Palate Provocateur

Catalan chef Ferran Adrià is part chemist, part alchemist in transforming ordinary ingredients into extraordinary tastes.

The mosaics of Gaudí are my inspiration and my reference," says Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. The Catalan architect's fantastical work is, in fact, a good analogy for Adrià's shockingly original cooking. He composes individual tastes and textures in a manner as much mathematical as it is artistic, and like Gaudí often ends up standing tradition on its head. "Nothing in my cooking is accidental," he says, with brows furrowed as he speaks, as if willing you to understand him. "In every dish I create, the ingredients and cooking techniques are chosen to contribute to the final harmony." Then, abruptly, he smiles. "Let me show you what I mean." An assistant arrives bearing a porcelain soup spoon containing a small white lozenge dribbled with dark brown sauce. "Here," Adrià says, "eat it in one bite." I bite down and flinch as something sweet squirts onto my tongue. Adrià laughs with the glee of a kid who's pulled off a prank. "For me, the element of surprise is also very important."

I've just eaten a squid ravioli filled with coconut milk and sauced with ginger-soy vinaigrette and mint oil; it's bizarre—and absolutely delicious. "This dish tells a lot about my philosophy of cooking," he says. "I want the complete attention of all your senses. Small portions provoke you to think. I like to blur the boundaries between sweet and savory cooking so that you don't know when dessert has begun, but always with respect to the way that the taste of one dish follows another." Speaking quickly, Adrià reviews his culinary manifesto. "Contrast of textures and temperatures is very important. Meat dishes don't interest me much. I don't use fish fumet. I love new cooking techniques and new food products, and nothing is really just a garnish in the classic sense of the term—if I put a spoonful of caviar on a fresh sardine, the sardine is as important as the caviar."

I am meeting Adrià for the first time, after eating two meals in a row at El Bulli—the most intense repasts I'd ever had. He is short and stout, gentle yet intense, shy but dogmatic—the subject of hosannas sung by French food critics and chefs since El Bulli won three stars from Michelin in 1996: "He's the best cook on the planet," says Joël Robuchon, "a genius capable of giving life to a cuisine that's never existed before." I certainly believe that: This is the man who does pistachio nuts in tempura batter and who sent out a candy-bar-size portion of seared bone marrow topped with caviar, a perfectly unadorned dish yet inexplicably satisfying beyond the measure of its ingredients.

Adrià is about to take me through the creation of a carpaccio of preserved cèpes with a salad of potatoes, truffles, mache, and rabbit kidneys—a dish requiring the technical precision of a NASA launch. "The dish is based on cèpes, so first I had to decide how to cook them," he begins, professorially. "The cooking method must be coherent in relation to the product." He opens his handsomely produced cookbook, El Bulli El Sabor del Mediterráneo (El Bulli the Taste of the Mediterranean), to the page on which the genesis of the dish is illustrated. A small chart lists what he considers to be the 25 best ways of cooking cèpes. "I decide to do a confit of cèpes, cooking them in olive oil, which respects their texture and their sweetness. Now I have to consider how to present them." Another chart lists 85 ways of bringing the mushrooms to the table. "I decide to do a carpaccio of confited cèpes, so now I've chosen the cooking technique and its elaboration. How will I use the carpaccio? It will be the base of a salad, because this offers the greatest possibilities to explore the taste, texture, smell, and appearance of the cèpes through garnishes."

Then Adrià explains how a vinaigrette of cèpe oil with pine nuts and canapés of fried potato slices, black truffle, and mache will enrich the personality of the carpaccio. "The rabbit kidneys," he concludes, "will be the surprise—no one will know what they are at first glance, but the crunch will be sure to startle."

With that comment today's tutorial ends, for the kitchen is tuning up for dinner and awaiting its conductor to step to the podium. "You will come for lunch tomorrow in the kitchen," Adrià announces. "I will decide your menu," he adds with a mischievous grin.

The trip to El Bulli (just outside the resort of Rosas, and about a two-hour drive north of Barcelona) is a bit of an off-to-see-the-wizard expedition—one involving a five-mile trip down a spectacularly potholed road. The trail is blazed with yellow bulldog heads (El Bulli means The Bulldog in Spanish) stenciled on rocks by the roadside. The restaurant itself is an unprepossessing whitewashed villa half hidden by pine and eucalyptus. Neither the low-key dining room (with terra-cotta tile floors, white tablecloths, dark wood beams) nor the terrace, which has a splendid view of the cove below, betrays a hint of the fireworks in store.

Adrià's 13-course tasting menu has the earmarks of a gourmet Outward Bound program. He wants you to lose control, and eventually you do, since he destroys your normal gastronomic rhythm. It is a fascinating, sometimes rapturous, sometimes frustrating experience. The meal begins with a provocative succession of hors d'oeuvres, including the weird but successful pairing of fresh strawberries with Parmesan ice and quail's eggs glazed in caramel. Sweet, salt, sour, bitter—Adrià scours your taste buds.

"To really understand my cooking," says Adrià, "a tasting menu is necessary." And he's right. There's no other way to comprehend the way his food pirouettes across your palate in a mad dance of flavors and textures. First, a salad of oranges with the perfect jewellike seedpods of tiny tomatoes, an elegant meeting of acid and base. Next, a plate of "Percebes," re-creations in aspic of the strong-tasting, inch-long green crustaceans from the neighboring cove—and a cold soup of turrón (Spanish nougat). Grilled, lightly caramelized slices of honeydew melon, garnished with sprigs of ice plant and a mint and pomelo sauce, follow: They're strange and yet delectable. Then a sublime "spume" of potato with summer truffle.

After we had tasted the nine hors d'oeuvres and six other dishes we were sated and wanted a letup from the relentless concentration a meal at El Bulli requires. Yet we had no choice but to continue—eel with anise, deconstructed pork ribs with mango, and medallions of monkfish in eucalyptus oil with baby onions and cubes of black-currant aspic, the last an absolutely stunning mix of flavors and perfumes. Lamb in charcoal oil, Muscat gelatin with yogurt sorbet, a licorice mousse with passion-fruit seeds and green apple, and the finale, a galactic assortment of chocolates.

We felt an almost confessional desire to share the experience. As we sipped our coffee the couple at the adjacent table told us they were on an annual gourmet tour of Europe and had been to all of the French three-stars. "If someone really wanted to learn how to cook, I'd send them here. In one meal you see braising, roasting, steaming, perfuming, deep-frying; he does it all, and perfectly," said the man. "We've been here before," his wife added, "and haven't stopped thinking about it since." A table of Italians across the way joined the conversation, and we all agreed that the only other chef in Europe doing such forward-thinking food is Pierre Gagnaire in Paris—but not nearly as accomplished as this, I commented. Gagnaire's cooking has none of the irony and risqué sensuality expressed by Adrià's squid ravioli.

If the tasting menu had been a bit like making a meal out of a box of bonbons—a succession of coy yet potent small pleasures—Adrià's main courses were gutsy on a larger canvas. Most exemplary was the grilled sole and asparagus sauced with deeply reduced chicken stock and garnished with four petite ravioli, each filled with a flavored cream—garlic, bay leaf, tomato, and rosemary. The waiter suggested that each ravioli be eaten separately with a bit of fish and asparagus. It sounded gimmicky, but it worked, though the rosemary variety tasted like a cleaning product. That aside, it was a memorable lunch. (So much so that the perfectly good seafood dinner at another restaurant that night seemed dull.)

Adrià beams when I tell him this the next day—like all great performers he wants to be loved. "I cook to express my emotions, and my pleasure is in inventing a new experience for my customers," he says. "Cooking is my life."

Adrià, who's been in the kitchen since age 17, lives at the restaurant in season, and oversees the 30-odd staff in his granite-faced state-of-the-art kitchen, where all the machines are hidden and all the activity is visible from a sort of podium—Adrià's command post. That's not just an expression, for his cuisine is minute-to-minute food that requires drill-team timing between kitchen and dining room.

As he checks on a sauce made by an apprentice, I learn how the coconut-milk-stuffed squid ravioli are made. After the frozen squid has been cut into thin wafers it's wrapped around a lozenge of frozen ginger-and-soy-seasoned coconut milk, then poached seconds before being served. It's an amazing amount of technique, to say nothing of labor, for such a minuscule edible. But when Adrià returns he shows off his latest find, an Austrian cartridge siphon that allows him to turn beet juice into beet foam. "I love the texture of mousses," he enthuses. "You see, I use technology to create fantasy." An assistant presents him with another recent discovery—two clear jelly cubes on a plate. He pops them into a microwave oven, blasts them for a few minutes, and gets even more excited when I observe that they're not melting. "I'm still working with this product, it's an agar-agar jelly that withstands heat. I've already used it in several dishes, and people have been surprised by the idea of something that's hot, transparent, and light but solid. The possibilities are remarkable, yes?"

Adrià, the son of a house painter, grew up in a "steak-and-fries family" in Barcelona. His culinary career began accidentally: The owner of the restaurant where he worked washing dishes as a teenager presented him with Escoffier's classic cookbook. He shocked everyone by learning the tome by heart, which led to a job as chef to a Spanish admiral, in lieu of active military service. In 1983 he met Juli Soler, who had just bought El Bulli, then a rather traditional French restaurant that the former owner had named in honor of her dog.

During the next few years, when nouvelle cuisine was at its peak in France, the pair sampled the creations of many of the country's finest chefs, including Troisgros, Chapel, Guérard, and Blanc. But Adrià's epiphany occurred in 1986, during a brief stint in Jacques Maximin's Nice kitchen. "Someone asked Maximin, 'What's creativity?' and he said, 'Create, don't copy,' " Adrià says, clapping his hands. Returning to Spain, he refined his battery of recipes, often cooking for 20 hours a day. At the end of his first season, Rafael Garcia Santos, perhaps Spain's best food writer, said, with Adrià's texture and temperature experiments in mind: "Adrià is the best creator of cold foods who's ever existed."

"I spend the winter in my atelier in Barcelona creating the next season's dishes. I keep a taste diary of interesting associations, which is what I work from—invention is the essence of my work. The haute cuisine of the future will be based on a chef's personality, not on his nationality. Here, try this, a new recipe."

He offers up a plate of tiny, almost transparent ravioli that are filled with baby clams garnished with shards of crisp bacon and ham drippings, plus a small puffed cube of crackling. It's superb, and quintessentially Spanish, with its mixture of earth and sea: There are several different sources of salt. "One of the best ways to understand a dish is to take it apart, to isolate its components and then rework them. In this dish you have all of Spain in your mouth," Adrià says

Even if you don't speak Spanish a perusal of Adrià's cookbooks (he claims to have originated more than 180 recipes) reveals the remarkable technical skill of his cooking. On a page of Los Secretos de El Bulli he offers a taste diagram of one of his dishes, asparagus wrapped in cèpes with mandarin orange coulis, Parmesan vinaigrette, and crushed macadamia nuts. Illustrated so well here is the architecture of harmonic taste: the saltiness and bitterness of the cèpes and the asparagus balanced by the sweetness of macadamia nut, the sweet, acid taste of the mandarin orange sauce, and the saltiness, spiciness, and bitterness of the Parmesan vinaigrette. "Every dish must be a total sensory experience—there's the way it looks and smells, the textures you encounter with your fork and in your mouth, the sound made in your mouth when you are eating, and, of course, its taste," Adrià says excitedly.

If you're equal to an almost unbearably intense gastronomic adventure, a meal in Adrià's kitchen, available by advance reservation, is the ultimate way to experience El Bulli. I brought a finicky Californian, and over the next three hours we rhapsodized over some 20 different dishes, each a tiny masterpiece that challenged our thinking about food and cooking. Adrià stood back, watching our every reaction, especially when I ate a breaded cube served on a porcelain spoon. I probably looked somewhat horrified when the hot liquid it contained started gelling in my mouth. "It's like science fiction, yes?" said Adrià. "The change to body temperature causes the liquid to thicken in the mouth."

At this point I'd had enough jack-in-the-box food, and somehow Adrià knew that. As a finale he served us the most incredible salad I've ever tasted: wild strawberries, celery leaf, peas, green beans, poached tomato, raspberries, fennel, lavender flowers, and blackberries in a mango coulis.

"I suppose I'm always trying to provoke and seduce," Adrià ventured as he watched us nibbling our after-dinner confections—mint leaves pressed in chocolate. "I don't want a passive clientele. I want a dialogue.

"Perhaps I am a little like the magician David Copperfield?" he suggested. We nodded our assent, by now willing victims of the most perfect gustatory conjuring we'd ever experienced.

El Bulli is closed Monday and Tuesday (except July to September) and October 15 to March 15. Tasting menu: $90. A la carte meal for two, including tax but not wine or service: $190. Apartado 30, 17480 Rosas en Cala Montjoi, Spain; 34-972-15-04-57; fax 34-972-15-07-17.

Alexander Lobrano is Departures' contributing editor for Europe. He wrote about Falsled Kro, the best country house hotel in Denmark, in the September/October 1998 issue.