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El Bulli stirs it up again

THE RESTAURANTE El Bulli is reached by a single-track road that winds out of the cheap-and-cheerful beach resort of Roses.

It hardly seems like a suitable venue for the eating place voted best in the world for four years running by Restaurant magazine (it lost the title this year to Copenhagen's Noma), and spoken of in wonder by anyone lucky or clever enough to have bagged a table here.

But the element of surprise is a main ingredient of art, and Ferran Adria, the master cook-magician, knows this better than anyone. At the Madrid Fusion food fair last January, Adria dropped a bombshell that turned surprise into genuine shock: as from summer 2011, El Bulli would cease to exist in its current form but there is a great deal more to the story than the chef hanging a “Cerrado” sign on the door of his restaurant.

Myth and misinformation are part and parcel of the El Bulli phenomenon, and Adria is keen to put the record straight. This year the restaurant won't be closing for the winter but will continue through until the night of July 31, 2011, when it will serve its last meal as a conventional restaurant — if, indeed, it could ever be described as such. There will then be a two-and-a-half-year hiatus during which Adria will travel the world, giving conferences, enjoying himself, eating well wherever possible.

FIDGETY

What happens afterwards, in 2014, is what Adria wants to discuss today. He is on expansive form, gesticulating excitedly, moving back and forth on the sofa like a fidgety child, seeming to give shape to new ideas even as they emerge into the conversation.

“This will no longer be a restaurant,” he says firmly. “It'll be a foundation. There's no name for it yet. It's a creative centre where, on a few days a year — no more than 40, perhaps — we will have an experience through food. These experiences will be much newer and stranger than in a restaurant, because it won't be a restaurant!”

He pauses to let the idea of a “newer” and “stranger” experience than El Bulli's futuristic roller-coaster of a 40-course tasting menu sink in.

Then he proceeds, speaking fast in his thick blurry Spanish. There'll be a museum. “Creative people” will drift through. “It's a new scenario. Outside, where you parked your car, there'll be a swimming pool — but only for the staff. There'll be installations; creative pavilions. We'll have 20 or 25 work-experience people, but from the highest levels, people who want to take a take a year off to regenerate and learn — but it'll be harder to get into than Harvard.”

There'll be no reservations, of course, putting an end to the annual madness of sharing out 8,000 possible El Bulli dinners between half a million applicants that has been driving the man to distraction. Instead, from time to time, there'll be meals at unusual hours of the day or night; events for children; banquets under the full moon.

LOTTERY

Adria still doesn't have a clear idea of how places at these “experiences” will be allotted. “There may be a lottery. We'll see. There'll be no hard-and-fast rules.” Each day, the foundation's work will be put online, so that everyone can be surprised and delighted by its culinary discoveries.

It's good to see him so ebullient, if you'll pardon the pun. Before he made his great decision, it seems he was becoming fed up with the collateral damage of his worldwide fame, and especially by how little time he and his team were able to devote to pure creation. “If you analyse our work it was 90pc production, and 10pc creativity. Now El Bulli is to be a foundation, it's another story. A table of eight people gives me all the feedback I need.”

Adria has just got back from Harvard University, where he received the kind of welcome usually accorded to superstar academic gurus. (Along with other luminaries of Spanish cuisine, Adria was there to give a course on the relationship between cooking and science.)

If the past 25-odd years of punishing creative endeavour have left him spiritually exhausted, the mere idea of a new direction to it all has put a new glint in his eye. For the moment, the hard graft of the restaurant continues — for its final seven-month sprint.

“What's new? Well, we've got a fresh pistachio that tastes like the most delicious bean in the world, with pistachio oil and a liquid ravioli beside it. Or a sandwich, which is also a cocktail, an apple meringue, with a mojito, iced, inside it.” This sounds typically Bulliish — a jeu d'esprit with something of the trompe l'oeil. He's also discovered a new kind of Japanese rice paper called ovulato, that disappears on contact with water. “We've been working on it for a year or two, but now there's a new technique — it comes out like bubbles, but crispy. We never stop.”

It is 5pm and the kitchen at El Bulli is humming with activity. Adria guides me around, offering me morsels to taste: a slice of baby endive, which he says is to be combined with smoke and eucalyptus; hibiscus paste moulded into a coin-shaped bonbon filled with liquidised peanut, a powerfully delicious combination. The atmosphere among the 40-strong kitchen staff is a combination of Fame Academy, all youthful buzz and good vibes, and the concentrated studiousness of a seminary.

Whatever bold new surprises Adria has up his sleeve, it's comforting to know that the essence of the place, the genius loci, will surely remain. Ferran has said it himself: “I'm going to be cooking and creating in a place that is not a restaurant. The revolution is in the format.” But the spirit of El Bulli lives on.


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