Closing time at El Bulli

Ave atque vale. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that stuff. El Bulli is dead. Long live El Bulli.

The closure of El Bulli as a restaurant, and its slow transformation into a foundation dedicated to culinary creativity, has sparked off a good deal of  rumination on its food, its significance, whither public eating and other guff needed to fill the pages of worthy newspapers. And a good deal of it is, as per usual, tosh. It would charitable to dismiss some of the articles in question as good knock about turns, were they informed by a dire mix of  profound snobbery, bolstered by woeful ignorance, a politician’s arrogance in assumptions about public taste, and a  pathetic lack of understanding about the nature of public eating, which is about having a good time, not about the dreary, self-centred maunderings of the critic.

And whatever else you can say about El Bulli, it was about having a good time, just as long as you were so minded. There were those who went t worship and those who went to wonder and those who went to snipe. That is not the fault of the restaurant. I only ate there once, but it was huge fun. Yes, I ate the mojito and apple flute; the gorgonzola globe,; hibiscus and peanut combo; grated macadamia nut; caviar cream and hazelnut caviar; tomato and frozen crystal pond; Osaka monkfish liver with coconut tiramisu ; pine nut shabu-shabu; and hare liver ’marron glace’ to name a few of the 40 odd courses which came and went in the course of a five-hour dinner.

It was an extended tapas, with dishes that were by turn playful, witty, irritating, funny, clever, too clever by half, mind-boggling, not-so-mind-boggling. Most were extraordinary and delicious. Some were extraordinary and not delicious. And some I still can’t make up my mind about As I wrote in a piece for Jamie’s Magazine afterwards, it was like having a conversation with an immensely erudite, amusing, stimulating, entertaining companion Of course, I didn’t agree that everything was wonderful, but taken as a whole, it was a dinner of  astonishing inventiveness and delight, and the five of us had a very jolly time,

Of course, El Bulli was a restaurant like no other, but it didn’t suddenly leap fully formed into the world on sunny Catalan day. When Ferran Adria first started cooking, the restaurant world was in thrall to French cooking, and the French Culinary Revolution brought about by Cuisine Nouvelle. Ferran Adria served an apprenticeship cooking Frenchified versions of Spanish food. It took years for him to evolve his own, equally radical vision, radical, above all, because it was distinctively and utterly Spanish. The food at El Bulli could never have been conceived by a Frenchman, or anyone other than a Spaniard, come to that. Adria is in a specifically Spanish intellectual and creative  tradition. He has more in common with Salvador Dalli, Juan Miro, Bunuel, Goya, Cervantes and Calderon than he does with Michel Guerard, Paul Bocuse, or Auguste Escoffier.

The real significance of El Bulli, and of The Fat Duck in the UK come to that, doesn’t  lie in water baths, gels, flavour release, encapsulation, transformations, general trickery and technical waggle dancing, but through their example they  helped free other chefs from the tyranny of French haute cuisine. They broke the hegemony that had set the criteria and traditions of public cooking for two hundred years. They made it easier for chefs to express their personal culinary creativity in idioms more suited to their own country’s culinary culture.. They opened the way for the Rene Redzeppis, Davide Scabins, and Wylie Dufreynes around the world, not to mention the Sat Bains, Glyn Purnell, Simon Rogan, Jason Aththerton and others in the UK. This has been a radical and profound cultural shift as far as cooking in concerned.

Not all the chefs who have grabbed at the technical innovations and creative possibilities have the same understanding, taste and talent as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal. There are a lot of less talented figures serving up half-baked imitations. But you can’t blame that on Adria or Blumenthal. It’s like blaming every cloddish Sunday afternoon kickabout on Wayne Rooney or Lionel Messi.

In fact, there never really has been a school of El Bulli. It was unique, inimitable. Ferran Adria and El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal and The Fat Duck were usually bracketed together as if they were culinary Siamese twins. In fact, they were profoundly different in the way in which they went about developing dishes, each reflecting their own country’s gastronomic traditions. To judge by menus up and down the UK at the moment, Noma and Rene Redzeppi, with the emphasis on seasonality and locality and foraged wild vegetables, roots, nuts, fruits, herbs and salads, is having, and will continue to have a more lasting influence. That may be because Scandanavian cooking has more in common in terms of palate, texture and convention with our own than with those of Mediterranean Spain. (Actually, there’s nothing new here, either. As I pointed out in an earlier bog, in essence Redzeppi is doing nothing that Marc Veyrat and Edouard Loubet weren’t doing a dozen years ago).

Food is not an art form akin to painting or sculpture. Food is about taste and memory, just as music is about hearing and memory. You can eat the finest food in the land, and f the circumstances or company are fearful, it will be ashes in the mouth, and will be dismissed from your mind. . You can eat shepherd’s pie and have a skinful of Bulgrian merlot in the company of family and friends, and you can remember it forever. Best of all, of course, is to have great food in great company, which you remember with Proustian clarity twenty, thirty, forty years on, just as you can remember a particular performance of a particular piece of music long after the last demi-semi-quaver faded from you ears. Many of the dishes I ate at El Bulli I will be able to recall with pleasure as I sit drooling in a wheelchair with a rug over my knees waiting for my daily gruel in the Blue Bayou Sunset Home.

Let the fellow go. Senor Adria and his team – El Bulli was always a collaboration of like-minded spirits – have given those lucky enough  have eaten there pleasures and puzzlements that we will remember for the rest of our lives; stirred things up for those who didn’t, and, above all, made us think and talk about the world’s most important topic.

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About Matt

Food writer, television presenter and big eater.
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4 Responses to Closing time at El Bulli

  1. Written with your customary elegance and insight, Matthew. I agree with all of it. I only went once and had about 36 courses, 5 of which were brilliant, 5 of which pretty repulsive (a cherry encased in ham fat sticks unappealingly in the memory) and the rest I can’t really remember. Fun certainly but I didn’t yearn to repeat the experience. Noma, as you suggest, is much more satisfying for the soul.

  2. What a fabulous piece of writing! Let’s get back to real food now!

  3. Richard Ehrlich says:

    Wonderful piece, Matthew. When you’re living in the Blue Bayou Sunset Home, I will come and visit you.

  4. Catherine Desforges says:

    Food is all about taste and memory… Nothing more, nothing less. Well said Professor 😉

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