leave your inhibitions at the door
A lot of much better writers and thinkers have covered the closing of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in recent days. In fact, I’m writing this just after seeing Anthony Bourdain say farewell on his show “No Reservations”. For those of you who’ve never heard of Ferran Adria or El Bulli, look out for Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel or read about it in his book “Nasty Bits”. Hell, just Google it.
That’s what I thought, lazy ass – you want me to summarize it. I’ve never been there nor met him, but I just recently finished a biography on him. Which makes me Wikipedia. Here the rundown… In most circles, Adria is considered a culinary god and El Bulli was considered the best and most important restaurant in the world. It was at a remote location on the coast of Spain, about an hour north of Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and was only open for a few months out of the year. Reservations were near impossible to come by – millions of requests for one of 50 seats per night. Dinner there was a five hour affair that consisted of 30-50 bite-sized courses, each of which a challenge to your senses and your definition of what food is and should be. Adria has been labeled as a genius (a word he hates) and the leader of the Molecular Gastronomy movement (a designation he hates even more). This is the movement that uses scientific gadgets and non-traditional methods to prepare food. So what you got was probably something you’ve never had, nor ever will have again. Stuff like freeze-dried foie gras, foams, spherified olives, use of liquid nitrogen, etc.
There’s considerable debate on whether this constitutes cooking, as it doesn’t adhere to the time-honored methods in Escoffier’s book. This was a point that I mentioned in my post about Common Grill, where an annarbor.com writer and Craig Common dismissed what Adria’s doing as “Willy Wonka” or mad science. To me there’s no debate – it’s cooking. There’s no difference between what Adria’s doing and that seminal moment in culinary history when a caveman named Ogg decided that meat placed over an open fire tastes better than raw. Or when some genius decided to salt and age pork belly to get bacon, the fifth food group. Cooking is nothing more than converting food from one form to another; Adria just had a cooler toolbox to do it with.
And he did succeed in developing new ways to excited people and heighten senses – taste, texture, smell, sight, even sound – all in a quest to get at the essence of eating. I think the main reason for the criticism is he’s doing it now and most people are averse to new things. It’s not a stretch to say that 50 years from now, everyone will consider Adria and his work to be a culinary game-changer. In fact, his influence is already being felt in more accessible restaurants. More on that in my next post…
I’ve been planning on writing about El Bulli since the beginning of this blog as I was in the midst of reading Colman Andrews’ biography of Adria, Ferran. I actually finished it on Friday, July 29th, exactly one day before El Bulli’s last day.
My original concept was to just do a full book report like we did when we were kids, but I scrapped that because the book was a piece of shit. I had high hopes for it as Andrews is a well-respected food and wine authority and founder of Saveur, my favorite food magazine. Although he does succeed in giving some insight about Adria’s past, the history of the restaurant, and what makes the man tick, he fails on two points. First, you have a book that goes into great detail about food that thrills and manipulates your senses visually, that borders on art, and discusses at great length the surroundings of the restaurant and research facility – and it doesn’t have one frickin’ picture!
But to me, the bigger sin is that the book was a major fluff piece. Descriptions and stories of the man held him aloft as something very precious, almost infallible. It was chapter after chapter of people saying they witnessed Adria eat a watermelon and shit out a brick of pure 24 carat gold. I would have liked to have read more about the debates about his relevancy and about dissenting factions without them being dismissed as philistines. As my buddy The Architect put it – “Let go of the hard-on and write.”
But back to Adria himself… There’s an anecdote in Bourdain’s book and television show that really gets to the heart of the what Adria does. He took Bourdain to his favorite restaurant in the world, a hole-in-the-wall named Rafa’s in Roses, Spain. It’s run by Rafa on the grill and his wife at the register. All that’s served there is the freshest seafood, mostly prepared with just olive oil and salt. And if the day’s catch is not up to Rafa’s standards, he doesn’t even open the restaurant. It’s here that Adria gets his inspiration – all the research and all the techniques that he does are all in a quest to evoke the memory and soul of that food. You can’t get any more traditional or purer than that.
Adria closed the restaurant for good last Saturday. There are rumors that it was closed due to an impending lawsuit by heirs of its initial financier and that he closed due to hurt feelings caused by his critics. The truth is that, although it was the most sought after reservation in the world, it wasn’t a moneymaker. He plans on re-opening in a couple of years as El Bulli Institute, a think tank where chefs (and other artistic disciplines) share ideas and new techniques. Not exactly sure how he’s going to make money that way, but what do I know…
In a recent Sunday New York Times piece, Mark Bittman went to El Bulli and talked about the staff meals. At 99% of restaurants, they are the cheapest possible concoctions consisting of stuff that’s about to get thrown away. At El Bulli, there was an effort to actually put some thought into the meal, but it still had to be under 3 Euros ($4.50). Usually, the meal ended up being some thing very simple and traditional. Bittman provided three recipes and I decided to make two of them. I can now say I cooked something that was served at El Bulli. (Click on the name to get to the recipe)
I’ve actually made more or less the same exact thing several times before by just winging it. Little did I know I was making a traditional Catalan meal. I followed the recipe (cut in half) and it didn’t turn out so well due to my mess-up. It tasted fine, but the veggies were piled too close together under the fish. So the humidity coming up from the veggies ended up steaming the fish more than roasting it. If I were to do it again, I’d spread the veggies out more, using less than what the recipe called for.
In the book, this was listed as one of Adria’s favorites, an after-school snack enjoyed in his youth. It’s such a simple recipe, but sooooo good. The bittersweet chocolate shavings melt on the hot bread and the salt provides a nice contrast. The recipe called for heating the bread in the oven, but I found it didn’t toast to my liking. Using a toaster works just fine. Also, I did use a microplane as recommended. The one I have is made for parmesan and lemon zest and, when I used it on the chocolate, the result was almost a powder. I’m not sure if this was as intended. It still tasted great, but I think I’ll try a little coarser next time.