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.