"Aaaah, El Bulli!" Spain swoons. Italy raves. France is mesmerized. Even Americans are getting hot and bothered about El Bulli's Catalan chef, Ferran Adriá, the Salvador Dalí of the culinary world. Adriá is so adored in Spain that a village cook I met in the Valencian rice fields recited his latest menu by heart. And for the past few years, El Bulli--reached by a twisting dirt road from the Costa Brava resort town of Roses--has been a mecca for international journalists, master chefs and culinary groupies. They taste, they gawk, they gossip. And the legend grows.
Adriá is just 37 years old and handsome in a mellow, dark-eyed Catalan way. As a teenager looking for work, he walked into El Bulli 18 years ago, with no culinary training whatsoever, and never left. Today, he is part scientist (edible foams made with a siphon compressor are one of his signatures), part alchemist (his experiments include--ready?--hot ice cream), part conceptual artist (his plates could best be described as installations) and part magician (one of his latest tricks is a pea soup that's mysteriously cold on the bottom and hot on top).
But he is also a preacher who spreads his word with evangelical zeal. And other chefs listen. While Adriá's influence reaches all over Spain, it's especially strong in Catalonia, the northeastern region of the country, which is famous for its gastronomy and avant-garde sensibility. A Catalan road trip that takes in the Costa Brava and Barcelona--with stops along the way to visit Adriá's disciples--offers one of Europe's most thrilling eating adventures.
Adriá's cooking has always astounded me with its technical brio and provocative wit. But my recent meal at El Bulli--with 20-plus miniature courses--was a tour de force of flavors that were so intense and yet so ethereal that the food itself seemed almost disembodied: cuisine translated into an edible play of ideas.
Some highlights? A diaphanous flourless pasta alla carbonara, fashioned from truffle-infused broth thickened with agar-agar, an Asian seaweed gelatin. A jellied basil terrine garnished with crunchy garlic chips and pine nuts and flanked with Parmesan foam--perhaps the world's most eloquent homage to Italy. That wondrous hot-and-cold pea soup. A tiny potato filled with yogurt and coffee, the coffee cheekily suggesting the flavor of truffles. Embellishing one of the desserts was a sliver of caramel as thin as an onion skin, inlaid with bits of rose petals, resembling a Gaudí mosaic. That detail alone made me gasp.
What's next for the master? Like most three-star Michelin chefs, he makes personal appearances and endorses products. He is also collaborating on plans for the restaurant at Hacienda Benazuza, an opulent country hotel near Seville. And he continues to mentor young chefs, who spread his culinary philosophy throughout Spain and beyond.
A concept that unites Adriá's culinary circle is that of memoria gustativa (taste memory). Chefs evoke traditional dishes and flavors, then disassemble and recontextualize them in startling and delicious ways. Consider the tortilla de patatas. The beloved Spanish potato omelet undergoes a remarkable transformation at Barcelona's sleek Talaia Mar, a restaurant that Adriá helped launch. Layered in a glass flute are onion confit, a warm potato foam and an egg yolk emulsion. This, an omelet? But scoop out a spoonful, and Spain's iconic flavors will explode in your mouth.
The 28-year-old chef, Marc Singla, also reinvents the concept of tomato salad using balls of vividly flavored tomato sorbet, embellished with squares of balsamic vinegar jelly and drizzled with lemon dressing. His other tapas-like whimsies include a crunchy cigar-shaped pastry filled with bacon ice cream (a fantastic play of cool, sweet and smoky flavors) and an octopus confit with squid ink emulsion, served with a spoonful of palate-cleansing passionfruit pulp on the side. What could possibly conclude such a meal? An eggplant puree with lime sorbet, of course.
Less polished but just as subversive is Barcelona's OT, owned by Oriol Lagé and Felip Planas. With eight tables and color-splashed walls, the place seems like a stage for Gen-X performance art. Blurring boundaries? Sí, sí! If most of the entrées could almost pass for dessert (brochettes of bonito encased in ginger-spiked caramel, skate with yogurt and lemon marmalade, sardines with grapes and a Pedro Ximenez reduction), the dessert took a dramatically savory turn: a cumin cake with mint jelly and a salty, peppery melon sorbet. "Adriá taught us how to have fun," Lagé says.
El Celler de Can Roca
Joan Roca, the chef at the vaguely postmodernist Celler de Can Roca in Girona, confidently treads the ground broken by Adriá. "Ferran opened up new possibilities," he announces. "Now, Catalan chefs use his techniques--foams, cold and warm jellies, savory ice creams and sorbets--but they personalize them." Roca does so by saucing smoked rabbit slices with juniper ice cream for a frio-caliente effect, and by pairing marinated raw clams with a sorbet of pomelo and Campari. A true Catalan, Roca cherishes bacalao, or salt cod, which he serves in a glass with warm spinach gelée and cheese foam, or cooked at a low temperature and presented with an onion gelée and a tomato confit.
Twenty miles from El Bulli, just outside Figueres, sits Mas Pau, an estate where the wiry and disheveled Xavier Sagristà heads the kitchen. Adriá is a co-owner of Mas Pau, and Sagristà is at pains not to appear to be a clone. "How could we have two identical madmen running around?" he winces.
To suit the setting, Sagristà has devised a neo-rustic menu that plays on the paradoxes and juxtapositions of traditional Catalan cuisine. Sweet and salty flavors mingle in his salt-cod brandade with honey and eggplant chips. Croquettes of cèpes are filled with foie gras, and a chilled fish soup is sprinkled with chocolate-cake crumbs. "Catalans often use chocolate in sauces," Sagristà explains.
Adriá's futuristic cuisine has clearly had a powerful influence on his disciples. But some of them worry about their mentor. What if the master sells out, retires or just plain combusts, consumed by his passion?
We'll hold our breath and dream of an ice cream that burns in the mouth.
Anya von Bremzen is the author, most recently, of Fiesta! A Celebration of Latin Hospitality (Doubleday).