Philosophy Of Food
The last time I was in Barcelona, it wasn’t for the street food — although I do love this useful little guide to the city’s best. It was for El Bulli. This mecca for foodies was voted number one in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – a total of five times. And its chef, Ferran Adria, was voted Chef Of The Decade. But it didn’t make any money. Sat on the terrace – with the help of an ashtray (representing El Bulli), a packet of Marlboro lights (representing El Bulli’s chefs) and two glasses of water and a lighter (representing El Bulli’s businesses) – Adria explained why the restaurant never managed to turn a profit. And why, sadly, he decided to close El Bulli down.
The degustation menu featured everything from “gold-tinted caramel of quails’ eggs” to “foie-gras noodles”. Even though it was Euros 270, it had to be subsidised. The Harvard Business School said that Adria should have used cheaper ingredients. He should have lowered his staff numbers. And he should have increased the restaurant’s hours of operation. But “fixing” El Bulli would have turned it into just another restaurant. And El Bulli was never “just another restaurant”. Now the doors have closed – possibly for the last time – and Adria should have been upset.
But he wasn’t. Adria wasn’t smiling (he doesn’t smile much, in all honesty), but insisted he was thrilled to be closing El Bulli as a restaurant and reopening it as a foundation in three years time. “Wouldn’t you like a three-year sabbatical? I would be sad if they closed [El Bulli] completely and sold it to somebody else. And that’s what would have happened if it had continued being a restaurant. But, by setting up the foundation, we are creating a scenario to continue the spirit and the philosophy of El Bulli.”
Diners these days have come to expect more than just ‘dinner’ when they eat in high-end restaurants. They want an experience. And that’s all down to the extraordinary theatre of food first started by El Bulli. “You know Redzepi, right? Juan Roca? Alex Atala? What do all these chefs have in common? They have all worked at the Bulli. They have a passion for food and taking risks – and you never used to find those qualities in high-end cuisine. They have the spirit of the Bulli. And that spirit has now spread round the world.”
Adria won’t accept that El Bulli was ever really the best restaurant in the world. “You can’t define a place as ‘the best’. But you can say ‘El Bulli was a restaurant that created 1,846 different dishes – and every year it reinvented itself’. As far as I know it’s the only place to have done that.” The innovation didn’t end with weird and wonderful dishes such as spherified olives and liquid ham. El Bulli was the first restaurant to do away with a menu – diners at El Bulli ate whatever the kitchen decided to send out. It changed the very essence of what a restaurant was about.
Adria’s phone went. As he picked it up, he said “This is going to be a deconstructed interview.” Adria had made a very knowing joke. You see, nobody talks about the gastronomy of places like El Bulli and the Fat Duck being ‘molecular’ any more – it’s old hat. Adria prefers the idea of his food being ‘avant-garde’ or, sometimes, ‘deconstructivist’ – pulled apart, to make sense of the flavours. Our interview was being ‘deconstructed’ by Albert Adria, Ferran’s brother. The two brothers were organising their parents’ golden wedding anninversary. Imagine the canapes…..
Inside, the El Bulli dining room was busy being turned into an impromptu photographic studio. The kitchen team were photographing all the dishes that they had created this season for ‘the catalogue’. They are such perfectionists that they can’t shoot more than four dishes dishes a day. Catalogues from previous years are on sale (at up to £130) in reception. When Anthony Bourdain first picked one up, he felt pity for chefs everywhere. “Like Eric Clapton seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time,” he said, “one imagines they will ask themselves ‘What do I do now?’.”
Adria was the first chef to have a ‘catalogue resume’ – like Picasso. He liked the idea of being compared to Picasso. And being ‘the first’. Adria was also the first chef to set up a workshop to develop his restaurant dishes, and the first chef to exhibit at Documenta, one of the world’s leading contemporary art shows. The diners, in effect, became an art work. “And it’s impossible for those things to happen for the first time again” said Adria, with a slight tone of “so there” in his his voice. While he got the chance, Adria made sure everyone knows his legacy.
“The biggest dream when I started out was to get three Michelin stars” said Adria. “But a lot of the chefs these days don’t want just that – they want the things I’ve achieved as well.” Barcelona University, for instance, gave him an honorary doctorate for ‘scientific and cultural merit’. “Many other chefs have got honorary doctorates now” he said. “But I was the first.” He’s sounding churlish. But, to be fair, the University of Bedfordshire just awarded an honorary doctorate to Jean Christophe Novelli – you can what he means……
When Adria first came to Montjoi Bay, north of Barcelona, it was for the women. Not the little restaurant called ‘El Bulli’ (in honour of the owners’ pet bulldogs). But the restaurant was why he ended up staying. Business wasn’t good – according to his biographer, Adria sometimes cooked for no-one but the bulldogs – but, at 25, Adria was promoted to head chef. He was inspired to move away from the restaurant’s French classicism by chef Jacques Maximin’s comment that “creativity is not copying”. Adria decided to invent something new.
It was a big risk. El Bulli was two hours outside Barcelona – off the beaten track, and in the middle of nowhere. “A lot of people couldn’t understand the food” he says. Adria wasn’t making any profit. He didn’t even have the money to pay the staff. “Nobody talks about this” he says. “But it’s a part of Bulli [history]. That’s why I don’t care about having a Ferrari now. I didn’t have a Ferrari for 15 years – so why should I care about it now? I still remember the first time a table told me that the food was fantastic. Suddenly I thought ‘Maybe it’s worth continuing’.”
Over the years, Adria created a new language of food. A language of taste and texture where nothing was what it seemed. June didn’t always rhyme with Moon, at least not when Adria was bringing out plates of Parmesan ice cream sandwiches, or cheesy popcorn served with Iranian caviar (made from melon) in a real caviar can. The atmosphere in the El Bulli dining room was fevered, as everyone clamoured to see what everyone else was eating. It was fun. It was collaborative. And Adria deserved every single one of the glittering prizes.
Adria led me into his kitchens – the most beautiful kitchens I’ve ever seen. The floors were marble. The shelves were wood. And they had huge, picture windows that opened onto the Catalan countryside and bathed the room in natural light. In traditional kitchens, the sweet section is kept away from savoury – but not here. Everyone in El Bulli worked round each other. Ferran paced round the hotplates, pencil behind his ear, observing the chefs. He liked them to create something new every day and – before service – he assessed their progress.
Ten chefs were shucking oysters. But one was digging out the tiny muscle that attached the meat of the oyster to the shells – it was the basis of a new dish. Another was making a silicone mould out of a peach stone, and jotting down the method in her notebook. There were balloons full of gorgonzola milk hanging up in the larder (when they’re frozen, and popped, they left a perfect sphere of cheese); and candy floss machines everywhere. But the oddest thing, in the kitchen of El Bulli, was the frying pan full of sausages.
They weren’t made of apple. And they didn’t sing. They were just sausages. And they were being served (with tomato sauce) for the staff dinner, or “family meal” as it was called at El Bulli. Adria wanted me to join them. A restaurant kitchen isn’t usually the best place to eat. Chefs, after all, are traditionally fed on leftovers. But Adria, who has a habit of doing things systematically, drew up his staff menus a whole year in advance. And he was rather proud of them. So proud, in fact, that he decided to make the menus available as a book.
It was an unusual sort of book for the world’s greatest culinary innovator to write. It featured honest to goodness dishes such as tagliatelle carbonara, steamed mussels and chocolate mousse. And it reverted to the old starter/main course/dessert format. No little snacks or tapas plates – and no fancy spherification techniques. It was simple, with pictures of everything – even if it was just Adria “adding” or “stirring”. The whole thing felt rather old-fashioned. Like the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook. With menus priced at a rather old-fashioned Euros 4 per head.
At exactly 5.30pm, the working kitchen started to transform into a dining room filled with plastic garden chairs. The sort that stack – that you get from B & Q. Huge platters (or violines) of grilled aubergines with a miso vinaigrette, and the sausauges, were brought in, and the chefs helped themselves. That way, if there was any food left, it would be kept for tomorrow. Short, cheap wine glasses were passed round, along with baskets of bread for mopping up the tomato sauce. It was very Spanish. And it felt like family. The food was delicious.
“When you come back to El Bulli in 2014,” says Adria, “you’ll find some new constructions. They will be stunning. You will see people in the kitchen, working. In 2011, people are producing – they do a bit of creativity. But when you come back in 2014 there will only be creativity.” The central team of chefs will remain for eight months of the year. “But they will be joined by others. Every year we will take in 15-20 new people to work on new projects. Chefs, yes, but also philosophers, architects, journalists….”
The one thing that El Bulli won’t be, in 2014, is a restaurant. And people won’t be able to make reservations. No change there then – every year, two million people chased reservations in the 50-covers-a-night restaurant, which left a lot of people disappointed. The fact that it closed half the year (for receipe development) only made matters worse. So Adria won’t be in the restaurant guidebooks any more. Like Marco Pierre White, who gave back his Michelin stars, Adria is walking away while he’s on top. Isn’t he bothered? “Pass the sausages please.”