And so, with a final mind-blowing, palate-boggling, eye-watering 49-course fanfare, el Bulli is no more. To some, this is no less a culinary disaster than a high street peppered only with Harvesters and not a scrap to eat; to others, it sounds as a blessed return to the safe harbour of ‘un-mucked-about grub’.
There were – and numbers are vague – between one and two million panting, salivating diners on the waiting list in the six months before closure; that’s a lot of disappointment spread in a world already teetering on crisis. Apparently, you had a 0.08% chance of ever scoring a table – those aren’t odds, just humiliation in prospect. And yet, despite demand, Ferran Adrià made the decision to close his foodie Mecca because, finally, he might have run out of ideas. And energy – although he and his 70 staff only open the restaurant for six months of the year, the work behind the scenes goes on year-round, 15-hour days churning out experiment after experiment. No wonder he’s exhausted.
His Eureka moment came in the late 1980s, when a French chef stated ‘Creativity is not copying.’ This became Adrià ‘s mantra, the grinding stone on which he sharpened the knife of his creativity and brought him nearly a quarter of a century later to the domination of the restaurant industry in the world’s most successful and controversial restaurant.
So what – in summary – did this culinary behemoth bring to the food scene? Adrià ‘s legacy is undoubtedly mixed. On the one hand, his ‘molecular gastronomy’ (a term, incidentally, he detests) revolutionised menus across cuisines. He injected a sense of fun, playfulness into eating – Parmesan frozen air with a sachet of muesli has to be at least tried – and a sense of the ridiculous. Many critics and diners came away shaking their heads, still muttering ‘It can’t – shouldn’t – be done’ having only just eaten the impossible. It’s taken us light years ahead in our understanding of what could be on a plate, if only we have the imagination – and the serious equipment – to try. He set a standard, of which there seem to be pitifully few, and saw cooking as a kind of giant game of Dare. He probably won. He inspired a lot of chefs who have taken his concept and run with it, bringing a flavour of el Bulli to the majority who couldn’t get a table.
On the other hand, he spawned a thousand poor imitations, his mantra bludgeoned to death by chefs who try to copy without the understanding or the extensive preparation behind each dish. Raymond Blanc is quite right when he states that young chefs coming into the business shouldn’t think it’s all ‘about test tubes, Bunsen burners and liquid nitrogen.’ He invokes a sterile science lab, where what is palpably missing is a great big beating heart and a stock-pot full of passion. El Bulli became omnipresent, winning Best Restaurant In Every Known And Unknown Galaxy year upon year. No-one else really stood much of a chance, not least because his kind of cooking became the go-to starting point of any criteria definition. And no-one likes a perpetual winner.
Unwittingly, Adrià also created a divisive food snobbery; you either ‘got it’ or you didn’t. You either tried to get a table by mortgaging off your house, children and dog or you weren’t that fussed and therefore ‘unworthy’. Such an attitude is deeply unattractive: food is food and some of it is better than others and we’re fortunate indeed in the Western world to have the money and time and opportunity to elevate it to such a level, but it’s all relative.
And so, to you. How will you mark el Bulli’s passing? Did you ever try to get a table or even want to go? Do you think he did the entire restaurant industry a massive disfavour and we now ought to settle down and eat ‘real food’? Has his influence percolated down in a positive way – what’s the most ludicrous el Bulli-inspired dish you’ve ever seen and did you order it?
Adios old friend. You changed our world.