September 2, 2011
Books for Cooks

Surreal Dining

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Vicarious trip to elBulli leaves me with hungry eyes . . . .

With 2,000,000 reservation requests for 8,000 places a year, the closest most of us ever got to elBulli was via words and pictures.

This summer’s closure of the revolutionary restaurant in Spain prompted me to take a visual tour via the official picture book called A Day at elBulli. This underwhelming book is 582 pages thick, with mostly photos. That’s a big thud on the coffee table.

Too bad the photos are so repetitive. There are some good shots of the dishes and the surrounding landscape near the town of Roses – an inspiration for the menu. But many photo arrays are downright boring. Do we really need to see 16 snaps of a staffer opening the gate to the car park?

Okay, let’s enter.

ElBulli was widely touted as the best restaurant in the world and its mastermind, Ferran Adrià, as the best chef in the world. Adrià is a molecular gastronomy pioneer – although he hates that term.

So do I. Foodies are swinging toward “modernist cuisine” as an alternative. I still campaign for the term “surreal cuisine” because this is not food as we know it, but rather edible art. It feeds diners’ imaginations as well as their bellies. Surreal cuisine is daring but not necessarily delicious. It is far from a familiar meal. Rather, it involves a series of one- and two-bite surprises, created using equipment more at home in a lab than a kitchen, “plated” in sculptural receptacles, served with instructions, and eaten with special utensils like wavy tweezers.

Molecular, modernist, surreal — whatever you call it, elBulli was a food lab and customers were its enthusiastic guinea pigs. From all parts of the globe, they swarmed to the restaurant overlooking a secluded bay, hours from Barcelona.

ElBulli was the nickname for the bulldogs beloved by the restaurant’s original owners, who opened the doors in 1964. Adrià took charge of the kitchen in 1987. He turned it into a cauldron of creativity – and a money pit that swallowed profits like a glutton swallows foie gras.

The guests, about 50 a day, were outnumbered by the daily staff, 60 to 70 of them. Staff spent more than half the year creating dishes, and the spring and summer serving them. Every night, 28 to 35 small plates were prepared in the 3,770-square-foot set of two kitchens. The average meal would last three to four hours. It would progress from cocktails to snacks, tapas, avant-desserts (transitions from the savoury world to the sweet world, such as mango ravioli), desserts and morphings (replacing petits-fours at the end of the meal).

Guests were taken twice to the kitchen for hellos and goodbyes from Adrià. He considered each dish a conversation between chef and guest, with the waiter as the transmitter. That conversation has ended. Another may spring up in its place: Adrià hopes to reopen elBulli in 2014 as a culinary think tank.


A Day at elBulli does better with the words than the pictures. It includes a few recipes, as well as some valuable lessons in whetting your culinary creativity:

  • View ingredients “without prejudice.” If you decide to try adding vanilla to mashed potatoes, for instance, your only concern should be harmony and effectiveness.
  • Don’t take basic ingredients for granted. A chef will check the quality of a lobster, for example, but ingredients like water, salt, flour, sugar and eggs are mistakenly treated as if they were all the same quality.
  • Know how or if an ingredient should be stored and when it should be eaten. Example: Sole is better the day after it is caught. Sardine should be eaten the same day because it is oily and thus deteriorates more quickly.
  • Judge ingredients on their gastronomic merits rather than their price or “conventional prestige.” About 70 percent of elBulli’s ingredients were from Spain. The restaurant received deliveries with some names you may recognize, including Valrhona chocolate and Olivias oils.