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Barry Yourgrau

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Wolfgang Puck He Ain't

Posted: 08/21/07 07:34 PM ET

Just to take a break from the collapse of America and the destruction of the world, and consider the pleasures of fine dining...

Over the last decade more or less, Spain has swept aside France as leader in creative chefing.

The high wizard-poobah of this Spanish accession is Ferran Adria (aided by his pastry chef brother Albert). El Bulli, Ferran's three-star restaurant on the Costa Brava north of Barcelona, polls as the #1 restaurant in the world today. Ferran is as celebrated in Spain as Almodovar, maybe more so.

Wolfgang Puck and his new steakhouse, he ain't.

When I ate at El Bulli a couple of years ago, a photo of local boy Salvador Dali stood in honor by the entrance. (Dali was from nearby Cadaques.) And really, Dali-esque is a way of thinking of this food, which joins hi-tech science to a cook's prowess to launch a poet's daring whimsies -- loop de loops of deconstructed gastronomic fancy. So madly magically playful, so marvelously inspired, my girlfriend Anya cried tears of joy when she tasted her first Ferran meal, in '97 (she was the initial U.S. foodie to write about him).

Ferran throws open the doors of the kitchen to Imagination. More and more his cuisine belongs not in a restaurant but in a kunsthalle.

Each new annual menu is developed by him and his team at their workshop/lab off the Ramblas in Barcelona during the restaurant's closed-season. Those celebrated spumas, aires, emulsifiers, stabilisers, deconstructions, recombinations (savories as sweets), techniques such as using cold (liquid nitrogen) instead of heat to grill, they all get invented and tested here. The workshop's giant bulging notebooks are pretty fabulous objects of art in themselves.

From my visit to El Bulli (in 2004?) I recall, among the umpteen degustacion mini-courses, a caviar of sparkling apple-green fish eggs (it seemed), served in a fancy official Petrossian tin. The fish eggs turned out be perfect beads of apple liquid that had formed a skin when dropped into a special neutral chemical liquid.

The other dish I recall was sardines with sake. Avant-garde? Well, the manicured sardines came in a glistening Donald Judd row on wax paper. The sake came in...a throat spray bottle. You didn't sip it, you sprayed it down your throat! At a table next to us sat the team of a venerable Tokyo sushi chef, all in kimonas. (Spanish and Japanese have a mutual admiration society.) They kept squirt-squirting and laughing their heads off.

A familiar reaction. Another reaction: having to conceptually re-engage with what you're tasting, because it's been reconfigured from its usual context and gestalt.

Appropriately, Ferran was a featured artist in this year's Documenta in Kassel. Though, fair enough, not everyone's mouth was watering. "Both AdriĆ 's participation and contribution seem ridiculous to me," sniffed art critic Robert Hughes [per Time mag], adding that "food is food." Regular Spanish artists weren't happy campers about it either.

(And the French foodies, for their part, were spitting back in 2003 when The New York Times magazine anointed Spain as new cuisine paradigm. One of the superstar French toques, previously a Spanish supporter, immediately canceled a visit, sputtering about not taking backseat to "a country of bullfighters and castanets." Oy.) (The month after the Times mag article appeared, El Bulli got several hundred-thousand of reservation requests).

Ferran's culinary imagination, so inspiring, occupies a realm dizzily unique to itself. And when the man talks to you (very fast), his eyes seem focused in the distance -- an 'internal vision' kind of distance, of your proverbial one-of-a-kind obsessed genius. A generous genius who has put all of his recipes online free to all. (And who talks increasingly of being burned out and closing up shop; he's all of 45.)

The Spanish avant-garde star chefs most nitty gritty influential on their working fellows, as the tops among kitchen peers, are probably the Roca brothers. They are three: Joan, the chef, Josef, the wine man, and hipster youngest brother Jordi, the pastry chef. Their headquarters restaurant is El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, a famously pleasant city also north of Barcelona in Catalunia, but inland.

I ate at El Celler de Can Roca in July. I'll write about it in my next post at Brain Flakes at Uber.com on Spanish cuisine. With photos. Buen provecha.