of days in Barcelona doing the usual stuff – breakfasts of Churros con chocolate, Sagrada Familia, and the coolest Tapas bar in the world, Paco Meralgo. Then in our rent-a-cars, we headed off to the small town of Roses. A short drive from Roses, we arrived at the legendary El Bulli.
As we entered, we saw Ferran Adrià sitting on a long table writing notes whilst his huge team of kitchen staff were busy with test tubes, soda siphons and syringes. Recognising us as the only Asian group in the restaurant, or perhaps seeing the Japanese ladies, he gets up and greets us.
He led us to what would be our table for the next 5 hours where we savoured a remarkable 26-course meal.
It was truly an eye opening experience. Our first course consisted of their famous spherical olives. They looked just like ripe olives on teaspoons. They were in fact a liquid essence of olives encased in a gelatinous sphere. Put them in your mouth and bite and they explode in one concentrated olive flavoured burst.
One dish, simply named The Sea, had seaweeds freshly flown in from all over the world arranged on a plate in a circular fashion. They were to be eaten one by one, anti-clockwise followed by the seawater foam and a watermelon cube.
Another dish, The Seeds, was simply that. Seeds collected from fruit and vegetables.
Naturally , a meal at El Bulli would not be complete without their famous Caviar sférico de melon, another take on spherification of liquid essence.
My absolute favorite dish was the Virtual Jamón Iberíco, virtual because the thin slices were in fact colourless and translucent.
Ferran Adrià pioneered molecular gastronomy along with other notables like Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck. There has been a certain amount of media speculation as to the decision to close El Bulli, but according to the New York Times interview, it was not about the restaurant losing money. He could well have charged double the fixed EUR 80.00 for meals and still had a full restaurant. No, it was the pressure to innovate, and never duplicate that finally got him. He estimates that he had created a whopping 1,846 recipes during his time at El Bulli. To keep at the top of his game year after year took its toll on the 53-year-old Adrià. Ultimately, he continues to innovate through the El Bulli Foundation, and maybe, just maybe, we might be fortunate enough to experience the magic of Ferran Adrià again in the coming years.
Dean Owen is Co-Founder of Quimojo, a revolutionary new concept in Global Campus Recruitment.
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