by Joe Warwick
For now …Ferran Adrià has told the New York Times he will transform El Bulli into a culinary academy. Isn’t that what it already is?
Ferran Adrià has delivered a second killer blow to those still dreaming of securing a table at El Bulli, his restaurant on the north Catalan coast, feted for its creativity and cursed for being absurdly oversubscribed. Following Adrià’s shock announcement late last month that El Bulli was going to stop serving diners during 2012 and 2013 and would re-open in 2014, he’s now told the New York Times that El Bulli will, in fact, permanently cease to operate as a restaurant after December 2011 and be reborn as a cutting-edge academy for the world’s most talented cooks. There’s near-hysterical reaction to this “news” online from food lovers who never had a snowball in hell’s chance of getting there anyway, but before we start sobbing into a large bowl of savoury ice cream, the El Bulli books strewn with tissues and My Way on in the background, it’s perhaps time to first calm down and consider what’s actually going on.
Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/Getty Images
When Adrià first made his announcement about the impending closure last month, he at no point promised El Bulli would reopen to operate as a restaurant. In fact, Adrià has been arguing for years that El Bulli is not really a restaurant anymore. The extreme creative mantra he’s adopted that sees repetition as a failure – hence the complete new collection of dishes every season – has made sure of that. Restaurants don’t close for six months of the year, restaurants don’t have 2m requests for reservations and 3,000 people on the waiting list for every seat, have at their disposal an army of willing unpaid stagaires and still lose half a million euros a year. (El Bulli is subsidised by Adrià’s earnings from various consultancies, book sales and other businesses.) Yes, in that El Bulli feeds the paying public it is, of course, still a restaurant; a beautifully situated restaurant overlooking an idyllic cove, the sound of lapping waves audible from its patio. Despite what’s going on in the kitchen, it has a surprisingly traditional looking dining room, brightly-lit and styled like the hacienda it is, with friendly, incredibly assured service and a wine list that offers you a way in for less than 25 euros. But to Adrià that’s not really what El Bulli is about anymore, to him it’s been about creating, pushing the boundaries of gastronomic endeavour and, it seems, he has finally decided that the business of actually feeding people is getting in the way. Or has he? It’s not impossible that Adrià will change his mind, that he’ll discover that after running El Bulli as an ‘academy for advanced culinary study’ (effectively what he’s already been doing there and at his test kitchen in Barcelona for years) he’ll pine for his public again. Leaving aside his credentials as probably the most influential chef since the days of Carême and Escoffier, you can’t help but admire the way he works the media: there’s really nothing new in The New York Times story yet he’s made headlines again, and we’re all talking about him. In fact, it’s not unthinkable that he’ll change his mind sooner – this is, after all, almost two years away. Adrià has never been known for predictability, and anyone that spends as much time courting publicity as he does seems unlikely to disappear into some sort of culinary academia. He has not ruled out the possibility that El Bulli will again at some point serve food to customers, it’s not ‘closing’, it’s simply evolving – as it has before – into something else and what exactly that’s going to be I’m not sure even Adrià knows yet. The one thing you can be sure of, is that we’ll keep hearing about it until he does