Sunday, November 13, 2016

Ferran Adria and El Bulli

The Invention of Food at the Dali Museum, an exhibit worth seeing before it departs November 27th.

Ever since I read about this place years ago, said to be the best restaurant in the world, I have been curious about El Bulli ("Bulldog" named for the bulldogs the original owner loved). It closed in 2011 after a quarter century of serving the weirdest and most sought after cuisine.

If you have no idea what I am talking about the pictures that are to follow will be helped by these perforce elderly essays about the now closed restaurant:

This Little Piglet My favorite essay about eating there, unabashed hero worship. A lovely read.

Chocolate and Zucchini Review of El Bulli 2006  This essay includes a  very complete list of the  three dozen items on the menu and if you click on each item you will get a photograph! Astonishing.

Or this essay from 2008 View From The Wing: Dinner at El Bulli which includes pictures (several broken links too unfortunately) of the restaurant and the staff.

Then there is this gallery of food from El Bulli. Like the restaurant itself which directed diners on how to eat the food,  I am offering you a bunch of links to understand that which intrigued me and propelled me to this exhibit in St Petersburg.

In the photo above the orange thing is food disguised as flame. In the 1990s after an already successful career as a chef Adria and his brother set off on their own path creating food as art. Ferran is the creator of so called molecular gastronomy where flavors are reduced to their essence, and foods come at the diner in shapes and consistencies not previously imagined.(Ferran Adria has the gray hair on the right with arms crossed contemplating an experiment):
Soups could be solids, solids could be gases and liquids could be encapsulated in skins. El Bulli offered a tasting menu for about $250 (plus wine etc) consisting in 36 dishes served at a pace of one every five minutes over a period of three hours. Adria was assisted by 40 cooks and as many wait staff at his isolated farmhouse restaurant by the sea on a rocky headland in Catalonia not far from France.
If you think this is all too weird you'd be right but if you read the essays above you'll know  this odd style of eating was revered by the lucky few who got tables there. El Bulli served 8,000 guests a summer and received about two million requests every year. On principle they declined walk-in traffic to avoid encouraging such rash behavior.
Ferran Adria
Ferran Adria ©elBulliArchive/Pepo Segura

I cannot explain my fascination with El Bulli from such a distance and had I been truly thoughtful I should have written an email one October when he was taking his annual reservations and hoped for the best and planned a trip to Spain based on a positive response in the grand lottery to eat at El Bulli. But such quixotic gestures are not in my repertoire as I like to plan my spontaneous extravagances. However when my wife learned of the exhibit at her favorite Florida museum, the Dali in St Petersburg, she figured out a way to make her Veterans' Day holiday work for us.
The remarkable thing about Adria is how carefully he recorded each of his 1846 unique receipes, none of them ever served more than once. He took notes and photographs and recorded them in "year books" also on display in the photo above.
The exhibit had video endorsements from artists and chefs praising Adria's extraordinary approach to food as art. 
And a presentation on one wall showed a loop video of pictures of each dish served at El Bulli:
How I wished I had gone! Or at least tried to go...I saw pictures of some of his creations at least:
 Inspired by nature...
And the peculiar plates and serving devices -no knives ever, just fingers forks and spoons and not very much meat served either, most dishes were fish and vegetable based. 
Because Dali was Catalan also the museum included a few of his pictures relating to food, peasant-like fish and bread artworks. Though I can say that I got so immersed in the show I got muddled over the provenance of this cutlery set, actually by Dali but I thought it was El Bulli...such were the connections between the two.
It is said Adria took inspiration from Dali's surreal artwork too in the creation of some dishes. We left feeling pretty hungry so we  stopped and got a taste of the black acorn-fed wild pig ham offered at the entrance to the exhibit. No wonder Adria loved this stuff, aged  for three years unlike any other. It was not terribly salty which  air cured ham often is, and was full of the flavors of the forest, quite unique. 
It was a great exhibit and a fine tribute to an artist who is now operating a  foundation they say in Barcelona where Ferran Adria is teaching his skills to a new generation. And not necessarily doing Spanish cuisine any favors his critics claim. As for the belief that this was the "best" restaurant in the world I don't know what to say. Not least because I never ate there but had I eaten there no doubt I'd have loved it as everyone did. A part of me shudders at the extravagance of making food art but part of me too recognizes the need for human thought to be pushed beyond mere expectations fulfilled. I think the world is a poorer place without El Bulli. Interestingly Adria himself knew he could have multiplied his prices by any amount but he wanted to give ordinary people access to his art so he operated a hotel in Barcelona to pay for El Bulli which barely broke even.

On the other hand if you want to eat, as we did last Friday, some dim sum, a cuisine not available in Key West, El Bulli would have been a rotten choice. Plus we got out for around thirty two bucks for both of us. 

And then we rushed over to pick Rusty up from the boarding kennel where he had spent the past five hours. It seemed the best solution for him while I stared at Art, and I took him for a long long walk and fed him treats to compensate. He acted like it worked for him.

On the passing of El Bulli I recall this article from Vanity Fair LINK.