After stuffing myself silly in the kitchens and pantry-ways of El Bulli, we left the culinary laboratory and shot some Travel Channel promos on the veranda overlooking the small bay, from the rocky promontory on which Ferran Adria’s restaurant sits. Adria strolled out a short time later. He told me that in the evening, weather permitting, this is where guests sip aperitifs and are served small bites before being ushered into the dining room for the dinner service. The view is stunning, but more amazing to me was the relaxed and unassuming atmosphere of the three major El Bulli dining rooms. Farmhouse chairs with straw seats in one; large, curvy, whitewashed plaster banquettes piled high with soft pillows in another; and a third in a smaller corner room with a simple Mediterranean aestheti—the effect is relaxing, charming, and perfectly suited to the natural setting viewed through the French doors that expose almost every seat in the building to the stunning seaside vista, the towering cypress and pine, and the unforgettable light streaming through the windows and entryways.
Now, because you will actually spend four hours here at your table, happily noshing your way through twenty or so of the most mind-blowing and palette-expanding courses you can possibly imagine, the dining room’s comfort level takes on even greater significance. Too many restaurants, of all types, especially in this country, seem to forget that one’s happiness at mealtime is directly proportional to one’s physical comfort both at the table and in the restaurant’s ambiance. Seems like a simple rule, but think about it—how many of your last restaurant meals were curiously unthrilling, almost annoyingly tough to get through, despite the quality of the food (assuming it was good) and the relative speed with which you were forced to endure it?
Adria’s restaurant prepares and presents some of the most food-forward edibles on the planet. He has philosophical treatises and axioms that he insisted I should become familiar with before we spent the day together. He thinks, rethinks, and over-thinks his relationship to food and to his staff and customers to a degree that I have never seen in another human being. Every aspect of his daily food life is recorded and codified by a battery of helpers whose sole jobs are to be sure that every idea, each failed or successful experiment, is meticulously recorded, yet Adria insists he is just a humble cook.
That insistence seemed disingenuous to me until I strolled the property with him, watched him pull weeds in the entryway, listened to him talk about the simple act of how he believes guests should be eating his food, without pretense or fuss. While his food is certainly complex, even the simplest spoon of steamed crab requires an army’s labors to put it on the plate. The act of eating his food, which Adria insists is the purview of the guest, is a simple and relaxing one. In an age where the most popular restaurants in our country seem to cram rules, annoying tableside theatrics, and marketing spin down our throats, Adria’s brilliance lies not only in his skill level as a “simple cook” but in the graceful humility with which he allows his guests to taste his talent