By most accounts, no chef has been as important to modern-day cuisine as Ferran Adrià, the wizard behind Catalonia’s El Bulli, generally considered the world’s greatest restaurant: open half the year, limited tables, booked months in advance. His complex, vivid, idea-driven, controversial cuisine has changed the way diners, critics, and chefs conceive of food’s possibilities. He gets under the skin of hard-line food conservatives by insisting that food’s limits should be pushed, always.
In his book Ferran: The Inside Story Of El Bulli And The Man Who Reinvented Food, veteran food journalist Colman Andrews is generally excellent at letting Adrià’s work do the talking, even more than the chef himself. Adrià’s career and El Bulli’s history shed light on post-hippie idealism in illuminating ways, during the years the legendary German free spirit Marketta Schilling ran things. Adrià took a temp job cooking at the remote restaurant more or less as an opportunity to party, and instantly proved himself a natural. Andrews shrewdly portrays Adrià among his Catalonian peers during 30 fast-moving years of Catalan cuisine—significantly, after Franco’s death put Spain on the road to democracy, and opened up its cultural life. (Andrews’ 1988 book Catalan Cuisine was a prime mover in the style gaining international favor.) Andrews also devotes a chapter to Ferran’s various feuds, and follows him through his off-site kitchen, where he works on new ideas for eye-catching, taste-bud-popping recipes.
The book’s most mouthwatering chapter, by design, is its second, in which Andrews recounts an entire 40-course meal at El Bulli (each “course” is more like an individual bite, served in speedy progression) with notes ranging from perfunctory (“Soup of mango and begonia flower tea. Thin, aromatic fruit punch. Okay”) to paragraph-long evocations. Andrews also sits for a 46-course monster during which he doesn’t take notes: “I wanted to have an impressionistic experience instead of an analytical one.” Afterward, he sums up the experience: “[It] wasn’t so much a meal as some kind of all-stops-out multisensory performance piece… There is much pleasure to be had from a meal at El Bulli, but the most important thing about it is that it is always unique.”
Not all Adrià’s dishes are successes. Andrews’ most memorable write-up is for a dish called “Sea anemone 2008”: “Just your everyday mix of sea anemone, raw rabbit brains, oysters, and calamondin (a sour-sweet Southeast Asian citrus) in lukewarm dill broth… I wondered for a moment whether Ferran had gone off the rails. It made my teeth ache.” That’s right in line with Adrià’s ultimate message: Fail sometimes, but stay creative.