El Bulli's Star Chef Ferran Adria Goes Out on Top

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Ferran Adrià in El Bulli Lorena Ros for Newsweek

In his worn suede sneakers and faded black jeans, Ferran Adrià wouldn’t be out of place in a garage band—save for his crisp white chef’s jacket. Four hours before dinner service at his El Bulli restaurant, on Spain’s Costa Brava, Adrià sinks into a plush peach couch off the dining room, chatting animatedly in Catalan-accented French, snapping his fingers for punctuation. There is a coziness to the place, all exposed beams and stucco—think glorified pizzeria—at odds with the futuristic food served here, the zenith of avant-garde cuisine. (You can call it “molecular gastronomy,” but don’t let Adrià hear you.) The chef has a lot of explaining to do. El Bulli, perhaps the most coveted table in the history of food, will close for good on July 30, breaking foodie hearts everywhere.

In the modernist kitchen, 45 chefs in white jackets and dark aprons are preparing 47 dishes for each of the evening’s 51 diners. One apprentice is hunched over “spherical peas,” pea juice bullied by science to look like real peas. Another brandishes a syringe filled with orange goop, while liquid nitrogen slinks like smoke over the rim of a bowl to the floor, then disappears. Tonight, El Bulli dares to ask, “Why shouldn’t noodles be made from soup? Why can’t gazpacho look like snow?”

If ever there was a rock-star chef, Adrià is it. He came to El Bulli at 21 years old, for the ladies. On leave from his military service cooking for an admiral, he made the trek in 1983 to this unassuming, then-French restaurant on a sinewy, cactus-lined trail through mountain brush near the French border 160 kilometers north of Barcelona. He was lured by the promise of pretty foreign girls lounging on a beach inlet out back. Adrià biographer Colman Andrews writes of lean years when staff would sometimes cook for no one but the owners’ pet bulldogs, then party until morning, sobering up in the industrial freezer before work. At 25, Adrià became head chef and began experimenting. The prizes starting coming in, and so did the crowds. In recent years, El Bulli has drawn booking requests of stadium-tour proportions: an estimated 2 million a year, for only 8,000 reservations.

Meanwhile, as his fame climbed, Adrià earned rock-and-roll-worthy epithets for his culinary alchemy, as he teased foams and airs and jellied spheres that explode in the mouth from perfectly good solid food. “First it was the foams,” Adrià recalls. “Oh! Ferran Adrià is the devil! That was in 1994. Today cooks are using siphons in bars. Bars!”

The rocker logic applies to his decision to shut down the restaurant, too. After a two-year sabbatical, El Bulli will reopen as a culinary think tank, the El Bulli Foundation. Adrià compares it to Google (“for the freedom to create”) and Harvard (for the rigorous selection of participants, although it won’t be a school). It will host a roster of staff and guest talent, chefs from Peru to China, as well as architects, artists, writers, and designers. A few lucky strangers might be invited for a bite when the chefs need a little feedback: high-schoolers, the elderly, journalists, sponsors, charities (no mention of pet bulldogs). All this will be in funky new sustainable digs shaped like coral, with an algae pool to eat up the think tank’s carbon dioxide, adjacent to the historic restaurant left untouched. Like El Bulli the restaurant, where Adrià says meals have been priced to do no more than break even, the foundation will be funded by other gigs (for one, he is a spokesman for Telefónica). And every day, the merry band will upload the results of its jam sessions online, as “an archive of ideas” tested by experts and translated into many languages for all to use. No more reservations, no more covers. No more concerts, just noodling in the studio. Cue the hysteria. Ultimate rock-star move.

“Right now, I do 145 days of ‘concerts.’ Fifteen. Hours. Of concerts. Per day,” Adrià explains, with staccato emphasis. “In the future, I’ll do 35. And the rest of the time? Creativity.” A military seriousness crept into the restaurant work, he says, as El Bulli’s legend grew. “That’s very good, for seven years. But I want to get back to basics. El Bulli is very bohemian, very romantic. I want to get back to that,” he says. “If you don’t have romance, you don’t have creativity.”

ferran-adria-el-bulli-OV10-tease In El Bulli’s kitchen, 45 chefs prepare dozens of dishes for the evening’s diners, from edible “flower paper” and gorgonzola “balloons” to mugs of hare-and-quail cappuccino. Lorena Ros for Newsweek

El Bulli famously has already been closing for six months every year, using the break to fiddle with new experiments at its dedicated Barcelona workshop, called the Taller. Today, stopping altogether, the chef explains, is the only way to keep going. If El Bulli weren’t changing its format completely, Adrià, 49, says he might have retired. He knows he could milk the celebrity-chef cash cow comfortably for the rest of his life. “But what would I do with that money? Ferraris? I don’t like Ferraris,” he says. “Creativity must never be a business.” He says he wants new problems to solve. “The good thing about the foundation is that we will be able to reflect on everything,” he says. “Maybe one week I’ll make breakfast on the El Bulli terrace.” What’s clear is that in his restaurant’s model, he says, he can hardly take dinner any further than he already has.

The 47 courses this night are opera in every sense, sometimes transcendently beautiful, very long (one woman kept asking the wait staff how much more she was supposed to eat), eliciting purest emotions, and not always good ones. The gorgonzola balloon is just as it sounds, but frozen, and pure whimsy, as if children ruled the world. But the “game sequence,” a quartet of earthy hare dishes—a mug of hare-and-quail cappuccino, paired with toasted cardamom (to smell, not eat)—unsettles, like the dark forests in fairy tales, like being coerced through the looking glass. Adrià’s “flower paper”—wildflower petals of red, yellow, orange, purple, pressed between flattened sheets of white cotton candy—evokes butterflies in a deep fog. Beautiful. The food of angels. And then a sweet-voiced waitress follows up with a single boiled langoustine, and instructs you to slurp out its brains.

“You know, the people here today, they are for the Hollywood film,” Adrià says on the peach couch, with a nod toward the kitchen, pronouncing “Hollywood” with gravity, a little starstruck, like the kid he once was from L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a working-class suburb of Barcelona. Indeed, two men, the American producer Jeff Kleeman and another with a clipboard, are scouting the premises for their feature film. With a reported $40 million budget, the movie will be based on The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, a new book by Lisa Abend about the restaurant’s 32 unpaid interns, the proverbial Oompa-Loompas to Adrià’s Willy Wonka. The chef is billing it as Ratatouille meets The Social Network.

“I didn’t telephone Hollywood,” says Adrià. In a loud, comic monotone, he speaks into his outstretched pinkie and thumb, “Hello, Hollywood? Would you like to make a movie?” He says, “Nobody believes that I don’t have a marketing team.” (The guy who handles press requests, Pol, doubles as a waiter.) “We’re just here and emails arrive. NEWSWEEK? OK, fantastic. OK, Hollywood? Prizes? All that. That’s the incredible story of El Bulli, that we didn’t ask for any of this,” he says. “You know, Harvard is very serious. It’s very difficult, right?” says Adrià, who dropped out of school without a degree. “Harvard sends me an email. ‘Hello, if you like, you can give the physics class at Harvard.’ ” Adrià did lecture there and has recently agreed to devote two weeks a year for the next five to Harvard University, teaching “efficient creativity.” He starts in November.

Adrià admits the critics played a role in his decision to shut down. The chef and the global avant-garde movement he led were blasted for years for their mad-scientist methods—such as instant freezing with liquid nitrogen and the copious use of unorthodox additives like agar-agar, a gelatin derived from red algae. When the late Santi Santamaria, a rival Catalan master chef, delivered a stinging attack in a 2008 book suggesting the avant-gardists were poisoning people, Adrià reportedly lamented, “These have been the saddest weeks in the history of Spanish cuisine.” He still gets angry over the critiques, calling them “idiotic” and “manipulative.” Some of the controversial techniques and ingredients he favors have been used in pâtisserie for 50 years, he scoffs.

But Adrià believes the uproar was a byproduct of El Bulli’s dominance—and the ultimate proof it was time to move on. “For 15 years, El Bulli was No. 1, the monopoly, the prizes in France. That’s not good for the system. A monopoly for too many years, it’s not good. It’s the same in cinema, or sports, or anything.” It’s as if, he says, Lionel Messi, the Barcelona football wonder, was awarded the Ballon d’Or for world’s best player 10 times; impossible, he says—after three or four years, they would give the trophy to someone else. “But Messi is lucky in that, if he scores 50 goals every year, it is noted that he has scored. A sportsman,” Adrià snaps his fingers, “if he wins, he wins. Us, no. Creativity is subjective.” El Bulli will never be the world’s best restaurant again. It was already absent from Restaurant magazine’s latest World’s Best 50 list, a ranking El Bulli topped five times, never slipping below third. (As it happens, the chef at Copenhagen’s Noma, the winner two years running, is René Redzepi, a former El Bulli Oompa-Loompa.) “The El Bulli Foundation might come to be seen as the ‘most influential’ place in the world. But the system can handle that,” says Adrià.

Vicarious fans who never got to taste the real thing are left with Tickets, the Adrià brothers’ fun new diner-style tapas place in Barcelona’s theater district. Albert Adrià, 41, a pastry specialist who joined his brother at El Bulli when he was only 15, runs the new restaurant. Both brothers call it the “prêt-à-porter” to El Bulli’s “haute couture,” complete with spherical olives and battered rabbit ribs. Perhaps predictably, Tickets is booked solid through the summer.

But tonight, as 47 courses stagger dinner into the wee hours, the diners are being troupers. And it suddenly becomes clear that a man at the next table talking about his friend Richard’s catamaran is referring to Richard Branson, the Virgin Group billionaire. Outside in the darkness beyond El Bulli’s stone terrace, in surreal contrast, a party at the campground down the beach blares strains of West Side Story, “I want to live in America … ,” that echo off the inky inlet. El Bulli goes dark in a matter of weeks with Ferran Adrià trading three Michelin stars and all he had to say about dinner for academia and bohemia. “For some it’s madness,” he says. “But El Bulli was always about being mad.”

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