Every decade or so, a new chef captures the hearts and wallets of serious foodies throughout the world. Paul Bocuse. Michel Guerard. Joel Robuchon. Fredy Girardet. Today--for the first time, really--the brightest star in the gastronomic firmament is someone who doesn't cook French food.
His name is Ferran Adria, and he's Spanish--Catalan to be precise; Robuchon himself calls him "the best cook on the planet . . . a genius."
Adria, the 37-year-old self-taught son of a house painter, seems at times to have been inspired more by the modernist architect Antonio Gaudi and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali than by Auguste Escoffier. But whatever his inspiration, he is clearly creating the most imaginative cuisine in what must be the most inaccessible of all Michelin three-star restaurants.
El Bulli ("The Bulldog") is perched atop a rocky hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, about two hours north of Barcelona, 20 minutes past the Costa Brava resort town of Roses, at the end of a narrow, twisting, largely unpaved, pothole-filled 5-mile road. The only clue that you're not irrevocably lost as you wind your way over and around the cliffs toward Cala Monjoi is the occasional bulldog head stenciled in white or yellow on the roadside rocks.
Although El Bulli offers a regular a la carte menu, Adria delights in preparing tasting menus of 20 or 30 courses--many of them only a bite or two (much as Thomas Keller operates at the French Laundry in Napa Valley). Often the dishes come with precise instructions from the service staff.
"Put it all in your mouth at once," our waiter told us when he brought us each a spoon with a single brown square on it.
"Caramelized trout eggs," he said when we looked puzzled.
We did as we were told--and were rewarded with an astonishing burst of contrasting flavors and textures--first the sweetness and crunch of the caramelized crust, then the salt of the softer trout eggs, virtually exploding in our mouths.
The next course was a parfait glass filled with a green liquid.
"Fresh pea soup," the waiter said. "Please drink it in one long, slow swallow. Don't stop."
Obedient again, we discovered that the top half of the glass was filled with warm pea soup, the bottom half with cold pea soup flavored with a hint of mint. We all grinned with surprise and delight as the hot became warm became cool became cold, and we realized what he had done. (Adria says the laws of physics--heat rises, cold sinks--keep the liquids separate for about four minutes after he pours them into the glass.)
And so it went through the tasting menu at two lunches, each dish more dazzling than the one before. We had cuttlefish ravioli served in coconut milk; grilled watermelon topped with sliced tomatoes; potato "foam" with summer truffles; a Parmigiano ice cream sandwich appetizer, in which two crisp Parmigiano chips sat above and beneath a filling that had the texture and temperature of ice cream and the flavor of the best Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Most stunning of all perhaps was Adria's tagliatelle a A? la carbonara; the carbonara was the traditional (albeit especially well-executed) blend of cream, egg, ham and Parmigiano, but the "pasta" was made of thin strands of agar-agar, a seaweed gelatin, infused with consomme and lightly perfumed with truffle oil.
Adria is not only chef-as-artist but also chef-as-alchemist, always experimenting, contrasting tastes and textures in unusual, seemingly gimmicky combinations that somehow almost always work. His various "foams," for example--created with a device designed to make whipped cream--provide the ethereal essence of everything from potato to tomato, from shrimp to truffle.
"I try to use technology to create fantasy," Adria says. "My real pleasure is inventing a new experience for my customers."
Adria began his restaurant life when he was 18, washing dishes in Barcelona. One day, the owner of the restaurant gave him an Escoffier cookbook. He took it home and found himself as riveted as kids today are by the latest Harry Potter.
He would, he decided, become a chef. He spent eight months of military service cooking for a Spanish admiral, then met Juli Soler, the new owner of El Bulli, a French restaurant named in tribute to the previous owner's dog.
Adria spent much of the mid-'80s visiting the various three-star temples of gastronomy in France--as a customer at Troisgros, Guerard and Chapel and working briefly in the kitchen at Georges Blanc and Pic. One day in 1986, while working at Jacque Maximin's two-star restaurant in the Hotel Negresco in Nice, Adria heard Maximin answer a question about creativity by saying, "Create, don't copy."
It was as if a 500-watt light bulb suddenly went off in Adria's brain.