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At the end of a scorching day in late July, Stephan Pyles, a trim 63-year-old chef from Texas, arrived at the Hard Rock Hotel in Ibiza for what he hoped would be a uniquely memorable evening.
Pyles, a pioneer of American south-west cuisine, has a restaurant empire across the US and now spends his holidays “trying to go to the best restaurants in the world”. His quest had already led him to Noma in Copenhagen in June, followed by a trip to China and then to Ibiza, where he ate at Heart, Ferran Adrià’s new project with Cirque du Soleil. But this evening he was heading to Sublimotion, which holds the record for the world’s most expensive set dinner at €1,500 per head.
From the hotel he was taken by car to an unmarked door and led into what appeared to be a goods lift. After it juddered to a halt, he found himself in a white room with a single white table and 12 white chairs. The restaurant, which describes itself as a “merger of haute cuisine, gastronomy and . . . technology”, offers a series of mind-boggling culinary special effects in a room whose appearance constantly changes as a result of a series of high-definition video projections. During one course, sharks and fish appear to swim around the walls as diners are invited to skewer their seafood from a giant illuminated shell. For another, waiting staff appear with palettes of ingredients and “paint” an edible version of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” on to the table.
The restaurant is the creation of Paco Roncero, a 46-year-old Spanish chef with designer stubble and an easy smile. Together with Ferran Adrià, he is one of a small group of Spanish chefs who spearheaded modernist cooking and helped make Spain one of the world’s most important gourmet destinations. He has two Michelin stars for his restaurant in Madrid, La Terraza del Casino, and Sublimotion — which opened in June 2014 — won the “best innovation” prize at the Worldwide Hospitality Awards in Paris.
There seems only one problem with Sublimotion. “It is a straight rip-off,” says Pyles.
In May 2012, Paul Pairet, a charming but controlling French chef, now 51, opened a restaurant in Shanghai called Ultraviolet. The concept had been in his mind since as early as 1996 and in an email pitching the idea to a possible backer dated December 19 2004, Pairet laid out his vision for a lavish dinner of 14 courses accompanied by “unparalel [sic] technical possibilities”.
The project began to crystallise into what would eventually become Ultraviolet: an all-white restaurant for 10 diners with high-definition projectors altering the surroundings as they eat. It was placed third in this year’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Pairet, who also runs Mr & Mrs Bund, a sumptuous French bistro at number 18 on a promenade by Shanghai’s Huangpu river, invited the celebrated chef Alain Ducasse to a special preview. “I told him [Pairet] that it was magnificent and delicious,” says Ducasse. “The harmony between the performance and the substance is just perfect. The audiovisual effects are never meaningless; they are a frame which underlines and exhilarates Paul’s very personal and tasty cuisine.”
Guests at Ultraviolet meet at Mr & Mrs Bund at 7pm for the beginning of what will be a three- to four-hour dinner. After an aperitif, they board a bus that winds through Shanghai’s old Hongkou district, deliberately meandering to discombobulate its passengers. Eventually it deposits them outside a warehouse on Suzhou Creek, where a woman sweeping the street points the diners to an unmarked door.
Stephan Pyles, who ate at Sublimotion a month after dining at Ultraviolet, can be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. Various details of the Spanish restaurant first appeared in Shanghai: inside Ultraviolet, the walls are white, the table is white and the chairs are white. Names are projected on to the table from an unseen source (another touch that also appears at Sublimotion).
Sometimes the food is exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. “Is it a game or a meal?” asked Frank Bruni, the former New York Times restaurant critic who visited in 2013. For one course, a Union Jack is projected on to the table while “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles plays over the sound system. An enormous plate arrives bearing a single, tiny, caper berry stuffed with an anchovy and deep-fried — a one-bite distillation of fish and chips.
If the dish pokes fun at the pretension of haute cuisine, Pairet dances a fine line. “There is a danger that some people will not find it funny,” says one Ultraviolet diner, who asked not to be named. “It is supposed to be fun but then, you know, you are paying Rmb4,000 [£400]. That is more expensive than the most expensive restaurant in Manhattan.”
After a sequence of small dishes, diners get a break in a second room featuring the trunk of a camphor tree. Then comes a cucumber ice lolly and they return to find the room dressed for a picnic, with the scent of a field and projections of the countryside. There follows three serious courses including a rack of lamb roasted in a shell of gellan — a gum that seals in its juices. At the very end of dinner, waiters bring in what appears to be a bucket of dirty dishes. In fact, the foam is vanilla and beetroot and the residue left on the spoons is edible.
“The meal was as good as I have had in China and — outside of Noma [a restaurant in Copenhagen regularly voted the best in the world] — my meal of the year,” says Pyles.
Paul Pairet and Paco Roncero first met in around 2006, when the Spanish chef visited Shanghai and cooked at Pairet’s restaurant. “Paco is a very nice guy,” says Pairet. “He is the kind of guy you connect with straight away. And he is not a bad chef at all. You do not get two Michelin stars for being a bad chef.”
When Adam Melonas, a young Australian who had worked under Pairet in Shanghai, was looking for a berth in Europe, Pairet referred him to Roncero.
In 2008, Pairet emailed his alumnus, who was then working with Roncero, the first draft of his plan for Ultraviolet. After asking Pairet’s permission, Melonas showed the draft to Roncero. Both men were excited and Melonas emailed back asking for a reservation. Roncero visited Ultraviolet and toured its kitchen in 2013 — a year before he opened Sublimotion.
Pairet says he is not angry that Roncero mimicked his concept but he is indignant that the Spanish chef has not credited him for the idea. “I would be very open to sharing,” he says. “You can take the same characteristics and go your way. The thing that disturbed me is the way he has marketed it.”
Sublimotion’s website claims it is “an unprecedented staging . . . the first gastronomic show in the world”. Pairet emailed Roncero to ask for an explanation but received, according to him, a vague response from the Spanish chef saying he had mentioned Ultraviolet during the promotion of Sublimotion.
For his part, Roncero says he does not remember seeing Pairet’s email to Melonas, and that Sublimotion “is not a copy of Ultraviolet”; any similarities are down to “common sense” — the room has to be white to be able to project images. He adds: “Sublimotion is the evolution of Paco Roncero Taller” — his Madrid “workshop”, opened in 2010, described on its website as: “A conceptual space unique in the world in which state of the art technology and the most advanced design meet to elevate cuisine to a multi-sensory realm.”
Roncero is not the only famous Spanish chef who appears to have appropriated some of Pairet’s ideas. In 2013 the Roca brothers, whose restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain holds three Michelin stars, created a one-off “epicurean opera” called El Somni (the Dream). The 12-course meal, about which a film was made in 2014, was matched by projections and music.
However, a spokesman for the Roca brothers says they had been working on El Somni since 2007. “Our feeling is that compared to our friend Paul [Pairet]’s project we are in two parallel worlds. We do not feel one is better than the other. Joan Roca has a very good friendship with him and definitely would love to visit and enjoy his performance some day.”
It was at the end of the 1990s that fine dining restaurants started to become increasingly conceptual. When British chef Heston Blumenthal served crab ice cream with risotto at the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, it marked the start of a continuing experiment in how our senses, memory and expectations shape the way a dish tastes.
It was also the beginning of a movement in which haute cuisine restaurants, previously judged on how well they cooked, interpreted and refined dishes, became riotous playgrounds of new ideas.
But just as in fashion or art, culinary ideas are vulnerable to plagiarism and reproduction. To assert ownership, top chefs began making records of their creations. “Each year, Ferran Adrià would invent an entirely new menu for El Bulli [a Michelin three-star restaurant near Roses, Catalonia that closed in 2011]. At the end, he would spend a month taking photos and publish it all,” says Emilia Terragni, head of the culinary publishing division of Phaidon. “It showed all the dishes and the plating and the crockery as a record,” she adds. “It showed how the flavours had been put together. If you copy it, shame on you.”
Heston Blumenthal agrees: “Look in the Fat Duck cookbook and everything is dated and there is a chronology of who I met and worked with. It is a record of my inspiration.” He adds that the world of fine dining has “lots of people” who falsely claim to be original. “But I think if someone takes an idea and moves it on that is fantastic.”
The Fat Duck is set to reopen in October after a six-month hiatus with a new menu. In keeping with the ever more experiential trajectory of haute cuisine it promises to supercharge its dishes with a healthy dollop of nostalgia from its guests, something Blumenthal has drafted in Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, illusionist Derren Brown and even a font specialist to help him execute.
As restaurant concepts have become ever more complicated and technology has been introduced (Blumenthal has used headphones in the past to influence how diners experience certain dishes), superficial elements — projectors, audiovisuals, the colour of the walls — can make one restaurant appear very similar to another. But just as in art, where two artists can work in the same medium yet produce unique pieces, restaurateurs keen to push the boundaries of haute cuisine can reinterpret similar ingredients with wildly different results.
That’s the ideal, at least; there have been claims about copycat restaurants before. In 2007, Rebecca Charles, the chef at Pearl Oyster Bar in New York, sued her former sous-chef, Ed McFarland, alleging he copied “each and every element” of her restaurant, including the white marble bar and the colour of its paint. The two sides eventually settled out of court and McFarland introduced new dishes to his menu.
But it is vanishingly rare to find a copy in haute cuisine, where the best restaurants are so famous that imitations are instantly detectable. In 2006, Interlude, a restaurant in Australia, was shamed on the food forum eGullet for serving dishes that appeared almost identical to those in two US restaurants, Grant Achatz’s Alinea and Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50. Interlude closed in 2008.
Amy Trubek, a food historian at the University of Vermont and author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession, says there has been no history of copyrights and trademarks in the business either for recipes or the performances of meals. “There is a longstanding tension in professional cooking,” she says. “Should it be understood as a craft or an art? If it is craftsmanship, imitation is a form of flattery. But if a meal is cast as an artistic performance, then questions of ownership can arise.”
Adam Melonas, 33, who has now moved on from Roncero to work in the US, agrees. “You never own the rights to a concept but ethically and emotionally I think Paul [Pairet] is a million per cent in the right.” He does, however, point to a cultural difference between the way Pairet and Roncero approach cooking.
“When I worked with Paul it was during the combative years,” says Melonas. “The world of chefs was very adversarial and we were so paranoid about other chefs taking our dishes and techniques. I used to think in the same way. I would trawl through the web to see if other people had stolen my dishes so I could call them out,” he adds.
But when he arrived in Spain to work for Roncero, he found the chefs sharing ideas, techniques and even dishes. “I was dumbfounded and I asked them whether it pissed them off when other chefs take their creations. They said no, if a chef can take something and make a living from it, why not?”
Roncero agrees: “I hope more people do Sublimotions, Ultraviolets or whatever they want to call them,” he says. “That means that the main concept works and we have come to the people. Spanish cuisine has grown and evolved and has not stuck and it is where it is because we share experiences, knowledge . . . and someone always evolves that knowledge or that concept. In this way we grow together.” After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
But for Pairet it is a matter of honesty. He quotes Ferran Adrià to underline his point: “If you want to be creative, you have to force yourself not to copy.”
Malcolm Moore is the FT’s leisure industries correspondent
Photographs: Scott Wright of Limelight Studio