Anthony Bourdain has a sincere, unabashed love for elBulli that dates back to 2001. Back then he was invited to Catalonia by Ferran Adrià, and the meeting resulted in the documentary "Decoding Ferran Adrià." Even more significantly, the interaction served as the impetus for the series No Reservations, now in its eighth season.
Over the weekend elBulli had its final service — in which the likes of Joan Roca, Massimo Bottura, René Redzepi, and Grant Achatz all worked the kitchen. Timed along with the restaurant's shuttering, the elBulli episode of No Reservations airs tonight on the Travel Channel at 9PM. In anticipation of the premiere, I had a chance to speak to Bourdain about the restaurant, its players, and what the future might hold for the Adriàs and their team.
If we take the scenes in which you're eating tapas in L'Hospitalet and making the suquet on the beach, it seems like one of the main goals of the episode is to insist on the fact that Ferran Adrià is not some out of touch guy who makes science food. Do you think he gets a bad rap because people have had imitations around the world that just don't cut it?
It's an understandable impulse. I think that people have seen a lot of imitators. This is a restaurant that few people have ever been able to eat at. People wanted to eat there but were never able to, so it became exclusive. And then these people see what some of this cooking looks like from lesser imitators on Top Chef, much of it gimmicky and ridiculous, and it's easy to feel that it's pretentious, posh, or science food. But it's not that at all.
So there very much is a point to the episode: this food comes from somewhere — Catalonia, L'Hospitalet, with an overlay of Andalusia. It's not a fancy restaurant. It was never a fancy restaurant. It was never that expensive and it never made a profit. There's not even a sommelier for suggestions for wine pairings, you don't have to wear a jacket and tie. It was a casual, fun experience, unfortunately enjoyed by very few of the people that wanted to eat there.
Can you talk a bit more about why you don't see it as gimmicky?
The techniques are complex but the flavors are really, really simple. In every case, there aren't that many ingredients. The flavors are clean and refer directly to a place. When there's somebody that far out in front of everybody else, you pay a price with public perception. But he's really not doing anything different from what Spaniards have done all along. Take ham as an example. You're doing something to it, you're treating it. You're altering its molecular structure when you make a Spanish ham. What's wrong with that?
I really tried hard to draw a line from the suquet on the beach with José Andrés, the tapas in Hospitalet, and the every day things from Spain. But on the other hand, he is a genius who is twenty years in front of everyone else, and it has been that way for the whole run of elBulli.
You've been to the restaurant twice. What did you note this time around?
It was a much more accomplished and fully realized meal. The whole progression thing that he was been working on, he really just nailed that on this old riff on the dinosaur classic, the wild hare. I've never experienced anything like that, where all these different courses and elements come together to essentially recreate a very familiar but delicious experience. It felt like the symphony he's been writing his whole life.
What do you think motivates this decision to close?
It must be so extraordinarily tiring to be so far out in front of people every year. Somebody told me the David Kinch story, of when he went for dinner at elBulli, had the thirty or forty courses, and then told Adrià jokingly that if he came back the next day, he'd be eating a lot of the same dishes. He returned the next day and had forty completely different dishes. That's got to be a lot of pressure. It can't be fun. The restaurant never made money. Enough.
Ferran is very sincere in all of this and has a very restless mind. He is genuinely excited. I know he had a lot of fun at Harvard lecturing, and I'm guessing that that was an impetus for him. He enjoys teaching and creating in a less pressurized environment.
He also really loves sharing his ideas, and that's something I hope comes through in the show — how incredibly generous this guy is. You hear from José, again and again and very emotionally, that everything this guy has ever created, he's shared it with people. He is a very giving, very generous, very unassuming guy. And I think that's the part he enjoys. Having to run the most exclusive restaurant I think was a burden. He's hunting bigger game. He wants a place where he can think and create and listen to other people. He wants a conversation and to be in a place where people are asking tough and challenging questions. It's not unreasonable to assume that you'll go there in about eight years, and there'll be [Ferran's] giant brain of hair, a swimming pool, and in it Harold McGee, Kanye West, and an organic chemist all floating around on inflatable dolphins talking about big ideas. He's a guy who likes thinking and creating a lot more than I think he likes the restaurant business. Or at least running that particular restaurant as a business.
I just don't think it was fun for him anymore. I don't think he wants to be "the guy" or this celebrated chef. I think he is much more interested in developing a space where he can think and create without the constraints of a normal restaurant business model.
So you don't think this foundation is just another, different venue for him to be part of "the vanguard," to employ the term so many Spanish chefs seem to favor?
I don't know. I think he wants to get out of the game. It's not an academy. It's a think tank, an institute as best I understand it. I think he wants to indulge his curiosity in a different environment. He won't have to be Ferran Adrià. The poor guy, every time he goes into a restaurant or to a food and wine festival in another city, he's invariably taken to eat the food of his presumed acolyte. The new kid in town. It can't be fun. This is a guy who likes dumplings and a hamburger. He gets excited talking about very simple flavors and very simple things. I don't think he wants to compete in that sense or play that particular game.
I'm interested to hear your take on two other very important characters in the elBulli story. Let's start with Juli Soler, who is mentioned in the episode but doesn't appear much. What's your take on his role? Do you know what he'll be doing at the foundation?
I don't know what his role will be in the foundation, but I think it's worth noting that for staff meal, everyone sits in the same place at the table every day. Juli sits at the head of the table. He's the guy who sent Ferran out into the world to cook and to eat and to be exposed to French gastronomy. In many, many ways, he's of vital importance to elBulli. That was some very forward thinking to have recognized something in Ferran back then, when it was an empty German-run restaurant. He's extraordinary. What his exact plans are, I don't know. But I will say that their loyalty to each other is unquestioned as far as I can see.
And what about Albert?
Hugely understated, misunderstood, and underreported. It's been much easier to give all of the credit to Ferran, but Albert is one of the greatest chefs in the world. I think he also is a workaholic, another guy with a restless mind. But I'm just guessing that he's tired of the bullshit, too.
Could probably guess, but what do you mean by "bullshit"?
I don't think they want to be the Ferran and Albert Adrià that they have been made out to be. I mean, Albert's wearing epaulets and flashing lights on his back, pushing a little ice cream cart around. I think these guys want to play now. They want to have fun and think deep thoughts and hear deep thoughts and make a different life for themselves. They want to opt out of the traditional model. I hope that in five years I won't see him still working the line. Tickets is a hysterically casual, fun, almost carnivalesque place. They do everything possible to undermine its seriousness — to serve delicious food in a childlike environment.
But I think some people would argue that they do play that game, to some extent.
They're trying to get to a certain place, and they're nice people. A lot of journalists have been nice to them over the years and they have a lot of loyalties to those people. They have a hard time saying "no." And also, they speak for Spain. They're national fucking heroes, and there are commitments and obligations there. In order to create this next phase, they can't live like hippies. They're not out of the game completely, because they never can be.
Let's go back to Albert. It must be so tiring. I mean, he creates these soil desserts and suddenly, every pastry chef in the world is doing soil desserts. His every utterance is instantly the next thing. And now he's pushing an ice cream cart around. It's fantastic.
I know that they are very interested in promoting Spanish gastronomy and Spanish culture — and the tapas mentality and ethic in its real, authentic form. I know that they're bothered by fake tapas around the world. They don't like that. There's a lot of national pride there, and I have no doubt that these next phases will need money, so there may be a source there. Ferran drives like a thirty year-old car and lives in a spare white room when he's up at the restaurant. I'm not saying they're looking to cash out, but I think they understand that Tickets is a business and that it will hopefully make money. And they want to spread that in a democratic, unserious way.
Ferran Adrià is the type of guy who can appear at the 92nd Street Y and reflect for 10 minutes on a glass of water. Lots of people use the names Picasso and Dalí when describing him. How do you think he will be remembered? As a chef, an artist, a philosopher...
I think he will be remembered as all of the above. As a great teacher, a great thinker in gastronomy like Escoffier, a great chef, but I think leader first. Thinkers, leaders, pioneers — they are creative people. And much like Jimi Hendrix made sounds with the guitar that had never been heard before, they did things with food and the dining model that hadn't been seen before. They changed the entire landscape in ways that we will not fully understand for years. A lot of those techniques they've introduced will eventually be standard, casual practice in kitchens around the world. And a lot of the questions they asked will be — without using the word "answered" — addressed every day in menus in the future.
So I think they will be remembered, and Ferran in particular, of course, as leaders, thinkers, pioneers, chefs, and revolutionary figures. But also as really nice guys.
Video: Below, two preview clips of the episode.