El Bulli, which has won the World’s 50 Best Restaurants title a record five times, closed at the weekend. Is that reason to be sad?
It has been extremely hard for ordinary diners to get a reservation in recent years. The usual estimate of the odds -- two million applications annually for 8,000 places -- would equate to 250-to-1 if there were a level playing field.
There wasn’t. Ferran Adria isn’t just a brilliant chef. He’s also smart at marketing and at building relationships. He sought to fill his restaurants with food writers and journalists who would help to spread the fame of El Bulli, and with chefs, who might be influenced by his creativity. I’ve been twice.
Adria, 49, isn’t hanging up his whites and putting away his knives to go into a lazy retirement near El Bulli, on the coast, north of Barcelona. He’s founding a culinary foundation where he and his longtime collaborators will focus on creativity.
It’s scheduled to open in 2014. Meanwhile, there is building work to be done. New premises are going to be constructed in place of the car park where apprentice chefs spent their first day of each season -- polishing a pile of rocks that decorated the entrance rather than preparing food.
Until now, Adria has spent half the year creating dishes at his workshop in Barcelona and the other half serving them to customers at El Bulli, which is reached by a winding road from the town of Roses. He’s dispensing with the restaurant because he wants to spend more time being creative, like an artist abandoning exhibitions to focus on making art.
El Bulli came to worldwide attention when it first won the best restaurant title in 2002, yet it isn’t a new establishment.
It was created by a German physician, Hans Schilling, who bought a piece of land on the coast, near Roses, 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.
When the restaurant first opened, it served traditional French cuisine. Adria got work experience at El Bulli in 1983 while doing military service at Cartagena and joined full time in March 1984. At that time, he and his friends would often go out at night to drink in the bars and discotheques of Roses. Just a few months later, he and his friend Christian Lutaud were jointly placed in charge of the kitchen. Lutaud left in 1987.
If you haven’t tried Adria’s dishes, let me say that they can be challenging. He plays with taste, texture and temperature, so you think you are about to eat one thing and it turns out to be another. This can be fun: Your meal may start with what looks to be an olive but is an olive puree trapped within a film of gel, so it explodes in your mouth.
Your cocktails may be a pina colada that comes as cotton candy with freeze-dried pineapple and spheres of rum. It’s fun, yet a meal may run to 48 courses, as mine did in March. And sometimes the surprises may not be to your liking. My 33rd course was introduced as hare blood: a scarlet liquid congealing in a glass. It was beet juice.
While El Bulli was a unique and fabulous restaurant, it was also an experience for the rich to collect. If you want to understand Adria, elements of his cooking are now to be found in restaurants around the world, including Pollen Street Social, where chef-patron Jason Atherton was the first Briton to complete a ‘stage’ (unpaid work experience) at El Bulli. Also in London, Viajante’s Nuno Mendes is a direct disciple of Adria’s.
El Bulli’s closure doesn’t matter because most people would never have got the chance to eat there and we do still have the master, Ferran Adria, who is now able to devote himself full time to the creative process. Adria is El Bulli.
Long live El Bulli.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)