Friday at lunchtime we left Les Cols for Rosas and drove up the coast. The day was perfect. As we approached El Bulli I began to get nervous in a way that I have never experienced before. Ferran Adria is going to be remembered as the greatest chef of his generation, and a man that changed not only the game itself, but also the playing field and the equipment as well. For those that have no idea who he is, Adria is the chef at the hyperexperimental restaurant El Bulli, where a twenty-two-course tasting menu goes for 300 euros a pop and is only open six months a year. Adria spends the rest of the year in Barcelona in his atelier creating the next year's menu; he 'invented' the often-imitated foam-gellee (amongst many other techniques) school of cookery. While he denies it, he is the father of molecular gastronomy and perhaps a brief description of what I found when I walked in the door will give you an idea of this guy's skill level.
Before we could even talk to his PR people to set up the shoot we had to clear it by signing waivers. He required a gastronomic interpeter, provided by the Spanish government, to ensure that every word was precisely defined; his restaurant has two people whose sole jobs are to sweep the stones in the driveway; he had forty-four people in his kitchen when we spent the day there, but only does one turn of forty-eight covers a night. He has a full-time staff of four photographers and graphic designers who do nothing but document every move in the kitchen, every day of the week! When we walked in he was creating sugarless sponge cakes for a new item he is toying with, using a brioche batter put through a CO2 dispenser, piped into small microwaveable Dixie cups, and cooked for forty-five seconds. He was ecstatic that he could create the lightest, airiest puffs in under a minute and he was teaming these cakes with seafoods and vegetable extracts in a dessert!
He had a team of chefs doing nothing for three hours but hand-select perfect fronds of a new species of seaweed that the Japanese have discovered, he was tasting hundreds of combinations of raw and blanched seaweeds all cooked at different times to determine the optimum flavors for extracting the essence of the plant.
He insists that he is "just a cook" and cannot stand all the praise and attention he gets, and like many brilliant artists he seems tortured by the fact that he lives his life under such a microscope, but acknowledges that it was his choice. He was insistent that we try his brother's tapas bar (Inopia) in Barcelona, where he spends every Tuesday evening. He spent a lot of time spraying my tongue with flavor atomizers before I tasted a given edible . . .rosemary spritz before baby rabbit escabeche cooked sous vide . . .but the most telling moment came when I asked him about his commitment to local flavors.
He led me to a pine tree that grew outside the kitchen, then to the pastry room where he tasted us on four pine cone elements for a dessert that he was running that night. Pine meringue, pine oil, pine syrup, and pine cream, all of which were made with a distilled essence of the immature cones of this tree. It was phenomenal, woodsy, citrusy, and thrilling as it moved across my tongue.
Calling this man just a cook is like calling Einstein a high-school math geek. More on my chat with Ferran next week.