El Bulli, just outside Roses on the Costa Brava, has been the world’s most influential restaurant for the past decade. On July 30 it will close its doors to the public forever, although it intends to reopen in 2014 as the El Bulli Foundation to train the chefs of the next decade.
It seems somewhat invidious to write even an appreciation, let alone an obituary, of somewhere that has given me so much pleasure, and will continue to do so for at least a month. But I thought it opportune to pay tribute now, before my memories begin to fade of the 10 meals I have enjoyed there over the past 15 years, to the Adrià brothers, Ferran and Albert, its culinary lights, and to Juli Soler, the quintessential restaurateur.
As I stood outside the large window that looks into the main kitchen at El Bulli in late April (both before we went in to eat and afterwards), and watched Ferran in action, I began to think of him less as a chef and more as a sports coach.
Every service is certainly a finely balanced engagement. From his meticulously designed, spacious kitchen, Ferran runs a team of 48 chefs aided by 28 waiting staff who deliver the menu – an average of 40 different dishes in about four hours – to 50 customers. The menu costs €275 and the prices on the wine list are reasonable (with significant bargains on the reds for anyone lucky enough to be going there in the next month).
The immediate consequence of these numbers is that El Bulli could never prosper financially, even before its six-month season was curtailed to just five nights a week. And the reported annual trading loss of €500,000 will almost certainly be even bigger this season as the brothers and Soler bid their magnanimous farewells.
But, ironically, El Bulli’s self-imposed farewell is, for Heston Blumenthal, proof that restaurants at this level can at least survive. He once feared that, in his case, this was going to be impossible.
“In 2004, we were just weeks away from having to close The Fat Duck,” Blumenthal explains. “Customers weren’t coming and the bank wouldn’t lend. Then two things happened almost simultaneously. Michelin gave us our third star and I gave a demonstration at [the gastronomic summit] Madrid Fusíon that initiated my friendship with Albert and Ferran. I learned how they had struggled to survive financially, and that was tremendously encouraging … Their support has been absolutely massive.”
With this friendship also came ongoing opportunities to collaborate. Blumenthal recalls a week shortly after this first encounter when Albert came to stay with him and they went to visit Andrew Taylor, a professor of flavour technology at Nottingham university, and Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford university. Blumenthal’s name has appeared on the El Bulli menu, while Ferran Adrià and Blumenthal now give joint demonstrations to rapt audiences across the globe.
The manner in which the El Bulli ethos has traversed the world over the past decade is well expressed in the two framed menus from the restaurant that hang near our kitchen. The first, dated April 2000, comprising 27 small savoury dishes and three desserts, took the customer only to Mexico (via trout caviar in a taco) and Japan (tempura).
Eleven years later, in a menu that stretched to 53 small dishes, but which we asked to be reduced by a dozen, there were diversions to Thailand, for a langoustine head in Thai sauce; to China, for rose-petal wontons in a dim sum basket; and eight dishes inspired by Japan, including what looked like a large olive served on a spoon, but proved to be a concentration of miso that erupted in the mouth. Inspiration came, too, from Colombia and Mexico, along with one visual trick: hare ravioli, served with a hare bolognaise and a large wine glass supposedly containing hare blood. This was, in fact, the juice of beetroot, citronella and ginger with pepper oil.
When the waiter presented our menu, I appreciated two other facets of this extraordinary restaurant. The first was a rendition on the reverse of its most unlikely origins in 1963 as a combination of grill room, bar, apartments and mini-golf along a then uncrowded coast. The second was that, after three years working at the most inspirational level, our waiter would be heading back to his native Mexico City. El Bulli may close, but its influence is here to stay.
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