In mid-November of last year I was sitting at this iMac in the Long Beach barrio when the email from Luis Garcia arrived:
If you wish we have an option to please your reservation request on
Wednesday June 18th of 2008, table for 4 people at 7.30 p.m. under the name:
Ferran Adrià will prepare a personalized tasting menu. You will try many different elaborations and it means many different products. It is very important for his confection to know in advance if some problem exists, like allergies or any other product that we could not include for anyone of you.
I wait your news to fix the option and also with regard to this question to fix all the details at your reservation.
I also ask you to give us a direct phone number to contact you, if necessary, during your time in our area.
Cala Montjoi - 17480 Roses
I felt like I had been hit in the head with a wet sack of cement. I read it several times, trying to make sense of the Babelfish English. Slowly, it began to sink in.
It was an email with consequences. Not an ordinary confirmation of a restaurant reservation, this was an offer to dine at el Bulli, reported to be the best restaurant in the world. A casa on Spain’s Costa Brava, miles from the closest city, open six months of the year and offering only one seating a night. Nearly a half a million requests come in and only a lucky few (about 8,000 folks) are offered a seat.
Robert was on the other side of the room on his laptop. “What are you doing June 18?” I asked.
For Robert—along with Logan, Diane, and myself—it meant a great opportunity along with an enormous commitment: The adjusting of schedules, flying from LAX to BCN, hotels in Barcelona, a rental car, the drive to Roses, another hotel, and of course the cost of the food, wine, tax and tip. And all this has to take place at a time when the value of American currency falls somewhere between the stuff that comes with a Monopoly board and a sack of magic beans. This would not dinner out with friends but a gastronomic version of a Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage.
Over the next few days I will be posting my el Bulli experience (in three parts). This post is the lead-up—how we got there. Next will come a blow-by-blow description of the meal with pictures, and last will be my thoughts on Ferran Adrià’s praxis and my encounter with his work.
Being a nominal foodie (the nominal part being more attributable to poverty than to desire) I had heard of el Bulli and the cuisine referred to as molecular gastronomy. Last summer I attended Documenta 12 where curators Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack included el Bulli in the map of the exhibition spaces, calling it “Pavillion G.” Fifty lucky visitors to Kassel were randomly selected to receive coveted dinner reservations, though the recipients had to pick up their own tab.
To my knowledge it was the first time a chef was included as an artist for an art exhibition. In the world of art, curators have shown a penchant for expanding the umbrella of art, including individuals who make their living in other métiers, most notably film, fashion, and architecture. At the same time artists have shown an interest in food and dining. In the late 60’s Allen Ruppersberg operated Al’s Diner here in L.A., serving artistic delights like “A Small Dish of Pine Cones and a Cookie” or “Toast and Leaves.” A couple of years later in SoHo Gordon Matta-Clark opened Food and served a bit more substantial fare. So the inclusion of Adrià in Documenta may have elicited some surprise—but no shock—from the popular and art press.
There were times at Documenta when I pricked up my ears, like the itinerant gambler listening for the hoots and hollers of a craps table with hot dice. I was hoping at least for the vicarious pleasure of spotting the secret shopper as she bestowed el Bulli reservations on some lucky art viewer. It didn’t happen, though I did send in my request to visit Pavilion G on the appointed day.
I expect this post may generate a few comments asking for some advice in obtaining a reservation. The gastronomic message boards are rife with tales of folks unable to snag a seat after years and years of requests. My only advice are the same as any Zen Master will give when teaching you how to conduct every waking moment of your life:Ferran~ Gracias para tu cocina, ~Michael
- Follow instructionsWhen the hoped-for email from Luis Garcia eventually arrives, you’ll the have to go about making the logistical arrangements that will get you washed, pressed, and hungry at el Bulli’s gates in Cala Montjoi. Below are a few general recommendations that helped make it a better experience for all.
- Be polite (this includes humility and appreciation)
- Be flexible
- Speak honestly and with our own voice
On the topic inviting companions to el Bulli, may I suggest offering the extra chairs to people you truly enjoy spending time with who also possess a sense of adventure. As an example, let’s say you happened to be invited to a private meeting with the Pope, and you can bring a friend. You probably wouldn’t want to invite Richard Dawkins just to impress him, since both you and Herr Ratzinger would have a prickly time. Likewise all would be uncomfortable if you brought along your parish priest—since everyone would be forced to be on his or her artificially best behavior.
A night or two in Barcelona helps to adjust to the time zone, as well as sample some other avenues of Catalan cuisine (more in another post). The train is a possibility to Figures (but not Roses) so renting a car seemed more convenient for the four of us. We also were able to make a day trip to the home of Dalí in Port Lligat (yet another post).
If France were California then Roses would be Ensenada. The primary language on the street seemed to be French, followed by Catalan, Spanish, then English. The town reminded me of my misspent youth in Santa Barbara, before Hollywood’s filthy lucre drove out the regular people. We stayed at the Prestige Coral Platja Hotel, which can be reserved on line with some maneuvering. A short walk down the boardwalk we watched the sun set and had a lovely meal of local fishes, bivalves and cephalopods with a Catalan white picked out by Logan and our waiter. It was on the ground floor of the Mar y Sol (another Prestige hotel) overlooking the bay.
The morning of our el Bulli reservation we ate a light breakfast at the hotel’s buffet before driving out to the Casa Museu Salvado Dalí in Port Lligat. It became plainly obvious why everyone recommends taking a taxi out to the restaurant. The roads bear little resemblance to the markings on Google Maps, and treacherous acquires a whole new meaning on a curvy dirt road (without a railing) and the azure Mediterranean surf crashing a hundred feet below. Back in Roses later that afternoon we cooled our dusty throats with a gelato, then ambled back to our chambers for a little siesta.
As we dressed for dinner Robert told me that he was nervous; not that the restaurant wouldn’t live up to seven months of building expectations, but that somehow he wouldn’t be up for the task ahead. Like a trip to Santiago de Compostela, the last few meters are done on one’s hands and knees.
Beforehand the front desk hired us a driver who was well acquainted with the roads and knew how long it would take. We asked to arrive a little early so we could take in the beach at Cala Montjoi, but it was a hike down from the gates at el Bulli, something we weren’t dressed for. This gave us the opportunity to watch the other pilgrims as they arrived from various far-flung corners of the first world. We took our pictures by the sign, evidence of us having made it thus far.
Evidence: Diane photographs Logan photographing Robert (l) and Michael
Diane at the Gate
Part 2: The Experience