WHERE THE ROAD ENDS
Reportedly, there are about 4 million requests for reservations per year at EL BULLI, inarguably, the world’s most innovative and exciting restaurant. Only a few thousand are accommodated. There have been about as many words written on the subject, most of them focusing, understandably, on Ferran Adria, the chef, and on the wildly creative and forward thinking techniques and presentations he has introduced each year to the world. A snarky, sour grapesy, but not entirely untrue piece on slate.com recently described a writer’s syndrome called IAAEBAYD (or something like that): I Ate At El Bulli And You Didn’t; a common malady that infects most of the writers, myself included, who have been among the tiny minority lucky enough to have eaten at El Bulli—much less been given access to the people behind it. Invariably, the author points out, every article about El Bulli has to contain a passage describing the twisting and treacherous road from the nearest town on Spain’s Costa Brava to the remote cove where the restaurant is tucked away at one end of a mostly unpopulated beach.
But I think that in order to help understand El Bulli—and where it came from—how it could have happened, you need to drive beyond the restaurant. It is useful to note, for instance, that the paved road ends just past El Bulli, near a budget tourist camp. From there, it’s a bumpy track of dirt and rock, cut through a savagely beautiful and almost entirely unpopulated coastline dotted with yellow and purple wildflowers, low scrub and sheer drops to the sea. It is useful to note the incredibly harsh wind that whips down from the Pyrenees much of the year—an explanation for the narrow and inexplicably, seemingly nonsensically twisting streets of the nearby towns. There is a method to the madness: shelter. It is useful to note the large but decidedly unassuming house up the hill from El Bulli, where Ferran Adria lived all those years between four plain walls, a monk’s quarters, commuting back and forth to Barcelona in a 28 year old car. It is useful to imagine the early years at El Bulli, when Ferran and his brother Albert and crew prepared Europe’s most creative cuisine, night after night, for an empty dining room, retiring to beds where the sound of that wind was never ending. It is useful to note that Juli Solter, the general manager and front of the house face of El Bulli was a holdover from the previous incarnation—a German owned tourist restaurant with a “continental” menu—and that he too, believed and persevered—in the face of what must surely have seemed overwhelming conventional wisdom.
It is useful to note—to never, ever forget—that this is Catalonia—not Madrid, not Saint Sebastian—not anywhere else—and that Ferran and Albert Adria grew up in a small, featureless town on the outskirts of Barcelona called Hospitalet, a Franco era refuge for immigrants from the poorer Andalusia in the South who’d moved North in search of jobs and opportunity. It is useful to see the box-like workers’ flats of that town and imagine how a young boy—two young boys actually—might have wanted to escape—and how few their options might have appeared.
It is useful to eat the prawns and shrimps from these waters, to taste the God-made sauce they possess in their heads, and to remember, that Ferran, after sucking the brains out of one in 2002 at a humble seafood joint in nearby Roses, said—explained—that this—THIS—was what he wanted to honor with his creations.
It is useful to note that though there are anywhere from 35-52 tiny courses of unimaginable complexity of preparation served at El Bulli—prepared by about 35-40 cooks—for roughly the same number of customers (about 1,500 plates separate plates per night), that the flavors are instantly recognizable, uncomplicated, even authentic. That the tables at El Bulli are decorated with only a white tablecloth when you sit down—and that for nearly half the meal, you are encouraged to eat with your hands. That instead of a complex and intimidating progression of “big” wines paired to each course, the way to go at El Bulli (at least the way Ferran eats at El Bulli) is to drink cava straight through—maybe a bit of champagne. Worth noting that it is not a particularly expensive restaurant by 3 star Michelin standards. It has been named, many times, the “best” restaurant in the world—and it has certainly been the hardest to get into, but it is far, far, far from the most expensive. In fact, I doubt if they have ever made a dime.
It is worth noting, walking around Roses, off season, that nearly every café owner, barkeep, and merchant seems to have worked at El Bulli, or had a son or daughter work there, or in some way been bound to the place. That many have eaten there. That El Bulli may be one of the most elite dinners you can have—but that the place itself is and never was, elitist.
It is useful—and certainly delightful—to have heard Ferran Adria next to you, while eating his own, food, making little noises of pleasure and delight—like a little kid, encountering this magic for the very first time.
It is worth noting that anyone who bitches about “molecular gastronomy”, “science cooking”, food with “foam”, has, really, no idea what the **** they are talking about. They are certainly not talking about El Bulli, which is none of those things. It is worth noting that so many chefs (not all) who DO claim to do those things, or aspire to the mantle of “modernist” cooking, have themselves never eaten at El Bulli—and of the few who have, most, it seems, misunderstood it—missed the emotion, blood, passion and centuries of Catalonian history and landscape that help make it what it is.
I just had the greatest meal of my life there, aware all the time that there would never be another. El Bulli closes its doors as a restaurant forever on July 31st of this year. And becomes…something else. What exactly that might be is something you will see, explicitly, and have explained by the principals, on the frankly incredible show we just made there. You will see what has made it the extraordinary institution it is, how they make each dish, who makes each dish—and to some extent—why. For reasons I will never fully understand—but will forever be grateful for—Ferran Adria gave us, again, once-in-a-lifetime access to every aspect of El Bulli. Along with my friend, the great chef—and one-time cook at El Bulli , Jose Andres, I was allowed to eat in the kitchen with Ferran for what he, himself, called the single best service in the restaurant’s history. Everything, even by his standards, was perfect and never better.
I ate staff meal with the crew. And, submitting to Ferran and his chef Oriol Castro’s impish desire to see me brown my shorts, actually worked the El Bulli line during service, moving from one incredibly delicate, specialized task after another—just to get the idea.
We filmed everything—with the best crew we had. And what we got? In all modesty? It’s ***ing history. It will never be topped. No more comprehensive coverage or complete access will ever happen again. It’s done.
The beginnings of our production company, Zero Point Zero began with Ferran Adria, and his willingness, in 2002, to let us film with him at his workshop and in his restaurant. Food Network didn’t want the show and neither did our then masters at New York Times Television. So, me and Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia reached in our pockets and went off and shot at El Bulli anyway—with no customer or network or venue in mind. We just knew we shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t miss this. The documentary we came back with, “DECODING FERRAN ADRIA” became our first successful foray into independent television production—and the calling card (and eventually an episode) of NO RESERVATIONS. We owe it all to Ferran’s willingness to take a viper like me to his bosom –in spite of some previous on-the record hostility to the very idea of what he was doing.
This time was even more amazing. Light years more amazing. And emotional. I tweeted at the time that as diners wandered slowly, blissfully, but regretfully out the door after what was almost certainly their last meal there ever, many had tears in their eyes.
It was a meal of a lifetime.
Bouncing around the Costa Brava and Barcelona with Jose Andres, eating and drinking, was, I can assure you, an adventure of a lifetime. There is no one better to do such a thing with. (Though there are safer candidates).
It will be the show of a lifetime. This, I can promise you.