Hunting and Gathering: Through the Rabbit Hole to El Bulli

Hunting and Gathering: Through the Rabbit Hole to El Bulli

By Lisa Barlow

Frozen Pond I am sitting in the most celebrated restaurant in the world and I have just been served a piece of ice. It is almost as if the pretty white bowl in front of me is empty, except that across its top is a perfect meniscus of clear frozen water. “Frozen Pond” the waiter announces with a smile, while another waiter taps mint dust with green tea and sugar across the top. We are handed spoons and asked to crack the ice. “Tastes like a stick of gum” my husband whispers. But I am decades away in a pink polka dotted parka that I have unzipped to fill with wind so it will sail me on my childhood ice skates across Long Island’s Mecox Bay.

Many things can happen to you if you are lucky enough to eat at El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s extraordinary culinary laboratory on Spain’s Costa Brava. And you may not really understand the nature of your experience until it is long over. Certainly there is the excitement that you are about to enjoy a great meal, as well as recognition that you are part of history. El Bulli, the restaurant, will close at the end July. But there are many other emotions engendered by what is on your plate to take you by surprise. Frozen water, for instance. What starts out as a joke (the emperor, or in this case, the diner, has no clothes!) turns into a well-placed palate cleanser with Proustian effects.

“You won’t necessarily like everything you eat there” a friend had told me, “but you will love all of every minute of it”.  It was true. Adrià’s genius is that he isn’t out to please. In 45 courses that range from eye-popping and joyfully comedic to vaguely unsettling yet deliciously sublime, he wants to take you where you have never been before, or where you thought you’d never be again.

I am not the first person to say that eating at El Bulli feels like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. What you think will be cold may be hot, what you think will be an olive is not. An egg that arrives at the table could have been laid by a dinosaur and reveals itself to be a hollow globe of gorgonzola cheese. A piece of paper on your plate is an edible love letter made with cotton candy and fresh flowers. It might easily be printed with the words “Eat Me”.  A glass of “blood” turns out to be beets, but a dark brown spoonful is far scarier: raw rabbit brains. Every dish is a work of art requiring the use of all 5 senses, plus a sixth one that keeps you guessing at the nature of what you feel. 

What most people know about Ferran Adrià is that he is the man who brought foam to the table and taught us to cook using a beaker and pipettes. He is the father of Molecular Gastronomy. Yet, like many of the other truths he turns upside down, this “fact” is one Adrià is the first to refute. All cooking is applied science, he will tell you. Even when you are making toast you are changing the molecular structure of the bread. The hydrocolloids he brought to the table with his spherifications of faux olives and ingeniously wrought nut caviar have been used by industrial chefs for half a century. He is simply the first chef to rethink restaurant cuisine using techniques more commonly found in a science laboratory.

When El Bulli closes, the restaurant will transform itself into a full time educational facility for visiting chefs and artists, something it has actually been all along. Not only do young people from around the world come here as apprentices to learn from the Master Chef. Adrià is devoted to learning there as well. He excludes the public from the restaurant for six months out of every year in order to reinvent the menu and teach himself new methods of preparing his ingredients.

While the new El Bulli Foundation will be based where the restaurant is located near the resort town of Roses, there is also the Taller, or atelier, in Barcelona near the famed Boqueria Market. At each site, torches and siphons and Pacojet freezers and genie-like Thermomix machines share space with local market ingredients. Despite his use of high tech gadgetry, Adrià’s cuisine remains firmly rooted in Catalonia. He may be striving for new alchemical reactions, but the rose petals, green peas or baby squid he is playing with are locally sourced.

Barnacles and Sea Anemones My favorite dish at El Bulli turned out to be one of the most straightforward, yet it was futuristic in a totally surprising way.  “Cold Sea Anemone with Barnacles” paired “percebes”, or gooseneck barnacles, with frilly sea anemones, both local catch. They sat in a bright green broth topped with a dollop of white froth, reminding me of the seaweed-covered rocks of the Maine coastline. But it wasn’t until the next morning, when I dove into the chilly Mediterranean in front of my hotel and licked my salty lips that I understood what Adria was after. At dinner, he had bent time again and anticipated my future. Everything on my plate was in that refreshing plunge. He had served me the essence of the sea outside his door.

For everyone who feels sad that El Bulli is closing, there is this: Ferran Adrià isn’t going anywhere. He will continue to create and inspire. The Foundation will publish an on-line database of both old and new recipes, and some of its dishes can be sampled at 41 Degrees, the new Barcelona bar Ferran Adrià owns with his brother, Albert. In addition, hundreds of the stagiaires  he has influenced are out in the world on every continent. One of them, René Redzepi, displaced his former mentor last year when his restaurant Noma was named #1 on the San Pelligrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Adrià’s reaction? Delight. His ideas have taken wing and are inspiring new ones.

Ferran Adrià’s fearlessness and his questioning wonder are perhaps his greatest legacy. By asking “Why does something have to be way it is, the way we have done it for a thousand years?” he liberates us all to try new things, to experiment with our palates and question our own fixations. “Curiouser and curiouser!” Alice says of her experiences in Wonderland. Ferran Adrià might turn that into a directive to be more curious The next time you stand in front of your stove, ask yourself “What if?”

LB2 Lisa Barlow is a writer and photographer who divides her time between New York, Telluride and  San Pancho, Mexico. An enthusiastic omnivore, she specializes in stories about food.

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