July 30, 2011. It was a warm, humid morning at Cala Montjoi. There was a scent of pine and seawater in the air, but the sun wasn't having much success in its attempts to nudge aside the clouds.
This was the last day that El Bulli — the restaurant that has brought the gastronomic world to this little cove about 15 miles south of the French border in Spain's Costa Brava region — would exist as a temple of avant-garde haute cuisine. (The elBullifoundation [sic] that will replace it, opening in 2014, will definitely serve food of some kind, though exactly what and how frequently has not yet been determined.)
Outside El Bulli, often hailed as "the world's most famous restaurant" and almost certainly the world's most influential, a mob of journalists, photographers, and videographers — some, making an official documentary, sported black T-shirts reading "Last Waltz El Bulli" — milled around the big, round gravel parking lot waiting for the official program to begin. (The only Americans among them, besides myself, appeared to be Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue and Time stringer Lisa Abend, author of a new book about El Bulli's stagiares, or interns.) (Pictured left, the author with Ferran, about halfway through the after-dinner party)
Last year, when I first asked Ferran Adrià what would happen on the closing night of El Bulli, he replied, "There will be nothing special. We'll serve dinner as we would any other night, and then go home." Ha. If there's one thing I've learned in all the time I've spent with the legendary Catalan chef over the past three years, working on and then promoting my biography of him, it's that nothing he says about the future ever just sits there and behaves. His thinking constantly evolves; that is, new ideas and inspirations fill his head as circumstances change, or his view of them adjusts. Thus he has decided to put on a bit of a show.
Albert Adrià (center) shoots back at the photographers.
A dais has been set up in a shaded corner of the parking lot, and the names on the placards in front of each chair testify to the seriousness of the event: Ferran and his longtime business partner and front-of-the-house manager, Juli Soler, are there of course. The other names are Joan Roca (El Celler de Can Roca, Girona), Andoni Aduriz (Mugaritz, outside San Sebastian), Massimo Bottura (Hosteria Francescana, Modena), Grant Achatz (Alinea and Next, Chicago), José Andrés (too many restaurants, in Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, to count), and René Redzepi (Noma, Copenhagen). All these chefs once worked in the El Bulli kitchen, and all of them openly credit Ferran with inspiring them. (Somehow, there was neither a chair nor a placard for Ferran's brother and career-long collaborator, Albert, who is now the proprietor of the Bulli-esque Barcelona tapas bar Tickets La Vida Tapa, but a place was found for him, too.)
Behind this illustrious crew — who accounted for 15 Michelin stars between them, according to my calculations — sat a second line of El Bulli veterans, including Kristian Lutaud (who was co-chef with Ferran in late 1984 and '85 and who now consults for various hotels and restaurants around Spain), Xavier Sagristà (who Ferran has called one of his most important creative collaborators, and who now cooks at his own Mas Pau near Figueres), Carles Abellan (proprietor of Comerç 24 and Tapas 24 in Barcelona), and Albert Raurich (Dos Palillos in Barcelona and Berlin), as well as chefs Eduard Bosch, Marc Cuspinera, Marc Puig-Pey, and Rafa Morales. (Two El Bulli executive chefs from earlier years — Jean-Louis Neichel, who won the restaurant its first Michelin star, and Jean-Paul Vinay, who became the youngest two-star chef in Europe when he earned it a second one — were absent, though whether because of bad blood or previous commitments was not apparent.) A third rank, perched on a rock above the others, was composed of the heart of the current El Bulli staff, among them chefs Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, Eugeni de Diego, and Mateu Casañas.
The panel, left to right: Achatz, Andrés, Redzepi, Ferran, Albert, Roca, Bottura, Aduriz.
Everyone said a few words. Aduriz paid tribute to the values instilled in him at El Bulli and said bluntly, "I would not do what I do at Mugaritz if I had not worked here first." Bottura, who spoke in what he called "Italo-Español," noted that he had only worked at El Bulli for three months but that was enough to make him feel like part of the family, adding that he had done his apprenticeship here alongside René Redzepi, and that they used to talk all the time until he realized that there were other paths to cooking than the traditional ones.