Bourdain, El Bulli & Me

August 3, 2011

I staged at El Bulli and it was Anthony Bourdain who got me there, but I don’t think I ever really told him how.

This past weekend while I picked corn just outside Chicago,
a few dozen people were sleeping off the last dinner at El Bulli over in the bay called Cala Montjoi just outside Roses, the small seaside town a couple of hours drive north of Barcelona. A few dozen others were coming back to start the annual floor to ceiling clean up and shut down of the world’s best restaurant.

Chef and owner Ferran
Adrià closed El Bulli because he said he no longer had time to create and that the restaurant never made a profit. He’ll re-open as the El Bulli Foundation, a creativity center culinary and otherwise, in 2014. Ferran says he and his partners will spend about 600 to 800 thousand euros of their own money for this project. No word yet on all the partners or profitability projections for this multimillion dollar venture.

I followed the final supper action live on Twitter, on my way to the Pakistani mango ceremony at the Palmer House, but it wasn’t until I saw Tony eat his last meal at El Bulli on No Reservations that so much hit home.

With all due respect to René Redzepi of noma in Copenhagen, Chicago is widely regarded as the new world destination for inventive food AND drink thanks to pioneering chefs Grant Achatz and Homaro Cantu. Did you see the Gorgonzola globe that Tony ate? That was inspired by Moto’s white chocolate sphere. Achatz said he’s planning an El Bulli menu at Next, “One course from each year from 1983 to 2003,” he said in an interview with Francis Lam on Gilt Taste.

The El Bulli Hotel in Sevilla, Spain actually serves the restaurant’s greatest hits. They’re currently closed for the season but re-opening in March 2012.

Back in El Bulli’s kitchen in 2004 my fellow stagiaires only wanted to stage at one restaurant in the U.S.: Charlie Trotter’s. Albert
Adrià - the brilliant, beloved chef and Ferran’s brother and partner - worked there himself, an experience he mentioned in a recent interview about his surreal new restaurant Tickets with Gabe Ulla at Eater San Francisco.

Albert returned to Chicago fairly often, teaching professional classes the French Pastry School. During one he told students how right after El Bulli won its third Michelin star he asked manager and partner Juli Soler for a couple of hundred euros pay owed him. Albert was broke. Juli said sure, walked out towards the office in back, but then Albert heard Juli’s car start up, then drive away. They were all broke.

(By the way, you’ll see El Bulli spelled elbulli - even on their own site - but I’ve written it out both ways, shown Albert, and asked him, “What’s the right spelling?” He pointed to “El Bulli.”)

On No Reservations Tony played mini golf with José Andrés at the budget resort next door to El Bulli, explaining that the best restaurant in the world was once a mini golf too. "The camping" was my home away from home the first week of my stage because all the stagiaire dorms were full. I walked the beach to work while four generation families crowded the cafeteria overseen by Pepe, the resident chef, comedian, and magician.

How did I get there? In 2003 my alma mater Le Cordon Bleu Paris sent me to assist and translate for my head pastry chef at a conference in Vegas. Albert was there too. He’d just flown over from Spain where Tony was shooting his first El Bulli episode with Ferran. I mentioned this to Albert and that was the icebreaker I needed that eventually led to my stage the next year. They'd had an instant, personal, world-changing connection. I had no idea that it was even harder to get a stage than a reservation. One fellow stagiaire had written every week week for three years.
So really, I don't know how I got there - except that it started with Tony.

If you worked in the morning - sometimes on “the creativity” as they called it even then - lunch was always a ham and cheese bocadillo. What you see below is the very last one I had, with a ripe tomato rubbed into the crumb pa amb tomàquet style. It was
the last day of “the cleaning” which they should be finishing up just about now.

I finally did get back to eat at El Bulli, but that bocadillo was the meal and moment - of relief and anticipation - I remember the most at the world's best restaurant.