Photographs: Stephane Compoint (Graham, Geoffroy, dishes); David X Prutting/BFANYC (dishes); Danny Kim/New York Magazine (champagne); David Gowans/Alamy (Plane); Rufus Stone/Alamy (Helicopter)
How do you work these damn seat belts?!” I heard myself cry over the roar of the rotor blades, as our little helicopter lifted off from the lawn of our five-star resort near the Costa Brava and circled out over the beaches and hilltop castles along Spain’s Northern Mediterranean coast. None of the world-weary gastronauts and junketeers onboard—the restaurant critic from Parma, Italy, with a silk cravat sprouting from his suit pocket, the gregarious venture capitalist and Champagne collector who, rumor had it, had recently cashed out his Facebook stock—seemed to be listening. They were too busy texting their jealous colleagues about the event, or documenting it with an assortment of video devices, cameras, and iPhones.
Behind us, at intervals of five minutes or so, were other choppers carrying other freeloading gastronomes, food-loving VIPs, and members of the press. Robert De Niro had wanted to make the trip, someone told me, but he was busy heading a judging panel at Cannes. Helen Mirren and Simon Le Bon were approached as well, but couldn’t make it. But a former Bond girl named Rosamund Pike was flying in formation behind us, and so was Heather Graham, who’d jetted in the day before from New York and was suitably dressed for the occasion in a flowing, Valkyrie-like vanilla-colored gown.
This grand aerial assault was, we all agreed, a fitting way to begin what was described by one member of our merry little band as “the mother of all boondoggles.” We were off to dinner at the most famous restaurant in the history of the world, El Bulli, which sits, as I’m sure you’ve read, near the end of a twisting mountain road, by a deserted little bay on the fringes of the Catalonian resort town of Roses, underneath a palisade of cliffs. There we would dine on a 47-course meal orchestrated by the great Ferran Adrià, which in gastronomic circles was the equivalent of traveling to Lourdes, or to Mecca, or to a sacred temple high in the Himalayas for an audience with the Dalai Lama.
Adrià, the founding genius of the inventive, madcap school of cooking known as “molecular gastronomy,” has been dazzling the food world for nearly three decades with his avant-garde creations. Everyone knew the legend of El Bulli: The little 50-seat restaurant had been owned by a German couple (it’s named for their French bulldogs) who’d hired Adrià, then an anonymous former cook in the Spanish Navy, to work in their kitchen in the mid-eighties. Out of nowhere, he began spinning miracles: tomato foams, rose petals crisped with sugar, the yolks of raw quail eggs encased, by some wonder of physics, in pouches of golden sugar. Soon the Catalonian chef was being compared by his legions of admirers to Dalí, Picasso, and Le Corbusier. Chefs traveled from around the world to marvel at his creations and to study the techniques of the man who’d turned the stuffy, staid world of haute cuisine on its head. He and a business partner bought El Bulli from the German couple and eventually decided to keep it open for only six months a year so that Adrià could focus on developing recipes, which are now being carefully collected in giant, Talmudic-size volumes. El Bulli has been anointed the best restaurant in the world by countless websites, glossy food magazines, and gasbag critics, and reportedly receives some 2 million reservation requests per year. Then, last year, Adrià announced to his shocked public that he would be closing El Bulli for good at the end of service on July 31. He had cooked there long enough, he said, and was ready to move on to a new stage of his career. The restaurant would be remade as a teaching “foundation” for aspiring chefs. He and his brother were opening a tapas bar in Barcelona. Adrià would continue to teach and travel, but the days of the greatest chef in the world cooking at the greatest restaurant in the world were apparently over.
A cavalcade of bigfoot writers and nattering TV hosts had been traveling to El Bulli for years, but now a wave of final pilgrimages began. Jay McInerney penned an elegiac farewell to the restaurant (“It Was Delicious While It Lasted” was the headline in Vanity Fair), adding to a genre that has become so prevalent that Noreen Malone, writing in Slate, was moved to give it a name: The “I Ate at El Bulli Piece,” or IAAEBP for short. Anthony Bourdain will devote an entire episode of his Travel Channel show No Reservations to El Bulli. He was already moved to tweet the menu of his 50-course Last Supper extravaganza.
Now it was our turn. We’d been flown in from food capitals around the world by the Champagne company Dom Pérignon. The event was being billed on the press handouts I’d received as “An Offertory From Two Creators.” The first “creator” was Richard Geoffroy, the “Chef de Cave” of the venerable Champagne company, who had chosen a series of rare vintages to go with our meal. (Factoring in travel and lodging, as well as food and spirits for 50 people, the event’s price tag, we giddily estimated, was at least $350,000, and maybe north of that.) The second creator, of course, was Adrià.
On the evening before this epic event, we’d assembled for a welcome dinner in a medieval castle in a Catalonian town down the coast from El Bulli called Vulpellac. Tapas were served in the courtyard, and after that, a banquet dinner of goat confit washed down with magnums of Dom Pérignon ’96 drawn from the company’s private, rarely seen “oenothèque” vintages, in the castle’s vaulted dining hall.
Heather Graham was at the giant communal table, nibbling politely at her plate of goat, along with a few fellow journalists and a contingent of Japanese gastronomes lead by a mysterious gentleman who was dressed like an English dandy in wingtip shoes and a bespoke pinstripe suit. I exchanged business cards with a magazine editor from Shanghai who said he had a friend who was a part owner of eBay in China who was willing to pay thousands of dollars for her last dinner at El Bulli before it closed. “When she heard I was coming to Spain, she wanted to kill me,” he said.
Similar stories were circulating among the plutocrat gourmands I knew back in New York. “It’s a frenzy out there,” said one of my hedge-fund friends who managed to obtain his Last Supper at El Bulli (LSAEB) when one of his colleagues bought the entire restaurant for the evening (“took it down,” in traderspeak) in exchange for a €150,000 donation to Adrià’s new foundation. “The whole El Bulli thing is like a fantasy,” he had told me. “It’s everything that those of us who are enraptured by the drama of great chefs and their restaurants live for. It’s the sanctum sanctorum, Platty. It’s the ungettable get.”
On the day of our Last Supper, Heather Graham and the rest of the VIPs were dispatched on a leisurely picnic cruise along the Costa Brava, while the rabble of scribes assigned to write their LSAEB stories were driven in convoy to the little restaurant for an audience with Adrià. We toured the legendary atelier-style kitchen, where a crowd of cooks were busy chopping mushrooms, shucking oysters, and feeding esoteric ingredients into giant, gleaming blenders. A young chef named Mateu Casañas showed us a translucent wafer made of clarified potatoes. It would be used, he said, to create a “never before seen” mushroom tart.
Adrià and Dom Pérignon’s Geoffroy were sitting out on the patio of the modest, hacienda-style house, being interviewed by a stream of writers in strictly allotted segments of twenty minutes. The great chef, who turned 49 this May, had a pale, exhausted cook’s complexion and a serious, intensely expressive face that reminded me a little of paintings I’d seen of Napoleon. Adrià’s English is imperfect, so while questions were translated for him he examined his iPhone and stared politely into the middle distance.
He said he’d felt a sense of “lightness and relief” when he’d finally made the decision to close El Bulli. “Maybe you can run a restaurant for 40 years,” he said, “but to run a truly great restaurant for that long, I think that is impossible, the pressure is too intense.” After he and his team serve their final meal, he plans to travel to China, then Peru. He’d taught a class on the physics of gastronomy at Harvard last year, and he aims to do that again too. When I asked Adrià what he would choose for his last meal on Earth, he thought about the question for a moment, then answered with a grin. “The best Iberian ham,” he said, “and a bottle of Dom Pérignon.”
Back at the hotel that evening, we loaded into the choppers, which were arranged in a little row on the lawn, and lifted off for dinner at precisely 6:20 p.m. When we landed by the little bay, we were ushered into limousines and whisked to the restaurant’s parking lot, which is surrounded by a stand of tall eucalyptus trees. The venture capitalist gave me his iPhone and asked me to snap a picture of him giving his investor friend, Alex, the finger next to the famous El Bulli sign. “This is my tenth visit,” he cried. “Now I’ve been to El Bulli one more time than he has.”
Out on the patio, overlooking the bay, tapas were being served, along with frosty magnums of golden ’73 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque. Youthful, mostly male waiters wearing black Nehru jackets brought us airy baguettes surrounded by twirls of ham, and something called a “tomato cookie,” flecked with gold leaf, which melted into the sweet, almost cherrylike essence of tomatoes when you put it on your tongue. I exchanged pleasantries with the Japanese dandy, who was dressed for the event in flowing, aqua-colored robes, and talked to someone who had glimpsed a famed Spanish gourmand who is reputed to have dined at El Bulli more than 300 times.
Inside the surprisingly cozy, raftered restaurant, place cards were arranged at the linen-covered tables, each of which was set with rows of wavy white plates. I sat with an announcer from a global TV network and a pink-cheeked restaurant critic from Switzerland, who would insist on photographing every one of our courses with an ancient Nikon camera fitted with a protruding telephoto lens.
The first things out of the kitchen were Adrià’s famous deconstructed cocktails, the best of which was an airy, lemony gin fizz served with the chef’s legendary “spherical olives,” which wobbled on little spoons like tiny green egg yolks and exploded (as many IAAEB pieces have dutifully noted) in a wash of distilled, salty, perfectly balanced olive flavors when you popped it with your teeth.
Next came a salvo of umami-rich creations designed to wake up the palate, the highlight of which was the glowing, cream-colored “Gorgonzola Balloon,” which was smooth and perfectly round and slightly larger than a very large ostrich egg. As the waiter hoisted the orb to the table, the assembled gastronomes pawed and peered at it, looking, it later occurred to me, like those apes in the famous Kubrick movie when the humming obelisk appears in their midst from outer space. The dish tasted, not unpleasantly, like cheese-flavored eggnog, and melted away to nothing if you held it in your fingers for too long. “It’s a miracle,” whispered one of the gastronomes, his eyes rolling with ecstatic pleasure up into the back of his head.
“The whole El Bulli thing is like a fantasy. It’s the sanctum sanctorum. It’s the ungettable get.”
After that there was a translucent crystal wafer called an olive-oil “chip,” a sheet of white spun-sugar “paper” dappled here and there with peppery-tasting wildflowers the color of butterfly wings, and Adrià’s famous “golden eggs” filled with quail yolks, which glittered and flashed as people took pictures of them. The highlights of the mid-course section of the meal were an ingeniously delicious bone-marrow “tartare” disguised as an oyster and served in a giant shell and a Styrofoam box full of fluffy, faintly bubbly shavings of “Parmesan frozen air” scattered with bits of chewy dried-fruit “muesli.”
A coil of translucent tagliatelle carbonara made with jellified squid was course No. 30, or maybe it was 42. We had begun to lose count. Many of the celebrity guests looked stunned. “I’m beginning to get a tummyache,” said the TV announcer. But the professionals at the table soldiered on. I have dim memories of being served a perfect, softly crisped Chinese-style prawn, an ingeniously deconstructed frozen white-almond gazpacho, and a bracing, mentholated amuse-gueule dessert consisting of a smooth scrim of ice dusted with sugar and mint (simply called “Pond” on the autographed menu that we would receive later), which you cracked with your spoon.
Sometime before midnight, one of the ladies from Dom Pérignon abandoned the seat next to me to go talk to Heather Graham. Elsewhere around the room, people were circulating among the tables, swapping stories like guests at the end of a long, boozy wedding reception. “With Ferran, it’s got to be a long night, that’s part of the game,” said Geoffroy. He didn’t know precisely how many courses we’d consumed in the end. “Maybe 51, maybe 52. You’re allowed to skip a few,” he said. The critic from Switzerland stumbled by, fiddling with his giant Nikon. “This is the best restaurant in the world,” he said, his cheeks flushed with Champagne, “if you only have to eat here once every three years.”
Was this the greatest meal of our lives? We pondered this weighty question, my colleagues and I, as we stood outside on the patio. The air was filled with the smell of eucalyptus and you could hear the faint sounds of waves rising up from the bay. “It was certainly the most interesting,” someone said, which was true. Adrià’s dinners aren’t really dinners at all. They are elaborate, even exhausting, magic shows, filled with all kinds of dizzying, indulgent, and, in many cases, miraculous culinary special effects. In terms of range, technique, and creative stamina, none of us grizzled culinary veterans could remember anything quite like this meal. The Japanese dandy had apparently broken down in tears of joy in the middle of his dinner. The Spanish gourmand had declared his LSAEB to be a grand success before leaving early to catch a plane to China in the morning. Another critic had been seen licking the last drops of Adrià’s gazpacho off his plate, a dish, along with ten or fifteen others on the menu, that was quite possibly one of the most delicious things I’d ever tasted.
But now the age of El Bulli, and of the inventive, high-wire, superstar-auteur haute-cuisine cooking that Adrià embodied, was coming to an end. Adrià may have reinvented what high-end cooking could be, but the ambitious young chefs I knew back in New York were already moving on. They wanted to make pilgrimages to Andoni Luis Aduriz’s famously chaste back-to-nature restaurant, Mugaritz, in San Sebastián, and the latest “best restaurant in the world,” Noma, in Copenhagen, where an Adrià disciple named René Redzepi is constructing spare locavore dishes using root vegetables and herbs he forages himself. It is common knowledge in gastronomic circles that El Bulli, with only one seating a night and its 50-course meals, was losing money. Adrià had decided to go out at the height of his powers. “I want to quit like the greatest football player,” he’d told me the day before, “at the top of my game.”
Back in the restaurant, the menus signed by Adrià and Monsieur Geoffroy were laid out at all the tables, along with folding scarlet-colored boxes filled with candies shaped like delicate pieces of red coral and pearly curls of white chocolate embossed with mint leaves. At 1:30 a.m., the guests started crowding into the kitchen to toast the chef who was lined up with his team of cooks behind him, like a great actor taking his last bow onstage. The iPhones and video cameras flashed and clicked. I stood in the back of the room, with the venture capitalist, who was waving his arms and cheering, and the editor from Shanghai, who would be boarding his own fifteen-hour flight back to China in the morning. Another of the weary gastronomes wandered by, sipping the last silky dregs of his thousand-dollar Champagne. We clinked glasses. “To the good life,” I said.