The world’s best restaurant – that’s how it was billed. Not just by the Costa Brava Tourist Board, who loved that it lived in Spain, but also by external markers. The prestigious S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Award went to El Bulli no less than a record five times.
At first the cynic in me stirred. After all, who decides what’s best? With something so subjective, how can one restaurant possibly be declared as the best in the world?
Then I stopped for a moment and had a word with myself.
Holy guacamole. I was going inside the world’s best restaurant. And even if, technically, to my picky scientific brain, I couldn’t prove it was going to be the best, even I couId believe it was going to be pretty damn good.
On a rough and windswept day, with the sun showing about as much loyalty to the ground as a footballer shows to fidelity, we arrived.
El Bulli sits on the edge of a wild cove in Spain’s Costa Brava. One flanked by gorse bushes and carpeted with sand, with the kind of untamed nature would suit the opening scenes of an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
The sign, simple and slightly rusted, read El Bulli. No glittering glass or concrete high rise. No queues of limousines.
In fact, precious little sign of life at all.
In our enthusiasm, we’d arrived a little early. Passing by the picture of a bulldog (the inspiration for the name: El Bulli has nothing to do with bull-fighting), we went in.
“Managing the list is the most stressful part,” said Pol Perello, El Bulli’s head waiter and director of communications. He’s tall and relaxed, standing in a white-washed hallway that could double as an entrance hall in many of Spain’s houses.
His eyebrows tighten. “We have 15 tables every night, with 45 chefs, 26 waiters and a different menu on each table. We serve 48 – 55 courses…”
I glance around the homely hallway.
“…and we have over 2 million applications each year for a table.”
Eight thousand places. Two million applicants. “So how do you decide who gets a place?”
Pol blushes into silence and the questions move on.
I’m not sure what I’d expected, but given El Bulli’s reputation for molecular gastronomy and the controversy surrounding their “scientific” approach to food, I’d probably imagined test tubes and chrome, not green moss and stone.
Then we enter the kitchen and meet the man himself: Ferran Adria, the head chef.
Ferran Adria is deep in conversation. Beside him, two heads bow, tall men in crisp tunics with hands that never stop as they confer back and forth, back and forth, discussing brisk details with the head chef himself. Their eyes focus on powder and foam, their ears belong to Adria.
We’re in a kitchen, so I presume we’re looking at food – perhaps quail eggs, perhaps not – but I’ve never seen gelatinous puddles receive so much attention.
Still, when that kitchen belongs to the best restaurant in the world, every detail counts.
I’m in the El Bulli restaurant being totally, thoroughly and utterly ignored – which is just the way I like it.
It gives me a sense of the way this place really works. Lines of metallic desks, navy and white uniforms, wide windows, artificial lights and furrows of concentration. Disposable plastic gloves, hair tied back, no laughter.
It reminds me of a final exam in chemistry.
Hands whip emulsions, curate foam, fashion pastes and tend to leaves. Eyes check temperatures, watch for menisci and flicker away from the food only when absolutely necessary. It is surprisingly quiet, surprisingly studious and surprisingly sterile.
Where’s the hissing, the fizzing, the sizzling, the textbook mouthwatering aromas?
An A4 ringbinder rammed with notes supports two dishes right in front of me, above which Adria brandishes a pair of tweezers to emphasize his point. They’re probably not tweezers, I realise, the word forceps bubbling up from my surgical days. Yet whatever they’re called, they’re making an impression.
He lays them down, turns towards us and smiles – and the interview begins.
Interview with the Best Chef in the World: Ferran Adria.
Disclosure: I visited El Bulli as a guest of the Costa Brava Tourism Board. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. And eat what I like. Mmmmmmm.