'The Most Important Gourmet' Succumbs to Cancer in Italy

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Bob Noto was an industrialist who became an obsessive chronicler of the avant-garde food scene
Bob Noto

Courtesy of Bob Noto

Bob Noto, who perhaps dined at elBulli more than anyone, passed away from cancer.

The man Ferran Adrià describes as "the most important gourmet of the last 30 years" has died of cancer at the age of 63. His demise, announced this morning, came as a surprise to many of his friends and associates, as he hadn't made his illness public.

Noto, a native and resident of Turin, was famous in contemporary gastronomic circles as the man who — with his wife, Antonella Ventura — had dined more often than anyone else at Adrià's legendary elBulli. When I met him at the restaurant in 2008, the couple was enjoying their 75th meal there since their first experience of the place in 1993. Between 2008 and the closing of elBulli as a restaurant in 2011, they probably logged something like 15 more meals at Adrià's hands.

A tall, balding man with lively eyes and a wry smile — it was impossible not to think of Mr. Clean — Noto, who somebody once described as "a radical gourmet Italian," ran an industrial tool factory in Milan as a day job when I met him, but he concentrated increasingly on writing about food as time went on. He penned regular columns for the websites Identità Golose and Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía, wrote for a wide range of magazines and restaurant guides, and was the co-author of three books, two dealing with avant-garde Italian cooking and one called Great Chefs of Spain.

Noto also deserves a place in modern gastronomic history for having coined the term "deconstruction" to describe the disassembling and reconstituting of the ingredients of a familiar dish into new form. He had heard the term, probably coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida in a literary context and later adopted in the field of modern architecture, from an architect cousin. He thought it perfectly described what Adrià did.

The Notos said that they had an epiphany the first time they dined at elBulli, having been led there by an article about Spanish restaurants in France's Gault&Millau magazine. "To us, the number one in the world for food was France," Noto told me, "but we knew most of the top restaurants there so we thought, ‘Let's try Spain.’ [elBulli] was the second restaurant we came to when we got here. At our first taste of our first appetizer, a granita of tomato, we said, 'This is a genius.' It had the DNA, the soul of the tomato. In this one dish was all the philosophy of elBulli. They take the best tomato in the world and work with temperature and texture and technique, but you will always have a tomato. It is not a copy but a transformation. People who say they don't understand elBulli haven't eaten here. This is the restaurant where the flavors are the purest in the world."

So impressed was the couple by their meal that they decided not only to return as soon as possible but to start keeping a record of every dish they ate there. Noto privately published a catalogue of these, under the title — clever if not necessarily in good taste — "Bullimia," a term he defined as a "disease whose main symptom is excessive and insatiable hunger for the dishes made at elBulli."

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One evening at the restaurant, the couple allowed filmmaker Vincenç Ascensio to videotape them as they enjoyed their entire dinner; the result was — paging Andy Warhol — a wordless four-hour record of the food and, more important, of the Notos' reactions to it. There is a lot of smiling and laughing, a lot of oohing and aahing. They looked as if they were having more fun than anyone in the world.