From the blog June 1, 2011 Nathan

Dining at El Celler de Can Roca and elBulli

Almost four years ago, Chris Young’s first day on the job occurred when he and I had dinner at elBulli. Chris had already agreed to work for me, and he was packing up his stuff for the move to Seattle. Over dinner we talked about food, and I showed him the outline I had made for Modernist Cuisine. It was the start of a project that was bigger than either of us realized (although we wound up sticking remarkably close to that early outline). So, what could be a better way to celebrate the completion of the project than for Chris, Max, and I to pay one last visit to elBulli in the final months that it still operates as a restaurant? (Ferran Adrià has announced plans to halt service at elBulli in July.)

Unfortunately, my schedule is crazy, and it looked for a while like I wouldn’t make it back to Spain in time. When an opening occurred on my calendar (as luck would have it, Chris wasn’t available then), I quickly threw together a group, and off we went. I was joined by Max Bilet, my other MC coauthor; Steven Shaw, a cofounder of eGullet; Dr. Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America; Johnny Iuzzini, executive pastry chef of Jean Georges; and Thierry Rautureau, chef of Rover’s in Seattle (where I was a stagier 15 years ago).

Max and I arrived in Barcelona from Paris the night before everyone else flew in, so we had dinner at Tickets: the new tapas bar opened only a month before by Albert Adrià, Ferran’s brother. It is clearly going for a fun and casual atmosphere—as one example, the menu has a little icon suggesting which dishes would be good for children.

As at Bazaar, the modern tapas restaurant run by José Andrés in Los Angeles, the menu mixes fairly traditional tapas dishes with Modernist tapas. We sampled plenty of both. Albert is doing a terrific job; the food we had was great. The execution of the more technically challenging dishes was perfect.

The next day, everyone else arrived. An amusing cultural difference one notices in Spain is that the term “wok” is used essentially to mean “Asian restaurant.” As a result, one finds many restaurants with names like “Sushi Wok” or “Ichiban Wok”—the latter advertising Japanese and Argentinian food.

We started our adventure by walking all over Barcelona and visiting three of its famous food markets. La Boqueria is the most famous, and we spent a bunch of time there, looking at the fabulous produce and eating razor clams and octopus at one of the great seafood bars in the market. We also visited Mercat de Sant Antoni and Mercat de Santa Caterina. A picnic with various types of jamón ibérico at the Barcelona marina tided us over until dinnertime.

The first serious eating was dinner at El Celler de Can Roca, which is in the town of Girona, about an hour north of Barcelona, where we were staying. The restaurant is run by the three Roca brothers: chef Joan, pastry chef Jordi, and Josep, who runs the front of the house and an amazing wine cellar.

The previous Can Roca was a very nice restaurant, but it was no architectural masterpiece. I had been there a few years back. The old location is still operated by the Roca brothers, but they moved their flagship restaurant to a spectacular new location. Between the decor and the food, it is one of the truly great restaurants of the world.

Our meal was incredible. We had 15 savory courses followed by seven dessert courses and then petits fours. One of the amusing “courses” was a smell-only course, served as a paper cone that was impregnated with scent. It was interesting, but it also made for some cool photo ops as everyone at the table put the cone over his nose, as we were instructed. Alas, I am not going to describe every course—if I put off this post until I had the time to do that, it would be many more weeks—but the pictures tell much of the story.

The next day, we had to recover from the night before (it was after 3 AM when we got back to the hotel) as well as to prepare for elBulli. As part of the “training regimen,” some of us had another walk around the city, including more market visits and a museum or two. I literally did not consume anything that day, apart from coffee. We arrived a bit early at Cala Montjoi, the bay where elBulli is located, so we took a walk on the beach and then headed to our table. As is their tradition, the first set of courses, or “snacks” as Ferran puts it, is served outdoors on the patio. We then moved inside for our table—in the kitchen.

Calling elBulli a “restaurant” and what we experienced a “meal” stretches the meanings of those words beyond their normal usage so much that they barely serve their purpose. If you haven’t ever been to elBulli, this will sound strange. But that’s because elBulli is not like any other dining experience in the world.

Here is an architectural analogy. Our cooking lab is in an ugly single-story warehouse. The building is fully functional in so far as it keeps the rain off our heads (no small matter in the Seattle area), but no one would mistake it for art. Most food consumed in the world is created to refuel people, and it is often just as prosaic as the warehouse. It serves its function, but little beyond that.

In addition to spending time in the lab, I work in an office building. It is a pleasant five-story building, and I have a nice corner office on the top floor. If you had only seen concrete warehouses, then you’d be pretty amazed by this building—it has multiple floors, a dressy lobby, and in some directions, some decent views of Bellevue and Seattle off in the distance. It is clearly a fancier proposition than the warehouse.

A lot of restaurant meals are like my office building. They offer more courses (like the multiple floors), and they are made from more refined materials by much more skilled people. Yet much the way my office building remains essentially a distant relative of the warehouse, these meals, too, serve mundane purposes, albeit with a tip of the hat to aesthetics.

The really great restaurants are more like an office building in Manhattan, where there are many more floors, a lobby of inlaid granite, and some amazing views. These buildings are made by craftsmen who are far more skilled than the people who build warehouses. The design is better, too, and the best of these buildings—say, the famous Lever House in New York City—bear the mark of an artist, at least to those who are sufficiently skilled in seeing the subtle features.

Not everyone who walks past the Lever House marvels at the quiet artistry of it. That’s okay because many people don’t need or frankly don’t want to see the art—they want to see a really nice building, which the Lever House happens to be. The same is true for great restaurants—most of them would still be okay for people who just want a good meal. They may miss the finer points, but the food is still accessible.

Now consider a dramatic and iconic building like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. If all you had ever experienced was a one-story concrete warehouse, you’d be pretty amazed to see this gigantic titanium sculpture. Nothing about it is normal—there are no conventional windows, for starters, and it has essentially no right angles anywhere. It is architecture as art, and with its soaring forms, this building grabs you in an emotional way that no warehouse ever could. Those who are schooled in the nuances of architecture pick up more of Gehry’s master work than others do, but even the most jaded tourist is awed by the drama of that building. It is a masterpiece. The man who made it is an artist, and the art comes in the way that it seizes you.

Well, that, times 10, is elBulli (at least for me). As you may have gathered, I like architecture, but I like food more, so take the analogy with a grain of salt. The point is that elBulli offers an artistic experience that is on the magnitude of the greatest art in other categories. As such, it is not really a normal meal, anymore than visiting the Guggenheim Museum is a normal thing you do (at least for people who don’t live in Bilbao).

Instead of public buildings, I could have chosen for comparison homes or any other sort of building. We need buildings for purely prosaic reasons, but we lavish additional care on some of them and turn others into art. If architecture leaves you cold, then one could build a similar analogy around music, or painting, or any of the other arts. So, if you’re a lover of opera rather than an architecture aficionado, it is like attending the Bayreuth Festival. If it is painting that excites you, it is the Louvre or MoMA. You don’t visit those places every day, and you wouldn’t eat at elBulli every day either.

This season, which unfortunately will be the last for elBulli as a restaurant, was true to form. The meal was a stunning series of over 50 dishes. As in the 2010 season, many of the courses came in series of three to five, with each series studying a particular theme from different points of view. One series was about truffles, which was a special feature of this spring’s season because elBulli normally opens to the public during the summer, when truffles are not available. Another series of dishes looked at Japanese themes—one dish comprised thin sheets of ice in an origami envelope. Soy sauce was dripped on top, and there was some fresh wasabi on the ice. That’s it. You ate the dish by grabbing the ice sheets with tweezers and eating nothing but ice with soy and wasabi.

If that sounds strange, well… it was to some degree. But it was also a brilliant commentary on essential Japanese flavors and how they have spread beyond their homeland to invade other cuisines. Today, you can put soy and wasabi on nearly anything (even on Korean tacos from Los Angeles food trucks). In a world where these ingredients can be used anywhere, why not put them on the plainest of substrates?

This was only one of the many dishes, each a work of art expressed in food. Some, like the soy and wasabi, were a commentary or reaction to trends or traditions. Others were purely creative inventions all on their own. Each presented a unique view of food, and it is that search for novel perspectives to which Ferran has dedicated his career so far. It will be fascinating to see what he comes up with in the next stage of his work.

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Discussion

  1. Tracy Edmonds Herz June 2, 2011 Reply

    With all due respect to the interesting article Adam Platt wrote in New York magazine about the press junket to elbulli for the last meal, he didn’t convince me why it was important or in any way meaningful, or how it was anything other than a delicate kind of gluttony. This was a very educational post. I have your books in the first edition, I’m writing an article about them as well. I am fascinated, captivated proud and, well, hooked. You won me. It is not easy to do this.

    • Wayt June 16, 2011 Reply

      Thanks, much appreciated.

      • Bonny October 25, 2012 Reply

        For the cost of two meals (with wine) with my husband at a nice reasruatnt I can own a set of books that will help me learn to cook meals in my non-professional kitchen that could rival or surpass any local reasruatnt’s for the rest of my days. MC seems like a bargain if you look at it this way.

  2. Christina Tan July 15, 2011 Reply

    Dear Nathan,

    I’ve just seen your talk on TED.com and was so excited because the image of the wok cutaway had made its rounds on the internet quite a bit earlier and I finally saw the source of it.

    I think you did a great job on that. Being Asian-chinese I was quite proud to see that a common household cooking vessel has been found to make a lot of sense in terms of form and design. I hope you did the same with others like the Tagine or the Tandoor in your book. It is more than I can afford to purchase at this point but I would love to own it some day.

    Best regards,
    Christina

  3. apalmero November 24, 2012 Reply

    “When an opening occurred on my calendar (as luck would have it, Chris wasn’t available then), I quickly threw together a group, and off we went.”

    Well, I tried for 5 consecutive years to get a table at El Bulli with no luck… and now it’s closed.

    Alessandro

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