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Photo by Simon Newman
Ferran Adrià home
Ferran Adrià pictured at El Bulli
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Photo by Simon Newman
El Bulli chefs home
Chefs at El Bulli work hard to create award-winning food
A visit to the Costa Brava’s El Bulli restaurant, three-time and current holder of The World’s Best Restaurant award, is an experience like no other.
It starts with the sheer drama of the seven-kilometre drive from Roses along a winding track, where bay after aquamarine bay is revealed at almost every turn. On arrival, fizzingly refreshing cocktails of passion-fruit vodka with a swirl of grenadine and a float of carrot sorbet are served on the terrace. There follows a selection of what are called, with more than a hint of irony, snacks. Slivers of caramelised jamon, grilled quinoa grains in laced rice-paper, freeze-dried chards of foie gras with tamarind, all accompanied by fine Manzanilla sherry served in elegant, frosted glasses. And that’s just the start—the standard menu at El Bulli consists of around 30 courses, and costs about €250 per head.
The restaurant’s origins go back to a Sixties beach bar started by a German couple, Hans and Marketta Schilling, at Cala Montjoi near Roses. They later added a grill-room, which they called El Bulli after their pet bull-terrier. Hans was a gourmet who travelled widely, always returning with adventurous new ideas. El Bulli grew from strength to strength and in 1975 it was awarded the first of its three Michelin stars.
Anecdotes from the early years abound. Captain Moore, a contemporary of Salvador Dalí, would arrive unannounced at Cala Montjoi aboard his yacht with a significant entourage. There was no jetty for mooring and so a hundred metres off the beach, the captain would stand on the yacht’s foredeck with a megaphone instructing the chef on numbers and gastronomic preferences. They would drop anchor and by the time the group had been ferried ashore in a dinghy, the canapés and martinis were waiting.
Nowadays, unfortunately, such an approach would not get one a table. The current owners are Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler, who have created its international success, and resulting clamour for a reservation. They both came to El Bulli at the start of the Eighties; Soler was the manager of the restaurant, while Adrià worked his way up from chef to head of the kitchen. In 1990, the two men became co-owners of the business.
A visit today to the kitchens at El Bulli is a truly jaw-dropping experience. Imagine a group of 50 (yes, 50) chefs all purposefully hunched over their stainless-steel work stations. There is a buzz of energy, but beneath that there is a palpable air of intense concentration. With their use of incongruous equipment like nitrogen foam jets, mixing palettes and scalpels, it’s a fusion of operating theatre, science laboratory and art studio. There are no histrionics or prima donnas. Just a total focus on the task at hand.
The high-tech kitchens are in stark contrast to the refined ambience of the dining rooms. These have hardly changed since they were originally built and their character is best described as two parts hacienda and one part Dorset tea room.
Waiter Felix Meana has worked in these dining rooms for four years. “I am a local, from Roses. Here I get to meet people from all over the world. It’s fantastic, but it’s hard work. In the winter when El Bulli closes, I go to work at other restaurants where Ferran is connected, like in Madrid or Washington.” He beams broadly. “I have the best job in the world.”
Despite the high cost of dining at El Bulli, the restaurant actually makes an operating loss. It is subsidised by the rest of the Ferran empire, a catering company, a food consultancy, Fast Good (the fast food and take-away business that embraces El Bulli principles), a design company, a hotel...the list is long. Adrià also set up Alicia, a foundation that researches dietary habits and promotes healthy eating. And there is his famed taller (workshop) in Barcelona, where, over the winter months, he and his team of techno-wizards create the next culinary “surprises”.
But anyone keen to try these surprises, should note that next year is already fully booked. October 15th 2008 is the one and only day the 2009 reservation book will be open. Pol Perello, the maitre d’ at El Bulli, told us “We get over 300,000 emails on that day. But we only have 8,000 covers to offer, for the whole year.” With masterful understatement, he added “it’s very popular here.”
TALKING TO FERRAN ADRIÀ
El Bulli’s co-owner Ferran Adrià is arguably the most celebrated chef on the planet today. Costa Brava Resident spoke to him on El Bulli’s terrace overlooking the beautiful Cala Montjoi bay.
Tell us about your introduction to El Bulli.
It was 1981. I’d heard about this vacation job from a friend. One of the waiters met me at Roses and drove me down an endless, bumpy dirt track. This leads to a Michelin star restaurant? I was convinced it was a joke. But it turned out to be an experience that completely changed my life.
What led you to become so interested in experimentation?
In 1990 I worked with Nouvelle Cuisine chef Michel Bras and I came to embrace his philosophy, ‘everything is possible’. And I spent time working with sculptor Xavier Campeny, and saw that the creative process in art could also be applied to gastronomy.
Which contemporary British chefs do you most admire?
Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay, who I count among my friends. But I respect any chef who is prepared to work 15 hours a day in the kitchens to produce the very best.
Which of the world’s cuisines appeal to you most?
Asian, South American too—places like Peru and Colombia, whose cuisines are not that well known in Europe yet.
What advice would you give to a chef just starting out, one with radical ideas?
It must be a true vocation. And you must stick to what you believe in. But it’s hard, very hard work, and you must keep at it night and day to succeed.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise our readers.
People think I must have always had an ambition to be a chef. Actually, I wanted to be a footballer. I became a chef entirely through circumstances. Nothing was planned.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Being able to create illusion and excitement in food. Whenever one of my dishes excites, I am always happy.
Tell us about the Documenta 12 exhibition this year [El Bulli was a “virtual exhibit” at the international exhibition, renowned for its innovative approach to displaying art]. Has it been a positive experience for El Bulli? Would you do something like it again?
I think it has been very important, both for us and for the world of gastronomy as a whole. It has established a clear link between the creative processes that go on in art, and in the design and preparation of new dishes. It has challenged the way in which we think about food—about how it excites all of the senses, not just taste. Would I do it again? I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.
What time of the day do you start your preparations in the kitchen?
We are taking deliveries throughout the morning. The chefs start their work about 2pm. It takes us over six hours for the team to get everything ready for our evening performance. And we finish about 2am. It’s tough on the staff.
What has been the most difficult period for you at El Bulli?
Every day. Each day seems harder than the one before. It never seems to get any easier. But it’s my life, El Bulli is my life, this is how it is for me.
Does El Bulli have a policy towards the carbon miles of the ingredients they source?
We try to be as ecologically aware as we can, to the extent that any luxury product can. And we try to buy locally whenever it is possible, especially our seafood.
What would you like to do if you could not continue being a chef?
Be a millionaire. That would be a good job I think. But you don’t see many vacancies like that advertised.
AND SO, THE €250 QUESTION: IS IT WORTH IT? TWO DINERS AT EL BULLI, CALIFORNIANS BLAKE JONES AND GIRLFRIEND RACHEL BECK EXPLAINED HOW THE RESTAURANT WAS FOR THEM.
Where do you start in describing this four-and-a-half-hour gastronomic extravaganza? The building and grounds are gorgeous, and a nicely mellow contrast to the high-tech kitchen. We were asked if we wanted to see the kitchens (which of course we did!) and they were very gracious about us taking pictures.
Almost all of the dishes were somewhere between “very good” and “toe-curlingly good”. At the same time, they were creative, whimsical, beautifully plated, technically perfect, and respectful of their ingredients. It would be impossible to pick out one dish from so many as the highlight. Just when you thought you couldn’t possibly be surprised again, you were blown away by the sheer genius of the next creation.
One downside—the meal was ultimately just too big. We’d had virtually nothing to eat all day and arrived at the restaurant very hungry, yet we were full to our eyebrows at the end. Since we didn’t get the menus until the end of the meal, it was impossible to pace ourselves. If we’d known earlier, we could have simply eaten less of each dish, although the food was so good, it would have been hard.
A more radical solution might be to not serve the three main courses (those with a significant piece of meat or fish). Not to disparage them, but they weren’t as experimental as the other courses, and they came at a point where we were already getting full. Even if the main course is the centrepiece of a ‘fine meal’ at most restaurants, El Bulli questions everything else, so why not question the concept of a main course?
And whilst the service was very professional, it could at times be overwhelming. With so many dishes to serve, there was always a lot of hustle and bustle going on around, which was entertaining to watch but there were also times when it was distracting.
Overall, the event lived up to its impossibly high reputation. An unashamedly hedonistic experience. Without any doubt “the best meal of my life”. So far. And, in relative terms, good value too, since we were able to “dine-out” on the story for months!
Please note that this article was first published in Barcelona Metropolitan's sister publication Costa Brava Resident in November 2007