"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.