El Bulli Chef Drops 20 Kilos on Champagne, Wine Auctioned

Fans who mourned the closing of El Bulli in 2011 got a chance to buy a piece of its history at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong yesterday.

Chef Ferran Adria hung up his apron, announcing the Michelin three-star restaurant would be transformed into the nonprofit El Bulli Foundation, a culinary think tank and visitor center.

To help finance it, the auction sold HK$14.1 million ($1.82 million) worth of wine, kitchen utensils, signed chef’s jackets and a 48-hour “El Bulli experience” including a tour led by Adria and dinner for four at his brother’s restaurant.

“I am very, very happy,” Adria said after the auction. “The money we have raised will go a long way to helping us get the construction going.”

The new center will cost 6 million euros ($7.7 million) to build and 3 million euros a year to run when it opens in 2015.

“It’s going to be a mix of Cirque du Soleil, the Museo Dali in Barcelona and MIT’s media lab,” Adria said before the sale, sitting in Sotheby’s Hong Kong gallery. “One cocktail and that’s the new El Bulli.”

Adria is getting sponsorship from Telefonica SA, and will raise more money in a second auction in New York on April 26.

“We want to promote innovation using food as our channel,” Adria said, wearing a black collarless shirt and jacket and faded dark jeans on Monday. “We have two missions. One is to keep the El Bulli legacy and the knowhow and the buildings. The second is to create the creators. I hope one or two of the 30 creative people we get each year will be the next generation of leaders of the culinary revolution.”

Dinner Auction

The dinner for four sold for HK$220,500 ($28,400, or more than $7,000 per head). When the hammer went down on a set of 10 Laguiole horn handled knives engraved with “el Bulli” selling for HK$73,500 (compared with a suggested opening price of HK$8,000) Adria and his colleagues clinked their glasses of Dom Perignon with delight.

Adria, 50, is known for his creative gastronomy, with innovations such as beetroot foam, parmesan ice cream and spherification, where food essences are enclosed in bubbles made of themselves. (The first was a liquid pea ravioli.)

His tasting menus consisting of as many as 48 courses attracted more than one million reservation requests per year for just 8,000 meals served.

“The problem is that haute cuisine is experienced by a small number of people,” he said, explaining he expects as many as 120,000 per year to visit the exhibition center where they can watch chefs experiment. “It’s more democratic.”

Self Funding

Elitism isn’t completely off the menu. Another important source of finance will come from selling between 100 and 200 exclusive memberships (prices to be determined), enabling the holders to take advantage of the one month per year he will serve meals. To become entirely self funding, the foundation needs to raise 100 million euros by 2050.

The foundation will incorporate suggestions from students at the Harvard Business School who won a competition to come up with ideas on innovation and organization.

Speaking in broken English, some heavily accented French and Spanish through a translator in the interview, Adria riffed on everything from critics (necessary) to flatware versus chopsticks (they both have their place in global cuisine.)

Cardiologist Cookbook

On obesity, he lost 20 kilos (he now weighs 80 kilos) after co-authoring a cookbook in 2010 with Valentin Fuster, a prominent cardiologist. On food safety, he said it is “very serious, not just in China but in general.”

Adria’s creations were so novel that his team needed to design new dishes for them. Some were inspired by folded paper, and look like metal origami, though Adria assures me that the their strong resemblance to the cladding of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is purely coincidental.

He jumped up from his chair to display a metal snack tray that fits like a piece of crumpled body armor on his forearm, and mimes “serving communion.”

Though Adria said Champagne is the best companion to his culinary marathons -- he is partial to Dom Perignon 1964 -- El Bulli built up an extensive cellar of French, Spanish, Australian and American wines.

The top lot in the Hong Kong sale containing three bottles of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti 1990 sold for HK$563,500 compared with a presale estimate of HK$260,000 to HK$380,000.

Adria, whose culinary experiments have produced 1,846 different dishes in the past 30 years, said wine is the one thing he hasn’t dared tamper with.

“Can I de-construct wine? Yes, but it would be unethical,” he said. “Of course I could take a bottle of Dom Perignon and add a bit of Romanee-Conti and call it Dom Perignon rose, but my sommelier would kill me.”

Including the el Bulli sale, Sotheby’s sold HK$43.2 million ($5.6 million) of wine during the first day of its spring auctions, which run from April 3 through April 8.

(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own. This interview is adapted from a longer conversation.)

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