Ferran Adria is arguably the world’s greatest living chef – his restaurant El Bulli has been voted the best in the world three times, including this year and last and it has been awarded the maximum three stars in the coveted Michelin Guide. So popular is it that if everyone who wanted to eat there got a reservation it would be full for the next 125 years.
Situated in the village of Roses on the Costa Brava in Spain, El Bulli is already booked up throughout 2008 and you can forget monetary bribes or a celebrity status, Adria’s own amigos cannot even jump the queue.
For six months during the winter, Adria and his team close the restaurant and shut themselves up in his gastronomic workshop in Barcelona, the El Bulli “Taller”, or atelier, where they experiment with liquid hydrogen, candy-floss machines and chemical baths. The resulting innovations have over the past decade continually confounded expectations of what cookery, or indeed food, can be. “I want to make people think and reflect,” stated the 45-year Spaniard in an interview with the Independent, sounding more like a conceptual artist than a chef – and indeed Adria has blurred definitions of both.
So what makes this place so special? For Dh932 you get a 32-course menu de dégustation that has been described by some as playful, amazing and frightening.
The meal is said to begin with a glass of pine tree water, or perhaps a margarita that is served in a block of carved ice containing shards of frozen cocktail with a blob of olive-flavoured foam. With stately pace, the dishes appear, small tapas-sized portions of green pepper nougat, or a single egg yolk cased in caramel, cherries dipped in what appears to be white chocolate but is actually ham fat. Many of the courses are designed to be consumed in a single mouthful, or slurp. Some are composite dishes served with instructions from the waiter: eat the scampi, while sniffing this piece of rosemary. Slivers of tuna that have been dried and cured using the same method as jamon iberico are eaten with specially crafted tweezers, tailor-made for the dish by an in-house industrial designer.
Then there will be a plate of spaghetti formed from Parmesan cheese and popcorn foam accompanied by a caramelised ball of liquid pumpkin, a small grilled fish swaddled in white candy floss, apple-flavoured “caviar” served in a Beluga tin, coffee and lychee marbles floating in chocolate soup.
Ingredients might be utterly transformed by unexpected colour, texture and temperature, but they can be quite humble – Adria does not rely on hunks of truffle to amaze his diners or hike up prices.
He assigns value to foods that are normally underrated. Over the past 12 years he and his dedicated “development squad” have invented thousands of dishes that sound counterintuitive but are said to have clean, clear and, usually, delicious flavours.
Adria, along with Thomas Keller of French Laundry in California and Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in Berkshire, England, are popularly considered to be the foremost proponents of what has been termed “molecular gastronomy” – a type of cooking that Adria describes as “pushing the limits of the kitchen”.
Despite being possibly the most respected chef in the world Adria first became interested in food by accident. “I grew up eating normal food like French fries, just like any other kid in Spain. But after studying economics I went to Ibiza and helped my friend who was a chef, to prepare salads at the Hotel Playafels in the town of Castelldefels. This is when I started to think about food as more than just something to fill you up.”
After a period of military service in 1984, at the suggestion of another recruit he got a job as chef de partie at El Bulli. After a decade at the restaurant he started experimenting with ways to transform food in 1994. “We wanted to push the limits – whether people liked it or not. I am happy when people enjoy my food. But it’s not my first priority,” he said.
Today his cuisine – whatever name you give it, although he prefers “ nueva cocina” – commands reverence in his diners.
Taste the extraordinary
- Cucumber gin tonic with candied
citrus peel accompanied by a jug of liquid nitrogen
- Esferificación olives (olive oil trapped in a soft casing to look like an olive)
- Hibiscus, blackcurrant, and eucalyptus candy with a paper-thin sugar cape
- Liquid ham croquette
- Parmesan wontons in a chicken broth in a bowl of basil foam
- Bread soup with egg yolk spheres and laurencia seaweed
- Crab Marrakech: lumps of crab meat in a mandarin flower broth, with bulgur wheat
- Boneless chicken feet wrapped in sea lettuce with sesame sauce and froth
- Liquid peach: a frozen casing of peach liqueur, and a spoonful of thin peach purée
- Peach soup
- Mango sorbet sandwiches
- Chocolate bites filled with mandarin sorbet
It's 'astro', not gastro