Bulli for You

Food writers can’t stop bragging about their meals at the famous Spanish restaurant El Bulli.

If you read your newspaper’s dining section, you’ve probably already heard that El Bulli, the famous avant-garde restaurant helmed by molecular gastronomist Ferran Adria since 1987, will stop serving customers in July. The closure of El Bulli marks the end of a culinary era defined by radically creative dishes like parmesan marshmallows, cod foam, and melon caviar. It also marks the end of a journalistic era: The restaurant was responsible for a specific genre of food writing far less original than the cuisine upon which it was based, the “I Ate at El Bulli” piece.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact beginnings of the IAAEBP, thanks to the shoddiness of the digital archives at many publications. According to Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, the first American profile of Adria was in 1997, in a magazine called Food Arts. But the New York Times was the Patient Zero of the IAAEBP, at least for a truly mass audience: In 1999—two years after the restaurant had received its third Michelin star—Amanda Hesser wrote a shortish story about the El Bulli experience for the Times and walked readers through the basics:

He takes classic dishes and deconstructs them, disregarding familiar contexts in an effort to form new ones. His tortilla de patata, which in every other Spanish restaurant is a potato and onion omelet, is served in a martini glass and is liquid and foam. You are handed a spoon and told to dip it all the way to the bottom with each bite. You plunge through a white potato foam into a soft pudding of egg and caramelized onion. In his chicken curry, the curry is the solid, the chicken is liquid. His cooking follows no patterns.

Before the turn of the millennium, casual Dining & Wine readers probably didn’t know about Adria’s deconstructive abilities, and so Hesser’s piece was a genuine service. By 2003, when the Times again tackled El Bulli—devoting a lengthy magazine cover story to the restaurant—word was very much out. The previous year, more than 200,000 people had vied for a reservation. In 2010, 2 million tried to snag one of 8,000 total annual spots—a 0.4-percent admit rate—and yet glossy magazines, newspapers, and food blogs continue to churn out IAAEBPs. * Take, for instance, Richard Vines’ March 21 IAAEBP for Bloomberg, or just this week, Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter account of his 52-courser. Even non-food-writers can’t help themselves—last fall, economic and domestic policy blogger Ezra Klein wrote about his meal there. Rather than his usual health care or budget analysis, he posted pictures from his vacation alongside sentences like, “It tastes like what would’ve happened if a coconut fell in love with a cloud.” These days, writing about a meal at El Bulli no longer qualifies as service journalism. And there’s little chance that an IAAEBP will provide illuminating cultural insight about the place—it’s all been said! Instead, the IAAEBP is something akin to a profile about bright new thing Angelina Jolie and her most compelling pair of lips. Viewed charitably, the IAAEBP is a service in the religious-celebrant sense of the word; it’s an offering left by the faithful at the “temple of avant-garde dining.” Viewed less kindly, it’s public masturbation.

It’s also an extremely predictable form: There are a few crucial tropes that often show up in an IAAEBP. One must, of course, describe the treacherous path to reach the restaurant, the “hairpin curves on a pitted, single-lane mountain road northeast of Barcelona,” with its “Dizzying drops, unimpeded by guardrails” alongside “houses falling away, the stunted Johannesburg trees bent like old, shadowy men.” Maybe it even involves passing an “accident scene, two police cars with flashing lights perched at the edge of the road, a banged-up Audi at the bottom of the hill 50 yards below.” It may then help to compare Adria to a certain Catalonian abstract painter, as both Mark Bittman (“a kind of wild Dalí-like creativity“) and Amanda Hesser (“a Dali in the kitchen“) did in the Times, Jay McInerney did in Vanity Fair (“True to his Catalonian roots—like Dalí, Casals, and Miró he’s created a new way to work with the raw materials”), Wine News did in a headline, and Gourmet did in an oft-quoted epigraph (“the Salvador Dali­ of the kitchen”). (Adria: “I am a chef and nothing like Dalí.”)

Next, the IAAEBP author touches upon the history of the restaurant—from nitrous oxide foams to jellies—before perhaps filling us in on the way he obtained his reservation. * Most journalists will do quite a bit of modest throat-clearing on the subject (“I was there almost by mistake, invited before anyone knew quite how little I know about food“); this blogger is admirably blunt on the source of his personal tour: “Because I’m crazy lucky (and because I have well-connected friends)”—two qualities many IAAEBP writers probably share.

Sometimes, the author acknowledges that he or she was leery of certain combinations: “At lunch,” Amanda Hesser wrote, “a dish of frozen polenta illustrated just how his experiments, his risk taking, sometimes fall short. It was salty, grainy, cold and simply unpleasant to eat.” One can also imply, as Hesser did, that making it through the whole program is an achievement: “My husband reaches his limit after the 22nd dish, but I hold out until the end.”

Of course, an IAAEBP author will want to make a dramatic statement about his near-transcendent state after the meal, with sex and drugs being the most common references. Perhaps it leaves him in a “gustatory trance,” as “if I’d ingested some short-acting THC or psilocybin,” (McInerney). British journalist Cassandra Jardine, for her part, was “high on the strangeness of it all.” (Jardine, an admitted nongourmand, is one of the only writers to comment on the abdominal effects of the meal: “Maybe it was the booze, but umpteen courses of intensely flavoured airy nothings, without the ballast of so much as a bread roll, turned out to be a recipe for indigestion.”) Or maybe a more intimate metaphor might come to mind. New York’s Jerry Saltz, another culinary nonexpert offered an assignment simply on the grounds of having scored the dining slot in 2008, wrote that “All I know is I was ravished: When the chef appeared afterward, I felt embarrassed when he looked at me, and jealous because he had done the same thing with other people.”

Specifics on the actual meal described in the IAAEBP will vary, of course, but it’s customaryto mention the things Adria does to olives. Or if describing the actual dishes is too dull, there’s always the comparison to “the black stone of Mecca. Mona Lisa’s smile. The nucleus of the atom, the bank vault. The oval office of the White House. Love and sex. …” which one Spanish journalist invoked. Messianic references never hurt an IAAEBP, either. Take this classic one, from an early example of the genre, a 2001 Esquire piece: “It came down to a question of faith. And I suddenly felt the presence of this man, Ferran Adria, somewhere in the shadows, holding the fork in my hand, guiding it to the plate, impaling a mound of caramel-covered, sweet-smelling tenderness that had been introduced as ‘rabbit apple.’ ” But even the Adria worship pales in comparison to the self-congratulation the genre draws out. Bard-of-excess McInerney begins his IAAEBP with his signature second-person narration (“It begins with a glistening, olive-colored sphere, wobbling on a spoon as you raise it toward your lips, exploding in the mouth to unleash a bath of intense olive-flavored liquid”) and then, as if compelled by the inherent egotism and bedpost-notching of the IAAEBP, reverts to using a more personal pronoun to crow about “the best miso soup I’ve ever eaten.”

Chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli

IAAEBPs, naturally, involve a great deal of one-upmanship. Oh, so you ate the regular meal at El Bulli? That’s cute. I ate the staff meal. And it was “very, very good.” You’ve only been there once? Poor thing, how little context you must have. Oh, you wrote an article about eating at El Bulli? Try a little. I cartooned my experience. Or, even better, I wrote a 29-minute electro-orchestral musical work inspired by my 35-course meal there. Oh, you ate a 35-course meal there? I ate a 37-course meal, and managed to work it into my New York Times wedding announcement. (Perhaps then, in those famously status-obsessed pages, scoring a meal at El Bulli is akin to a Yale law degree or an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower.) A mere 37? When you’ve had a 38-courser—and picked out extensive hypothetical wine pairings for it—then maybe we can talk. You just ate there? I ate there WITH Adria. Oh, you ate with him at the restaurant? I had him cook me a meal in my own kitchen.

Frank Bruni, writing in the Times (who elsewhere called his dinner at El Bulli the best meal he’d ever eaten), encapsulated the problem with the IAAEBP: El Bulli represents a “strain of merciless competition that split food lovers into two camps: those with the economic means and single-minded focus (or professional affiliation) to gain access to experiences as exclusive and rarefied as El Bulli, and those who had to listen to the rapturous accounts, nod appreciatively and cop to envy, which they were absolutely supposed to feel.” It’s also worth keeping in mind that a “rapturous account” might not evoke envy so much as confusion. The Washington Post’s Andreas Viestad summed up the chasm between the uninitiated and the proselytizers nicely: “This food tastes wonderful, but it is hard to find words to describe it … How can you convince someone who has never tasted tuna marrow that it is delicious?” It’s a problem inherent to writing about any kind of sensory experience, of course, but at least with less experimental food, critics can assume their readership has a baseline familiarity with most of the flavors they’re writing about.

I’ll close with a note to journalists eager to publish an IAAEBP before El Bulli shuts its doors: Unless you can get Adria to button you into a bib, deconstruct and foam-ify some sweet potatoes, and spoon feed them to you himself while making airplane zooming noises, your account will not surprise me, and will not satisfy me. I’ve read piece after piece and am still unfulfilled; the words, I fear, were all just so much foam.

Correction, April 15, 2011: The piece originally misstated the percentage of diners who were successful in their attempt to get a reservation at El Bulli.  Return to the corrected sentence. It also referred to nitrous oxides as noxious oxides, which may have been a Freudian slip on the part of the author, but is not strictly correct. Return to the corrected sentence.