Today being a rainy, lazy sort of day, it seemed a perfect time to stretch out and peruse the waiting shows. Soccer games. Animal documentaries. A movie or two… but tucked within these I found a few episodes of Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” particularly one on elBulli, the famed and controversial Catalan restaurant run by the chef Ferran Adrià. (It recently closed, to reappear in a couple of years as a “non-profit culinary think tank”… cool).
For those unfamiliar to the guru-like fame which both restaurant and chef achieved, suffice it to say that the tiny restaurant (50 seats), reached only via a winding two-plus hour drive from Barcelona on the rocky coast near the French border, averaged more than two-million requests for reservations yearly. Their “menu de dégustation” consisted of some forty dishes, lasted four to five hours, and cost nearly $400. As with all gurus there are those who question his fame and his methods of achieving it, both personal as well as culinary. Some say he’s all bluff, or too high-tech, too showy or opportunistic.
As with all skeptics and haters of pretense, I was leery of the hype and was interested to hear Bourdain’s take on the elBulli phenomenon. I’d of course heard of the restaurant over the years but had dismissed it, taking it for pretense and decadence in a world where so many are hungry, preferring instead the simple Mediterranean cuisine of Adrià’s roots.
True love. Bourdain gushed unfettered love and admiration, blushing and glowing and getting all googly eyed as he sat next to Adrià and shared the chef’s own enjoyment as they savored the menu. (Episode recap here.)
I am a forever Bourdain fan, having read his first book when it came out and remaining faithful to him ever since. There’s something so bad boy, so inappropriate about him, yet at the same time vulnerable and endearing. I adore his no-nonsense, no-reservations, often politically incorrect honesty. Oh, and his food choices, that too. To top it off, he’s really, really funny. I’ll never forget his description of running into Sandra “Semi-Homemade” Lee, here.
Having traveled to some of the places he visits in his culinary travelogue, I can definitely say that he has a way of finding the essence, of exposing not only the beauty but also the ugliness of the places he visits and the cuisines he tastes. Recently I saw an episode where he visited the garbage dump and its pickers in Nicaragua… what other cooking show offers a glimpse into such uncomfortable realities? Let’s just say I trust his judgment.
When he began the show claiming that he too was ready to dismiss the hype over Adrià and elBulli, until he witnessed it first-hand during an earlier visit, I listened closely, my own skepticism validated. But then he took my hand and together we leapt into the world of elBulli.
I was captivated by his crazy, insane concoctions, combinations which assault the senses and make one question all that came before. With his food he takes one on a ride to uncharted lands and with a mischievous alegría seems to thumb his own nose at the pretense and instill in his diners a temporary insanity, a delicious one at that. The sheer locura of such things being produced by this little Catalan man who’d spent most of his career tucked away there on the Costa Brava.
I get it now. What Ferran Adrià does is beyond putting good food on a plate or tickling a palate or two. Art. Genius. I may not enjoy the packaging and commercialization of it, but one only needs to watch him in action, to watch his face and his fingers as he works on his creations, to see that there is magic there. Ephemeral? Perhaps, but through his foundation and those he has trained I imagine there will be little tastes of his genius for many generations to come.
Food should be magical. Enjoyable. Fun. It should wake up our palates as well as our minds… aquesta és la màgia…