Sensory Shake-up

By Kim Maxwell
Photography El Bulli restaurant (and Craig Ray)

With our reservation confirmed nine months in advance, what started as an outrageous idea between friends becomes a foodies’ mission. The destination: El Bulli restaurant in Spain. Billed as the ‘best’ restaurant experience in the world, El Bulli opens for only six months of each year in an out-of-the-way location—so the waiting list is long. Two days before the 2007 season closes, we arrive for dinner.

Including two Cape chefs and a winemaker, our common ground is adventurous eating and fun. The 32 courses of nibbles, liquids and textures are unlike any recognisable set menu. They arrive as warm foam in martini glasses, as liquid bursting from edible clam enclosures or as candyfloss-like Parmesan air inside Styrofoam boxes. Waiters’ prompts encourage sniffing, touching and tasting in a specific number of bites. Visual attention is imperative. The meal is intellectually challenging and witty, yet tasty and light to digest. 
Probing the remarkable mind of chef Ferran Adrià is inspiring. Like the food he prepares, I discover this isn’t a chef who can easily be pigeon-holed.

What is your opinion of the label ‘molecular cuisine’, as some describe your food?
Molecular cuisine does not exist. It’s a lie. I’m asked this question in every interview. Whatever you ate yesterday, the concept was started in 1994 or 1995. So it’s not new or even recent. This label is harmful for me, because people who are anti my cuisine use this term to fight me. Nobody eating at El Bulli knows exactly how the food is cooked. What is important instead is the result. It doesn’t matter if the food is machine-made or hand-made; what matters is that it is there. People always think this type of food is very complicated, but sometimes it’s very simple. Take the oyster leaf I serve with the hare jus and red jelly. People don’t know the leaf so they think it’s from a machine, but it’s only a new European plant tasting like an oyster.

Your food is very labour-intensive. Are you saying it isn’t complicated?
But it is complicated. People see this oyster leaf on their plate and think, “What is it?” For a chef, to eat it is very complicated because he probably thinks to himself, “The chef who prepared this dish has gone mad!” A normal person could also complicate his life by just thinking about it. Cooking is a language, in a way. I’m trying to send a message. Sometimes it’s a message people don’t understand. Then there are those who see more than the food is. It means whatever is in life. I want each diner to have their own experience.

London’s Restaurant magazine panel repeatedly voted El Bulli first of 50 global restaurants. Is it important to be ‘the best’?
It’s not my objective. The best does not exist. What is measurable are the influences some chefs have over other chefs. Restaurant’s list shows these chefs are among those who influence cuisines around the world. It’s very difficult to be the best so I don’t pretend to have the best restaurant or be the most influential chef. I’ve never worried about being number one; it’s more a consequence of what I’m trying to do. The best recognition comes from people in the same profession, when you’re not included in a list.

Doesn’t El Bulli have an unusual format for a restaurant? 
Yes. We are open for only six months, only for dinner. We have 50 cooks in the kitchen, way above the average. So nothing at El Bulli is the norm. We create 140 completely new dishes each year, and use 180 ingredients on our menu. Spanish journalists use me as a model, as a temperature gauge. They’ve asked other Spanish chefs the same questions, and realised that other restaurants can’t do it … all our new dishes, our format. The menu at your table was created specifically for the six of you. They ask how we can structure a restaurant business model this way. The answer? El Bulli is not a restaurant in the usual sense because it’s not structured as a business. It is a place where a creative team looks for the limits in cuisine. We use a known format that fits into usual restaurant traditions, so there is connection and feedback to the world and to the team. But we would like to be more radical in future. This El Bulli format could be transformed into a restaurant table open only every 15 days. Why shouldn’t it be? You need to understand this or you don’t understand El Bulli.

How does the menu creation process happen?
Talent is not something you can structure. I have the best creative team in the world. I couldn’t do it alone. From 1994 to 1997 I was alone here. But now the El Bulli standard is so high. We close the restaurant at the end of September. On the following Monday my creative team and I pack our bags for London, Paris and perhaps Chicago, to search for creative ideas. The team of five includes my brother and me. We visit museums, markets, Chinatowns, or spend time in bars, talking and brainstorming. We are looking for the meaning of happiness in our food.

I noted Asian ingredients in our menu: imitation caviar made of miso, teriyaki mackerel belly, miso sesame sponge cake and shimeji mushrooms. Was the Asian focus intentional?
I used 180 ingredients in your menu, of which only eight were Asian. The razor clam dish with seaweeds had 10 ingredients alone. Maybe Asian ingredients are more noticeable because they are less usual. We use a lot of Spanish dishes and ingredients from the Roses area too—we used pistachios from Tarragona nearby. Do you know what was missing on the menu? Bread! For a European diner to have no bread during the meal is unimaginable. So I included black sesame bread crumbs in the mackerel dish.

What inspires you to travel?
I visit places for cooking promotions if I think I can learn something there. But if I travel with my wife, it’s very different to travelling with my team. What impressed me after visiting Japan is the greater respect Asians, and the Japanese in particular, have for a dish. Also, the way dining rooms are set out. El Bulli’s dining room isn’t very suitable as it’s too sociable for eating as an individual experience.

What constitutes an ideal eating experience?
I was involved with Dokumenta, a contemporary art festival, during 2007, where two mystery guests were sent for dinner at El Bulli over 100 days. These weren’t foodies, but art people. One of them sent me the most wonderful sentence about her experience. “I went out of El Bulli with a sensation of not having eaten anything dead,” she said. Eating is a very individual experience, so this situation confirmed to me that two diners are the ideal number. In special cases, a group of four or six can work if people are concentrating as professionals. But an experience for two is preferred so as not to loose concentration, as people eat at different speeds at larger tables. Concentration on a dish is based around the senses—it’s very important. People don’t use their senses enough when in a restaurant with friends. My ideal at El Bulli would be 20 minutes per dish, but with 32 courses it is not possible. The speed of dishes arriving is fast so the information is concentrated. If El Bulli’s creative team of five travels, we eat and study with concentration, and analyse. But this is not normal behaviour.

It’s hard to fathom your intention with some dishes, the Parmesan air in Styrofoam, for instance. Is cooking a language everyone can speak?
There could be 1 000 different meanings, depending on the person opening that Styrofoam box. You could think about 15g of Parmesan air which is very light, but eating it provides the sensation of being heavy. It could be pop art if you were an artist, or similar to a box found in a supermarket. To speak my language of cooking, you have to go through all the steps to understand it. But others who know less can still enjoy it. You don’t always understand a poem, but you can enjoy it. It’s the same with eating.
El Bulli restaurant, Cala Montjoi, Roses, Spain. Tel 34-(0)972-15-04-57. http://www.elbulli.com/. Tasting menu €185 plus drinks. Reservations essential, of course.