Alessandro Tome on the mouthwatering genius of maverick Catalan chef Ferran Adria
Alessandro Tome on the mouthwatering genius of maverick Catalan chef Ferran Adria
Even if you are not a keen visitor of restaurants, even if you are not a great gourmet, or even plain gourmet; even if you aren’t a DIY cook, let alone a home Gordon; even if you understandably don’t read restaurant critics because you’re not particularly interested in their views of the world, but just, and even then maybe, in their views of a restaurant and its food, even then you have probably heard of a Catalan chef and his little restaurant ‘somewhere near Barcelona which is difficult to get to’ and which has recently been anointed for the second year in a row as the ‘Best Restaurant in the World’: Férran Adrià and El Bulli.
Now, as I have previously expressed, I don’t really believe there is such a thing as Best Hotel or Best Restaurant or Best Song or even Best Wife. I mean I think mine is but why would anyone else agree? Actually that’s probably a bad example, most of my married friends would agree she is.
Anyway, an unmarried friend of mine put paid to that whole concept when he asked me why is it that if wives are so great, God does not have one? But back to restaurants and El Bulli in particular. I am not a restaurant critic and whilst I have written a food column in the past, I have never gone over to the dark ‘critic’ side.
Which is why I think it very appropriate that I should write a piece on El Bulli rather then the seemingly better accredited restaurant critics.
You see, there is nothing to critique. At least not within the culinary reality most of us are used to. El Bulli is not about food as we know it, see it, think it. It is on another plane, in a different space, it is an other-food-worldly experience. You couldn’t possibly start to write a critique of it, as none of the textures, colours, flavours, combinations, techniques and even sometimes ingredients are anything you expect or can compare with.
But most of all because you cannot critique a fable, you cannot critique someone’s imagination and invention, because you cannot set any standard against it. You may or may not like oysters or miso or milk curd, but you cannot but admire the ability of a man to imagine the unimagined and then be able to execute it in a kitchen with such refinement, accuracy, invention and passion.
Like you, I had heard of this restaurant ‘somewhere near Barcelona’ – near being three hours’ drive and of how difficult it was to get a table there, which altogether didn’t sound very promising.
But when my father, who is rather conservative when it comes to culinary things (and a few other things for that matter), but is also one of the great gourmets, told me that having a meal there was something one had to do at some point in one’s life, and that he had managed to get a table for his birthday, I needed no more than a few hours to finalise my travel plans to Girona, which is closer to where El Bulli is than Barcelona itself.
And so my wife Katy and I tried to prepare ourselves for things to come. We read bits, visited the website, went on a training course to build up to being able to eat 24 courses. We promised ourselves we would eat whatever weird and gooey stuff we might get, we wouldn’t make funny faces or spit anything out. We tried to get more information out of my father who had visited twice before but however hard he tried, he couldn’t really explain, or we couldn’t really understand.
And so off we were to a seaside resort quite well known to Anglo-Saxons called Roses on the Costa Brava and beyond there on an only-recently asphalted tortuous, cliffside-hanging little road.
And I think it is here that Férran’s world of Fable starts. The sea views from the track are breathtaking – the steep cliffs dropping straight into the deep blue, while you are driving through a natural park. Already you are thinking differently from anything you have thought before when going to a restaurant.
For one, you are not driving in a city, through bright lights and crowded spaces, but to a very small cala or bay, with a tiny beach and about four houses, called Montjoi. As you park in an immaculately kept small garden, you notice there are no Maybachs outside, not ostentatious signs of wealth or success, no parking attendants, doormen, photographers and other trappings of the ‘famous’ city restaurants, but only a quiet peacefulness occasionally interrupted by the sound of some children swimming at the beach. And you start to understand.
The building itself is what Férran is really about, an unpretentious white, stone and wood local seaside taverna-like building, with a wonderful small inner terrace, and simple interiors that exude simplicity, honesty, familiarity and warmth. It was given to him by an elderly German lady of Czech descent who owned French Bulldogs, hence the name El Bulli.
And Férran, in spite and beyond his success and fame, has remained true to his starting point, where all those years ago, with very little prior background, he was given the chance to become a chef by his now business partner and then manager of El Bulli, the inimitable Juli Soler.
There is no doubt that it is that partnership which created the perfect soil from which Férran’s fervent imagination was able to germinate and then flourish, protected, stimulated and promoted by the intense energy and sense of mission that is still so vividly apparent in Juli.
We were fortunate enough to visit his private world and see him in action in the kitchens, which are a mixture of science fiction and Zen health spa; tens of people moving around in unison and harmony; not F-word here, no shouting and plate braking; just a continuous flow of colours, shapes and smells in a effortless dance of efficiency and timing.
Férran and his business partner and friend Juli will tell you that in the beginning they learned everything from the great French proponents of Nouvelle Cuisine and their techniques, and that they have the utmost respect and admiration for those masters.
An evolutionary period followed, which saw them apply those teachings and techniques across a range of dishes, with particular emphasis on classic Spanish courses, whether from Cataluña, Castilla, Valencia or Basque, and the story could have stopped there, successfully serving new Spanish cuisine.
But two things drove them on: on the one side, as Juli says, ‘one has to make a big effort to decide to get on a plane and fly down here, then drive almost three hours to get to a little track up and down cliffs to this little bay. We can’t then just serve them a starter, main course and dessert and then send them all the way back. We must give them something more, they must spend as much time as they want here with us, and they must have fun’.
And so the standard menu is 24 courses, although we were treated to a special menu that consisted of 34, and they wisely only have one serving a day as it lasts five hours – it is dinner everyday except for a Sunday lunch.
As for the fun, this is where Férran really comes to the fore. He is the Peter Pan of the food world. He has stayed in touch with his inner child; his brain is buzzing with incessant streams of new ideas, concoctions, experiments and flavours. He gives flight to his unbridled imagination, unaffected by a formal or traditional pre-conceived set of food and flavour or even preparation ‘musts’.
And the results are as spellbinding as they are varied. My father has now visited three times and tasted 90 courses, all different from each other. It is all a game and it is all a lot of fun. He plays with your eyes from the word go. All the nibbles you are given whilst savouring a pre-meal drink are made to look like desserts but taste to savoury nibbles: chocolate bars of pistachio, salty yoghourt and berries, meringued profiterole of beetroot; salty chocolate truffle filled with walnut oil; or even dehydrated pineapple French fries and parmesan ‘airbag’, which is exactly what it says, a bag of air made of parmesan! All washed down with a green-pea Bloody Mary.
And so you have entered the Bulli Magic Kingdom. You move to the restaurant area, which as I mentioned is simple, homely and fresh. The tables are beautifully laid, but once again with simplicity and the service impeccable – unobtrusive, with enough explanations and suggestions as to how to eat things and what they are, but never condescending; more like a friend showing you around a place you wanted to visit.
Presentation is once again original and attractive, but not so much as to detract from the food. And food here is a big word. Férran’s approach is that there are traditional dishes and traditional ‘families’ of ingredients and, of course, that all flavours we ‘taste’ are actually coming from our nose and not our mouths, except for sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
Combining these two main thoughts, he rearranges the ingredients within those dishes and ‘families’ in totally unexpected ways, fooling you through your sight (what you see is not what you get) while filling you with flavours rather than food, as ultimately you will swallow very little – it all dissipates into nothing once in your mouth.
It would be impossible for me to tell you which of the 34 courses I liked better, but we delighted in them all, from the exploding bonbon of mandarin, to the soft meringue of green pine cones filled with pine kernel mousse, from the liquid wontons filled with mushroom extract to the Cantonese lamb’s tail with yoghurt ‘air’, or even the hare’s ‘juice’ with apple and redcurrant jelly and sealed bean foam with transparent Iberico lard and skewered Japanese black garlic.
But among our definite favourites were the raspberry fondant with wasabe and vinegar, the caviar tin filled with the best-looking golden Oscietra caviar that turns out to be little ‘eggs’ of black miso and dashi; the oyster yoghurt served in glass with tempura balls filled with sweet Pedro Ximenes sherry; and last but not least, the tomato couscous with olive-olive oil, basil and parmesan, where the tomato is a couscous-like textured flour of pure tomato flavours, the basil is a sherbet and the parmesan is drunk out of champagne glass in the form of an elixir.
As I said, like fables or fairy tales, like Peter Pan and Never Never Land, this was ingenious, mischievous, inspired and inspiring, thought-provoking and certainly a lot of fun. But also impossible to really explain, although I have tried here.
And so Juli comes over toward the end of our ‘meal’ and says that whenever we have had enough of Férran’s sillinesses, to let them know and they will bring ‘real’ food. Férran, who is quite shy and retiring, has left the building by the time we are ready to leave and so we can only share our joys with Juli and try to convince him to let us come back next year.
Open from 1st April to 30th September, they can only serve 7,000 or so meals a year and so more than 800,000 people had to be turned away last year. That is because Peter Pan needs free time to fly about and experiment and invent in his laboratory of a kitchen the rest of the year. And so sadly Juli says that choosing who to give a table to is the most difficult part of the job.
But the fact that there is no private airport too near, that the bay can’t really accommodate large yachts and Maybachs et al certainly don’t fit on the small track down is already a good natural selection. So he smiles at us, giving us hope as we leave that we will be able to come back to Bulli Bulli Land one day and marvel once again at the creative magic of food’s Peter Pan, Férran Adrià.