Watching “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as a child, I was always most interested in the fate of Violet Beauregarde, the gum-chewer. Of the four great sins in the Oompa Loompa culture — gluttony, greed, sloth and gum-chewing — Violet’s has stuck with me. Violet’s disgusting, idiotic, bloated face (and my grandmother’s remarks about baseball players hanging out in the dugout between innings) has converted me to the opinion that no one looks stupider than when they are munching away like a cow at what appears to be thin air. But I divagate. What actually interested me most was Willy Wonka’s strange failure to turn a four-course meal into gum.
How could Wonka, in his palace of miracles, fail to create the science fiction dream pill — the meal in a sleeve? Wonka created an edible universe: an edible garden, an edible river, edible wallpaper, edible television, and, of course, the everlastingly edible gobstopper. Yet his one great failure, the thing he couldn’t “get quite right” was infusing the taste of an entire meal into a piece of chewing gum. And no, in case you were wondering, I don’t consider a beverage that makes you “fly too much” a failure.
Thankfully, for the dreamers, the wishers, the magic-pill-buyers out there, Wonka is a fictional character. However, a man exists, walking this earth, who succeeds where Wonka failed. This genius is Ferran Adria. Ferran (as he is known, being fully worthy one-name status) is perhaps the most famous chef in the world today. He is at the vanguard of a new wave of Spanish cooking that is supplanting France on the seat of haute cuisine.
Ferran’s restaurant, El Bulli, is widely regarded as the finest restaurant in the world. Over the course of the last two decades, the tables of El Bulli have become the most sought after tables in Europe. When El Bulli opened its books for reservations in January of last year, the restaurant received 18,000 reservation requests in the first five days.
What makes Ferran so special? He is remarkably Wonka-esque. His restaurant, located two hours north of Barcelona, is only open for six months out of the year. The other six months Ferran spends in his “secret laboratory.” Hidden away, like Willy, Ferran concocts, invents, and creates — each year he offers his patrons a brand new menu.
There is no verb that can describe what Ferran actually does in his lab. His dishes are unimaginably creative. Ferran seems to be able to turn anything into anything else. That’s as specific as I can make it. He can turn everything into foam: essence of asparagus foam, steak foam, fruit foam, nut foam, you name it. Yet, Ferran complains that turning things into foam is old hat.
The best way I can put it, I suppose, is by describing my somewhat secondhand Ferran experience. This year I had the pleasure of dining at the Hotel Hacienda Benazuza. This 11th century retreat, located half an hour from Seville, is the home of “La Alcaceria,” a Ferran-spinoff restaurant. La Alcaceria, although not cheffed by Ferran, is overseen by him. It features a greatest hits list of Ferran’s dishes, prepared by an assistant, listed by the year they were introduced to the El Bulli menu. Let me explain.
Dinner at La Alcaceria begins with your ordering one or two tapas-sized dishes from a small menu. What follows is an endless procession of amuse guele–small dishes to surprise and amuse the taste buds. Depending on the night (yes, they change every night) one might begin with a pina colada sorbet on a white spoon followed by escalitos fritos (tiny eels). Then tempura of orange peel and deep fried rabbit ears followed by shrimp crackers and foie gras ice cream with mango gelatin.
I assure you, these dishes taste good, but for Ferran that isn’t the point. Ferran is a Rachmaninoff. His creations are dramatic, powerful, unique, though sometimes (just sometimes) more unique than palatable. As Ferran says, “If I thought people were just coming to eat … I would not do this.” A customer at Ferran’s restaurant should be prepared for an adventure rather than a meal. Juan Mari Arzak, the so-called father of new Spanish cuisine, was quoted in the New York Times Magazine as saying, “Ferran is the most imaginative cook in all history.”
Ferran’s cooking indeed spans the spectrum of remarkable. It can be remarkably weird or remarkably marvelous, but, dammit, it’s so much fun to eat. I am sure, if one day the lust for gold drives him to do so, Ferran could successfully, and quite non-fictitiously, market ten-course El Bulli meals in a stick of chicle.
Andrew Smeal fully endorses eating until you are sick.