(As told to Brooke Hortenstine)
- October 09, 2011
Howard and I have been trying to get into el Bulli long before chef Ferran Adrià, the world’s most influential culinary genius, announced he would close his famed restaurant at the end of July 2011. When it comes to reservations, I am relentless. So I decide I will — no matter what — get a reservation for Howard and me to celebrate our March birthdays. Located on Spain’s Catalan coast, el Bulli receives 2,000,000 reservation requests each year yet grants only 8,000 spots. But even this fact does not deter me.
After asking a friend (who shall remain nameless) for help, we begin to realize that my wish might come true. At that moment, I decide that if we are going to fly all the way to Spain for a meal, we might as well try for a reservation at Noma in Copenhagen — the only restaurant to attempt to knock el Bulli from its coveted spot as the best restaurant in the world. I have tried for months to get a reservation at Noma, going so far as to put my name on their waitlist for any future date — all to no avail, of course. Then I think, if my friend was able to work her magic at el Bulli, then maybe she could do the same at Noma? We would have to wait and see. Hello, Jim Strong Travel, we need two tickets to Barcelona, please.
Day one consists of arrival in Barcelona, with no luggage in sight. On day two, the luggage arrives, and our adventure begins. We drive two hours to Roses, a town on the Costa Brava, 20 minutes from el Bulli and 20 miles from the French border. The drive to the restaurant is a harrowing rite of passage. We drive straight up a very narrow coastal road with no guardrails and only room for one car — el Bulli is the only thing at the top of the hill. We arrive and are immediately taken into the massive kitchen to meet Ferran Adrià, the chef I have admired for so long — the chef who changed the gastronomic world forever. We’re escorted to our table in a comfortable room (past volumes upon volumes of books that have been written about and by Adrià, as every dish he has created has been photographed
and chronologically logged into five volumes) and seated for what would be the most extraordinary meal of our life. So far.
el Bulli’s Theatrical Production
Course one is called Pillow Like a Cocktail — and is shaped like a pillow, naturally. We are told to eat it as one bite, for the minute it hits your tongue, it immediately dissolves into a piña colada — an honest-to-God piña colada. Next is a mojito sandwich, crafted to look like a submarine sandwich. Once again, it melts in your mouth as if you have just taken a long swill of the perfect mojito. Are you with me? He plays with your senses, stimulating them in a playful and provocative way. He takes the very best of each ingredient and, through temperature and technique, completely transforms it, all while keeping the flavors pure. He reinvents food, yet his cuisine has the same kind of clarity of flavor as simple cooking.At this very moment, I realize this will be the single greatest culinary experience of our lives. As I photograph each of the 49 incredible courses (as does everyone else in the restaurant), I take copious notes and discuss with Howard each preparation and why Adrià deserves the three Michelin stars he continues to receive. Take the caviar cream with hazelnut caviar, for example. The cream is actually shaped to looklike caviar balls, and the caviar is puréed into a cream — the appearance of caviar and cream is there, and your original knowledge of what caviar and cream should taste like is there, but they are switched in your mind upon tasting. When you read about his cooking, you read the words: foam, air, spherification, emulsification and liquefaction — words you can’t describe until you taste his deconstructed food, showcased in dishes such as:
• Tiramisu, which in your mind is tiramisu, but through reconstruction is actually fish that tastes exactly like tiramisu.
• The olive oil chip that is hard to the touch but dissolves to a liquid tablespoon of delicious oil the second it hits your tongue.
• Germinated pine nuts that are the hollowed-out inside of the pine nut. Really? Someone peels a pine nut?
• And truffle cake made only of truffles and nothing else. In other words, I only wish Howard had not liked his so much.
Four-and-a-half hours later, a beautiful, oversized jewelry box arrives and is opened to display the most delicious array of desserts I have ever seen. It’s enough to serve the entire restaurant, but the jewel box is just for us. There are branches of chocolate “coral” covered in sour cherry powder for color; dark-chocolate-covered mint leaves; peanut butter and chocolate bites shaped like and with the texture of a peanut; and more.At the five-hour mark, we pick up the four books we have asked Adrià to sign and head back down the hill to Roses, pleasantly full and sad to think that we may never experience anything like this again … until I check my e-mails. As we are driving down the hill, I find that after all my phone calls and e-mails to Noma, we actually have a reservation there. And in two days! Hello, Jim Strong Travel, two tickets to Copenhagen, please.
Noma’s Natural Illusion
René Redzepi is chef and owner of what was named the best restaurant in the world in 2010. We cannot wait to see what Redzepi — who worked at el Bulli and our favorite stateside restaurant, The French Laundry — will prepare to prove why he should retain his number-one standing. Noma is based in a warehouse that dates back to 1767 on the water in Copenhagen. It is casual in nature — no tablecloths and an unpretentious way of serving. Because of the open kitchen, you realize that while the waiters are responsible for the majority of the service, you may find yourself served by one of the chefs who created the dish — in fact, all Noma chefs serve guests. When we arrive, we are greeted by
chef Redzepi and his head chef, Matthew Orlando. I knew Matt from his days at Per Se in New York, and it was a treat to see him again. And so begins our second culinary adventure: Our first of 23 courses is housed in the centerpiece. Our waiter instructs us to eat the twigs, which are malt flatbread and juniper. It’s easy to see how the time he spent at el Bulli has shaped his presentation.
Course two is also a dish pretending to be something it is not, with nature clearly a direct influence. It is moss made of cep powder, followed by seabuckthorn leather and pickled rose hips. Incredible. Then there are the leeks hollowed out and stuffed with a goat cheese and garlic and fried at the tip. Again, how does one hollow out a leek? Other standouts include:
• Pickled and smoked quail eggs served on a small tray of hay, where a tiny incision is made in the bottom of the egg, and with a hand-held food smoker, the hay is burned to trap smoke in the egg.
• Beignets wrapped around a smoked whole herring. Who thinks this stuff up?
• Rye bread, chicken skin, lumpfish roe and smoked cheese.
• Reindeer tongue, apple malt and browned butter — the first time I use a knife, and okay, maybe a dish I could do without.
Halfway through the meal, you realize Noma gives guests the best possible impression of the season. The philosophy is based on the region, as this is truly Nordic cuisine. If you think you’ve had Nordic cuisine in the past, I promise you, you have not. Again, we are dining for four-and-a-half hours in a restaurant that is incredibly inventive yet focuses on clean flavors. We are told the menu changes are dictated by availability, and the ingredients are organic and locally sourced. Redzepi, like Adrià, has reinvented food.
Dare to Compare
We realize that we have eaten in what the world considers the number-one and -two restaurants in the universe. In four days, we‘ve traveled more than 23,256 miles, eaten 72 courses between el Bulli and Noma, and spent five hours at each establishment. There is no way to compare these two chefs — you could never do them justice.
As we try to think about the experience as a whole, the only reference we can make is that we have sat for 10 hours with an original dish as a starting point and a memory of what that dish should taste like. In the hands of these chefs, a transformation takes place, with the end result being recognizable features of the original dish, but presented in a completely unrecognizable way.
Commandeering el Bulli
for the Last TimeIn my attempt to secure one last reservation at el Bulli as a graduation gift to our foodie son, Matthew, I give what I think is an Academy Award–winning performance to the maître d’. He is not impressed. Several e-mails later, he finally agrees to speak by phone about an idea Adrià has that I might be interested in: buying out the entire restaurant. For one night, he would charge a fortune, with the money going to his foundation opening in 2014 in the present location of el Bulli. I run the idea by Howard, who thinks I have lost my mind, and he says it will never work. Big mistake to doubt me. I ask Ferran for 48 hours to see if I could do it: sell 50 seats to 50 food fanatics, charge them $3,400 a head, ask them to fly to Barcelona, drive two hours to the Costa Brava, spend the night in what one would think of as a Spring Break–style hotel, drive up and over a treacherous mountain, have the most extraordinary meal of your life and reverse all of the above the very next day. Thirty hours later, I have 50 seats sold and 26 on the waitlist. I convince Adrià to let me have five more seats by saying,“$3,400 a head, and you can’t find six more seats?” So not the European way, but it works.We go. We dine. We drink. And no one falls off the mountain. It’s the experience of a lifetime. The lucky 56 are: Howard and I, Matthew Looney, Lindsey and Patrick Collins, Deedie and Rusty Rose, Catherine and Will Rose, Caren Prothro, Marguerite Hoffman, KateHoffman, Cynthia and Forrest Miller, Nancy Marcus, Mary Noel and Bill Lamont, Fred Reid, Doreen Schmid, Ana Pettus, Karen and Richard Pollock, Joyce Goss, and Nancy Nasher and David Haemisegger from Dallas; Roland Augustine, Kinga Lampert, Hannah Hoffman, Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, Virginia Lebermann, John Wotowicz, Jane Jackson, Lela Rose and Brandon Jones, John Pfeiffer, Robert Levy and Mike Clifford from New York City; Caroline Styne, Michael Kohn, Beth Swofford and Alan Hergott from Los Angeles; Deborah Green, Clayton Aynesworth, Lora Reynolds and Quincy Lee from Austin; Lee Hudson and Cristina Salas-Porras from Napa Valley; Dick and Pam Kramlich from San Francisco; David Graham from St. Barths; Georgia and Marc Quinn from London; Fernando and Soumaya Romero-Slim from Mexico City; and Fairfax Dorn from Marfa.
Chef Ferran Adrià will be interviewed by Frank Bruni at the New York City Wine and Food Festival on Saturday, October 1; 888.NYT.1870 or timestalks.com for more information.
There’s also el Bulli the movie, el Bulli Cooking in Progress, at elbullimovie.com. For more information on the foraging chef René Redzepi and Noma, log onto noma.dk.
Chef Ferran Adrià at el Bulli
Cindy Rachofsky, el Bulli chef Ferran Adrià, Howard Rachofsky. Photo courtesy of Luciano Insua.
el Bulli sitting room. Photo courtesy of Luciano Insua.
el Bulli. Photo courtesy of Luciano Insua.
el Bulli dining room. Photo courtesy of Luciano Insua.
Three years of el Bulli dish documentation. Photo courtesy of Luciano Insua.
el Bulli’s meticulous presentations.
A common occurrence at el Bulli.
Plating at el Bulli. Photo courtesy of Luciano Insua.
Exterior of Noma. Photo by Mads Damgarrd.
Chef René Redzepi at Noma. Photo by Ditte Isager.
el Bulli. Photo courtesy of Luciano Insua.
Noma. Photo by Ditte Isager.
el Bulli. Photo courtesy of Luciano Insua.
Plating at Noma. Photo by Ditte Isager.
Noma dining room. Photo by Ditte Isager.
The jewel box of desserts at el Bulli.