The Joyce of Cooking

A load of el Bulli

El Bulli is a restaurant inaccessibly buried in the Catalan hills south of the French border, where the world arrives via dirt track scramblers and chauffeur-driven limos to marvel at the creations of Farran Adrià, the Abbot in charge of a dedicated brotherhood of monks who transubstantiate mere food into consecrated edible sculptures whose consumption promises eternal bliss.

His influence has already spread to restaurants around the world, where the signature dishes now exhibit paradoxical transformations of flavors and textures. Solid ingredients are whipped into frothy foams, frozen concoctions feature spicy ingredients which confound the palate with simultaneous onslaughts of fire and ice.

And now the Order has promulgated the first of its sacred texts: el Bulli 1998-2002. Boasting the size, weight and elegance of a pulpit bible, it documents, step-by-step, the conception and execution of the dishes developed during the last five years. (The recipes themselves do not interrupt the magisterial sweep of these pages, but are contained in a separate CD-ROM.) It’s available in Spanish/Catalan and in English, weighs seven pounds and costs around a hundred.

Now, I admit that my impressions are not gained from an examination of the text or experience of the food itself, but second-hand from several of its most ardent promoters. “Ah-ha!” I hear your cry, “You venture an opinion without examining the evidence!” But as with any religion, one may learn as much of its essence from the glazed eyes of its newly-converted acolytes as from its primary sources. I did in fact see a mock-up with nonsense text at the Perigueux Cookery Book Fair. As with so many gastronomic bibles, the illumination is so magnificent that a devout collector of holy relics who acquired the mock-up rather than the real thing might remain none the wiser.

The New Testament is to be followed by the Old, going back to Adrià’s joining the restaurant staff, aged 22, and becoming head chef within eight months. The two volumes together will become the Ulysses/Finnegans Wake of the gastronomic world. Adrià is extraordinary, there’s no doubt about it. The restaurant is closed half the year and his staff return to Barcelona, where they carry out meticulous research into new recipes and techniques. The whole operation seems to be motivated, not by greed or a desire for notoriety, but by inventive curiosity and an irrepressible sense of humor.

The catch is that, to understand (let alone reproduce) his achievements, you must, as in the case of James Joyce, set aside a large block of your life in which you devote yourself to following his long and convoluted path. If you're an ambitious chef, a slapdash attempt to adopt his methods will only produce results as grotesque and ludicrous as trying to write in the style of Joyce without first spending a couple of years absorbing Dublin dialect in situ.

Unless, of course, your motives are egotistical or commercial. In the world of trendy cuisine, it will be enough to have a copy of the sacred text prominently displayed on your shelf and to offer a few outlandish recipes which owe more to Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook than to Adriá’s painstaking experimentation. If you hurry, in the mouths of fashionable foodies you’ll be the talk of the town. To borrow a soundbite [sic] from Marshall McLuhan, cuisine is whatever you can get away with.

©2004 John Whiting

NOTE: A friend who returned to the restaurant in 2005 reports that this time he was seriously disppointed. Adrià, he says, is experimenting with processed foods that can be sold ready-prepared, and he suspects that the diners are being made his guinea pigs. I posted this response on his website:

When a food becomes fashionable, in order to meet the demand it must be mass produced. Fashion is rarely harmless—it is, as Gertrude Stein observed, “the real thing in abstraction”. Feran Adriá is yet another manifestation of modern society’s terminal illness: the hubristic effort to invent and to master technology, in the course of which the master and the slave exchange places. The tendency towards predictable repetition that Vedat experienced in his recent visits to El Bulli was anticipated by C. Virgil Gheorghiu half a century ago in his prophetic novel The Twenty-Fifth Hour:

The mechanical slaves form a crushing majority in contemporary society….They exist within the framework of this society, but they function according to their own laws, which are different from human laws. Of the laws governing mechanical slaves, I will mention only three: automatism, uniformity and anonymity.

For Gheorghiu, the threat was psychological; he did not foresee that these automatous mechanical slaves could actually destroy the environment within which they proliferated. With the benefit of half-a-century’s accelerated history, Ronald Wright in his A Short History of Progress identifies runaway technology as a “suicide machine”. It may already be too late to turn it off; nevertheless, I prefer to feed my body with food produced by the traditional non-destructive technologies that a good cook would have available in the simplest of kitchens. I’m content with—indeed I relish—what Jane Grigson called “a better standard of ordinariness”.