El Bulli - the legendary restaurant, a star of the contemporary culinary stage, that closed its doors last July was recognized as the best restaurant on earth for five years in a row, receiving pretty much every imaginable award and renowned the world over as the most unusual culinary adventure one could possibly enjoy. In some sense it is among the few fresh legends the globe has had to offer in our postmodern chaos - El Bulli not only led to a global explosion in extraordinary cuisine; it changed the relations mankind has to food. Ferran Adria, the conductor of this explosive music of taste, is a Spanish genius of gastronomy and one of the most influential people in the world of cooking. The exhibit at Palau Robert offers insight into both the history of the El Bulli phenomenon as well as a grand tour of the world of the senses. Like a molecular kitchen in the literal sense, the exhibit is composed of its ingredients. The term "molecular" is avoided, though - despite El Bulli being the cradle of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adria isn't fond of the label, as Colman Andrews notes in his book Ferran Adria: The Man Who Changed the Way we Eat.
The tour begins with a thoroughly romantic story - the love of a German doctor and a young Czech girl against the background of the ruins of the Second World War. They met in war-torn Berlin in a brief, intense romance. When he was captured by the Soviets, she saved him. Then they were married. In the 1950s, they bought land on the Costa Brava for 10 000 marks, on a cliff above Vala Montjoi, and opened a small beachfront bar, naming it after the local bulldog. The locals called it Hacienda El Bulli. Hans was a gourmet, and in the 1960s he invited French chefs down to Spain - the small bar soon obtained its first Michelin star. When the marriage broke up, he moved back to Germany. Meanwhile, young Ferran Adria had heard of the place from a ship's cook whilst serving in the military. At the time, he didn't know the value of a Michelin star - though El Bulli would earn three once he came to run it.
Adria took over El Bulli at age 25, in 1987. His goal was as simple then as it is now - conjuring up culinary creations that are neither variations nor interpretations but something completely new, not copied from old recipes or created ever before. In 1994, Adria came up with a concept that turned received ideas about cuisine on their heads - the priority was not particular dishes but techniques and visions that would turn eating into a bright adventure. The fundamentals of Adria's art involved intricate play with the physical and chemical properties of foods. Complicated manipulations, barely to be believed, resulted in a cuisine with unutterably different textures and forms, providing a unique experience and tastes that had hitherto been utterly unknown. One of the most remarkable aspects of Adria's alchemy is that few things taste like what they look like, giving the adventure unexpected turns. If, in the past, eating would at best involve the stimulation of all five senses, then El Bulli stimulated a sixth, drawing it out of another world. The otherworldly aspect included guessing exactly what it was that you were eating, the uncertainty of it calling forth metaphors, irony, analogies, and even traces of childhood memories. Technology and poetry, a striving for stylistic purity, and total freedom within a creative process were the hallmarks of El Bulli.
The restaurant had only 15 tables and 54 seats. It was open for only half the year, from April to December. Tables were reserved a year in advance. There was no menu - El Bulli served tapas, providing about 35 unpredictable appetizers over the course of four or five hours to every diner.
The inventions of each season were recorded in unique books; Adria never hid anything, instead offering the first cooking workshop that worked as a laboratory for fresh ideas, utilizing the sort of research methods one finds in the sciences and arts. The workshop became the alma mater for many a chef, with experience gained under Adria at El Bulli an undeniably prestigious diploma recognized worldwide. The kitchen, a mere 50 square metres in size at first, was transformed into a laboratory with 325 square metres, employing 50 chefs.
The exhibit allows you to watch the innumerable foods invented at El Bulli in a seemingly endless series of small TV screens. You'd need at least half a day to see all of the inventions come into being in miniature. Adria was always famous for his perfectionism, and most of the creations require absolute attention to the tiniest details of proportion in their ingredients and arrangement. One of the most unusual things on exhibit is a glass table bearing countless ceramic replicas of what went into the food, some composed upon plates so that you can decipher every part of the composition. Only the most stellar creations ever reached the diners' tables. Adria gave lectures at Harvard and received a slew of honorary degrees, including a doctorate from the University of Barcelona. In 2007, Richard Hamilton - a loyal client of El Bulli - invited Adria to stage a solo exhibition at the 12th Kassel dOCUMENTA.
The El Bulli exhibit's adventure ends with a waltz - the farewell dance of the chefs at El Bulli. One can't really call it the end, however - in 2014, El Bulli will be reborn in another form, as a centre for culinary research and innovation, perched atop the same cliff at Cala Montjoi, the new building designed by Eric Ruiz Geli.
Passeig de Gracia, 107
Keywords: exhibition, Barcelona