El Bulli branches out into the art world

By Tim Castle

A new book about El Bulli restaurant and its relationship to the art world explores the kind of "emotional creativity" that gives you goose pimples, says head chef Ferran Adria.

A new book about El Bulli restaurant and its relationship to the art world explores the kind of “emotional creativity” that gives you goose pimples, says head chef Ferran Adria.

Reservations are so tight at the world’s best restaurant that even head chef Ferran Adria is unable to get a booking for friends at short notice.

Only open for half the year, Spain’s El Bulli restaurant on the Barcelona coast is fully booked for months in advance, even at the 300 euros (US$415) per person cost of its 30-40 course menu.

Adria says that even if a Nobel Peace Prize winner called for a table he could only make room in the 50-head establishment if there was a cancellation. And those are few and far between.

“If you had a booking and you couldn’t come, what would you do?” Adria, 46, told Reuters in an interview.

“You would ring a friend of yours and you would say, ‘I have a booking at El Bulli’. So this is what happens, we have no cancellations.”

Voted best restaurant in the world four times in a row by Restaurant Magazine, El Bulli serves its guests a stream of micro-sized dishes, each exquisitely presented and the result of months of culinary experimentation. Some call it molecular gastronomy.

Adria and his team of 70 staff use tools such as liquid nitrogen, centrifuges and precision scales to create hot jellies, grilled fruit and novelties such as melon caviar.

The dishes are designed to entertain as much as to nourish, while some are deliberately provocative.

An innocent-looking wafer called “Electric Milk”, made from the flower of a Sichuan pepper, delivers a numbing shock to the tongue akin to licking the two poles of a battery.

“Never in your life have you had that sensation in your palate,” said Adria.

A new book recording the experiences of diners at El Bulli reveals that some found the provocation too much.

In Food for Thought, Thought for Food, American journalist Bill Buford said his wife had almost walked out after the unexpected blast delivered by the Sichuan dish.

“That thing had just incinerated her tongue”, he told a round table discussion of critics who had been invited to eat at El Bulli.

The book details how El Bulli became for 100 days in 2007 an official outpost of the international art festival “documenta” held every five years in Kassel, Germany.

Each day two people were chosen at random from the exhibition halls and flown to El Bulli for their evening meal.

The only condition was that they wrote down their experiences afterwards.

“The meal … was an experience and art,” wrote one student in his early 20s. “I enjoyed it enormously and it made me vomit.”

Others were less facetious. “I’ve eaten at El Bulli and the world is no longer what it was,” wrote Aldo Duelli. “You eat things that are at once everything and nothing, air and earth, fire and ice.”

Unusually for a book about food, the 350-page volume is edited by two leading figures on the art scene, veteran British pop artist Richard Hamilton, an El Bulli regular, and Vicente Todoli, Spanish director of London’s Tate Modern museum.

It contains a photographic catalogue of almost 1,500 dishes served at El Bulli since 1987 but instead of recipes, it includes discussions on the link between art and Adria’s cuisine.

It’s a theme that excites Adria, who said he wants to foster the dialogue between cookery and the world of art.

That doesn’t mean cooks becoming painters or painters cooks, he says. He wants a collaboration that results in the kind of “emotional creativity” that gives you goose pimples.

“Every day I get emails about people who want to do work about avant-garde cooking – photographers, painters, artists from all over the world,” he said.

“But they want to do work about our work, they don’t want to do a joint parallel work.”

The new book clearly hits the button for Adria, who said he was awed that Hamilton and Vicente would devote 18 months of their time for its production.

“Nobody can imagine what I feel today,” Adria said at an event in London to launch the book’s international publication.

“In my career a lot of very good things have happened, but this is the zenith.”



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