Tuesday, 25 November 2008

An Evening with Ferran Adrià, Southbank Centre

"You take a fairly straightforward tomato sauce", explained Ferran Adrià (via translator), on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's South Bank last night, "and inject it using a syringe into a child's balloon". The sell-out audience of nearly 1,000 people, expecting nothing less weird and wonderful from someone generally regarded as the world's greatest living chef, watched in fascinated awe. Adrià had been at pains to point out that the food cooked at El Bulli wasn't "science-y", wasn't "molecular gastronomy" and wasn't elitist, and yet these are clearly techniques and processes far beyond the reach of most professional kitchens, never mind your average home chef. And this being El Bulli, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The tomato sauce, for example, contained two different types of thickening agent ("because just using gelatine doesn't produce the right consistency"), and the next stage of the process involved rolling the tomato-filled balloon in a bath of liquid nitrogen.

The thickened tomato sauce "cooks", you see, on the inside of the balloon when it comes into contact with the extremely cold liquid nitrogen, the rolling helping to produce an even coating. And then the magic - the balloon is pierced and peeled away, revealing an impossibly delicate sphere of tomato. The end of this fragile translucent frame is carefully broken and injected (using something called an Isi Whip) with a light tomato mousse. The end result is at once beautifully simple and yet touched with childlike wonder - a fake tomato made of real tomato, if you like, a dance of textures and techniques that is like no other food stuff served at no other restaurant on earth. And should you be lucky enough to be served this at El Bulli in 2009 (when this dish makes its debut), it will be only one course out of more than thirty.

"To describe El Bulli as 'a restaurant' is like calling Shakespeare 'a writer'" - technically correct on one level, and falling far short so many others. El Bulli is the restaurant - a fairytale God-like palace of delights, a cross between Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory and The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, and Adrià has spent the best part of 25 years developing and re-imagining the food served there to the point where it's not only far and away the most influential kitchen on the planet but also the most in-demand. Every year over 2,000,000 emails chase 8,000 seats, turning securing a reservation into something like winning the food lottery (or perhaps Wonka's golden ticket), and helping to elevate the experience into the realm of myth.

I made my own pilgrimage on Sunday as part of a weekend break to the Costa Brava. The car park gates were closed and there was little sign of life from inside El Bulli's curtained windows, but I have a feeling the Oompa Loompas were in there somewhere, chopping and blending and preparing for June 2009 when the doors open next. I don't know if I'll ever get to eat there - certainly the odds are stacked against it - but it won't be for want of trying. For the last six years I have dutifully sent off my reservation request on the 16th October, and around 14 days later each year receive the same polite reply - "La demanda recibida en el primer momento ha superado de nuevo nuestras limitadas posibilidades para una temporada y sentimos no poder complacer más peticiones de reserva." So, that's a no, then. Oh well, here's to next year.

Back in the Southbank Centre, Jay Rayner (the evening's host) has asked how many people in the audience have not yet eaten at El Bulli. Predictably, nearly everyone puts their hands up. But touchingly, rather than being pleased his restaurant is in such demand, Adrià puts his head in his hands, crestfallen. "It's so sad", he says, "If I could give everyone in the world who wanted one a meal at El Bulli, I would". Such is the burden of a great chef. Picasso and Mozart can have their works reprinted and replayed and toured the world over, but the dialogue between a restaurant and its guests is ephemeral - different from one day to the next, even one hour to the next, a slave to human inconsistencies, technical variations, ingredients, the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. And despite how often Adrià was at pains to point out last night that his food wasn't elitist, the reality is that unless you're either very lucky or very rich, you will never eat at El Bulli, and instead you will learn of the twists and swirls and foams of El Bulli second or third hand, becoming part of the myth without ever tasting the experience first-hand. Adrià knows this, and it hurts.

But then, maybe the myth of El Bulli is part of what has made it so powerfully influential after all. Like the gaggle of dysfunctional children gorging on chocolate in the hope of winning a golden ticket to the Wonka factory, we all want a piece of the magic and live in hope of being "chosen", and the more torturous the journey and longer the wait, the more we want it. From time to time, at events like last night's, glimpses of the wonders inside the whitewashed walls leak out, and the excitement increases even more. Perhaps one day I will revisit El Bulli, not as a geeky food tourist taking holiday snaps out of season, but as a paying guest, and I will walk up to that unassuming front door and make it inside. But if not, at least I'll be in good company. And anyway, what kind of world would this be if they were giving away the taste of paradise to every kid gathered at the factory gates?

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it

"Pure Imagination"
Lyrics and Music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley
Performed by Gene Wilder


Hollow Legs said...

Great write-up - extremely annoyed I missed it!

Anonymous said...

It really was a great evening. I hope its success spawns other chefs doing something similar.

What about Keller in the UK?

Gregory said...

Also annoyed I missed. Where did you hear about his visit ? I would love to join a list which advertised such great events.

Brilliant piece by the way.

Unknown said...

Very interesting write up - I have also been rejected by El Bulli and your article has made me feel a little more sanguine about it.

Chris Pople said...

@Silverbrow Yes there should be a series of these things. Find it hard to believe that anyone would be as good as Adria though!

@Gregory Funnily enough, I first heard about it from the guy above - www.silverbrowonfood.com

Jeanne said...

Sorry I missed you - Krista said you were there but sadly our paths didn't cross. And yes, despite the very disconcerting visuals of the couple dining onscreen at El Bulli, I did leave with the utmost respect for Adria and an even greater lemming-like desire to submit another application next year.

Anonymous said...

Good grief, I simply MUST eat at el bulli before I die... simply wonderful article! I could almost taste it.
Happy Holidays from Indiana, USA