El Bulli has broken out from the world of gastronomy to achieve the status of an exclusive brand. If the restaurant in northern Spain were a watch, it would be a Rolex, a luxury to which many aspire though few can enjoy.
I have no idea if it’s true that two million people apply for 8,000 places each year: The odds are long -- this season is full -- and they’re about to become almost impossible as chef Ferran Adria will close El Bulli on July 30, 2011.
He plans to turn it into a foundation, where people come to study food: How to cook it, examine the creative process and to understand gastronomy in the context of the arts, the sciences and economics, Adria said in an interview.
Fair enough. So how will we get a table?
“I might spontaneously call you and say, ‘Richard why don’t you come over and bring six buddies from the U.K. because I haven’t seen British people in a while?’” he said.
I liked the way this conversation was going.
“There will still be people coming to eat, but it won’t be a restaurant any longer and it will be completely unfair, as it is now,” he said, “because the people who manage to go are happy and the people who don’t make it are unhappy.
“The difference is that we are going to create a foundation, which means people’s reactions will be different: You can hate a restaurant, but not a foundation. With regards to reservations, there will be some differences, but it’s also true that this will allow for many more people to come to visit El Bulli. They will see the backstage.
“We are exchanging experience for knowledge, but the mission behind the future center is not to feed people: It’s to be creative,” said Adria, who was wearing a gray, striped sweater under a dark jacket. “Now is probably a good time for people to start understanding why and how things are created rather than how you feel about eating.”
Adria, 48, has an almost boyish charm when you meet him. He focuses on you intently as his interpreter translates from the Spanish, making eye contact while nodding and smiling and watching your reaction to his ideas. He’s a philosopher of food as much as a chef -- taking considerable pride in achievements such as being invited to lecture at Harvard. He appears more interested in being understood than just respected.
He’s in London to promote “Reinventing Food, Ferran Adria: The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat,” a biography of Adria by the U.S. food writer Colman Andrews, who joined him for the interview at the Kensington Hotel. Publicists sat in on the interview, too, though when Adria is speaking, it’s a full-on experience, even though he jokes and is in no way pompous. I couldn’t tell you how many people were in the room.
Fortunately, the book is enjoyable and informative. El Bulli was created by a German physician, Hans Schilling, who bought a piece of land on the coast, north of Barcelona, and on June 7, 1961, gained permission to open a mini-golf course. He and his wife, stateless, Czech-born Marketta, added a beachside bar and in 1964 built a grill room, the Bulli Bar, using a French slang term for Marketta’s pet bulldogs.
Adria joined after his national service, cooking in the Spanish navy, and his early days at El Bulli were followed by nights out drinking in bars and discos. Adria is a chef whose technique grew out of a mastery of French cooking combined with a love of Catalan cuisine. His is a creativity born out of years of hard work and experimentation, including spending half of each year in his culinary workshop.
(When I dined at El Bulli in 2007, I was served 40 courses, starting with a gin-fizz aperitif where the froth on the icy drink was hot and thick. The meat in a hare dish existed only as gravy; parmesan came as “air” in a polystyrene box.)
The book has come under fire as being reverential, and I, too, would question whether Adria has changed the way most people eat. Still, Andrews knows food, understands Adria and, most important, he can tell a story. It’s a good read.
Did Adria open up to Andrews? “Professionally, certainly,” Andrews said before Adria chipped in.
“There was a comment saying that Colman hadn’t been to my home,” Adria said, laughing. “Not even my father has been. I don’t have the concept of a home. It’s a small studio apartment. My home is my workshop. There’s nothing that I’m trying to hide.
“A lot of people think that I should be some kind of extravagant figure but I’m a normal person.”
“Reinventing Food, Ferran Adria: The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat” is published by Phaidon in the U.K. and by Gotha in the U.S. under the title “Ferran, the Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food” (357 pages, 19.95 pounds, $28). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at firstname.lastname@example.org.