Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to check out El Bulli: Cooking in Progress as part of the MFA's "Films for Foodies" series. The film offers a glimpse of Chef Ferran Adrià and his team of culinary geniuses as they plan and design the menu at Spain's elBulli, often considered in many culinary circles to be the best restaurant in the world. Although the restaurant is now closed for good, as Adrià has converted the dining destination into a cooking school, the legacy of his peculiar edible art remains.
The film didn't really "wow" me for its entertainment value; there wasn't much of a plot or exposition, if any. I was hoping to be thrilled by scenes of Adrià’s army of chefs working in the kitchen during service. Instead, I was greeted with several uncomfortably long shots of Adrià sitting down and eating, or talking on his cell phone, or both at the same time. In the era of Top Chef and everything Gordon Ramsay, I guess I wanted more drama. I wanted to see actual cooking, complete with saute pans flaring, frantic vegetable-chopping, and Adrià yelling at his cooks to get the food out faster. I was surprised to find out that elBulli's 30-some chefs work together in silence. It's the only way they can all fully concentrate.
What separates culinary arts from visual arts is how the artists (chefs) spend countless hours creating works of art that are meant to be destroyed. It takes a lot out of a person to put their everything into something, only for it to vanish into the stomach of a hungry diner. At this Spanish restaurant, menu preparation was taken very seriously. elBulli would close for six months out of the year so the kitchen staff could plan for the next season. Each season's menu had a certain theme; for the 2009 season, it was water -- seems simple enough, right? Hardly.
Over a span of three hours, diners were presented with over 30 courses of food, from initial cocktails and tapas to entrees and desserts, mostly in Adrià's famous deconstructed style. An example: After a few cocktails, diners were greeted with a first course of Crystal of Parmesan, which I can only describe as a paper-thin, shiny piece of glass-looking substance that tastes like Parmesan cheese -- and that's only the first course.
Don't worry, there's plenty of weird to go around. How about a coconut-flavored sponge? Or an oyster leaf with dew of vinegar? You’d probably expect the latter to be a leaf-shaped oyster, but that would be too easy. Instead, Adrià served a leaf that actually tastes like an oyster (how this world-class chef ever discovered an oyster-flavored leaf, I will never know). And he didn't stop there: The leaf was also dotted with a thickened red wine vinegar, giving the appearance of fresh dew, in accordance with that water theme.
But the dish that struck me the most was the shabu-shabu -- three triangular, entirely clear “ravioli" stuffed with flavorful fillings; dip them in a water-based liquid, and the clear casing would slowly begin to disintegrate before your eyes. Sitting there and watching Adrià eat this magically disappearing ravioli, I wondered how he could possibly manipulate his food to atomize completely, as if taking an acid bath. Chef Adrià is just as much a scientist as he is a culinary master.
As a young chef, I look up to people like Adrià simply for his uncanny ability to be so inventive; nothing on his menu is like anything you've ever seen before. I don’t think I have the capacity to be that enterprising in my food -- not that it bothers me. I would honestly never want to cook food like that. I’m not really interested in my food being avant-garde; I just want it to look elegantly simple, taste divine, and have my own little creative twist -- but that’s just me.
There is certainly a place in this world for Adrià’s unique food, as people have flocked from all over the world to try it. Upon word of elBulli's closing, over two million people tried to score a reservation for the restaurant’s final season. If that isn’t proof enough that this chef is a visionary, I don’t know what is.
'Culinarily Curious' is TNGG Boston's column on all things food, written by Anthony Howard.
Photo by cronicagastronomia (Flickr)
About Anthony -- I'm a 22-year-old Massachusetts native -- grew up in the 'burbs and now spend my young adult life in the city. I am passionate about cooking and currently assistant manage a restaurant kitchen in Kendall Square. Let's just say that when I invite friends over for dinner parties, no one ever turns me down.
The author is solely responsible for the content.