When Anthony Bourdain cruises through town this fall for his City of Ate-sponsored gig at the Majestic, he's guaranteed to one or two questions about the meal I watched him eat on last night's No Reservations: a 50-or-so-course palate-fuck at El Bulli, Ferran Adria's 72-star restaurant on the remote coast of Spain.
El Bulli, long considered the world's best restaurant, served its last meal over the weekend. Adria is opening a sort of think tank in its place, a non-profit center that will apparently promote way-outside-the-box thinking on topics ranging from tiramisu to suspension bridges.
The end of Adria's run was the perfect occasion for Bourdain to visit El Bulli -- and the perfect occasion to revisit one of my favorite pieces from one of the best single issues of a magazine published in the last 10 or so years: the July 2001 issue of Esquire.
I'd just finished my senior year in college when that issue showed up in my mailbox, and it cemented my desire to Tell Stories and Use Capital Letters For Emphasis and intentionally run on sentences for effect. It contained profiles of ten men, including Jon Stewart (annotated by Stewart himself), Frank Gehry, Don Zimmer, Charlton Heston and, tucked in among all those icons, a little chef from Spain I'd never heard of.
Michael Paterniti wrote it, chronicling a trek that's been chronicled many times since, especially lately, down "a neglected, potholed road that led up a mountain -- houses falling away, the stunted Johannesburg trees bent like old, shadowy men."
When my first plate arrived, I was a little frightened. I'd never been to a restaurant where a chef completely decides what you're going to eat and drink. At El Bulli, choices were left to Ferran Adria, el jefe maximo, and the food was delivered in bits and combinations that didn't look like food at all, accompanied by instructions from the waiter: "This is a childhood memory. Take in one bite." Or: "This is trout-egg tempura. Two bites, quickly."
It came down to a question of faith. And I suddenly felt the presence of this man, Ferran Adria, somewhere in the shadows, holding the fork in my hand, guiding it to the plate, impaling a mound of caramel-covered, sweet-smelling tenderness that had been introduced as "rabbit apple," and lifting it to my mouth, which, despite my misgivings, had been watering in anticipation of this very moment and watered still, now that the moment was here.
It'd been a long time since I'd read that story, or anything else about Adria. In the interim, my brain had stripped away Adria's peasant-cook soul until all was left was some Spanish asshole making Hershey kisses out of quail eggs (or whatever).
Then Bourdain's show came on. Just the fact that he was eating there indicated that Adria wasn't the rootless culinary adventurer I remembered. Bourdain doesn't suffer those fools easily, and I gather he wouldn't trek to the remote coast of anywhere to have a meaningless (however stylish) meal.
You'll have to watch the episode yourself to get a sense of what you missed by never eating at Adria's restaurant (including tantalizing proximity to the world's shittiest mini golf course.) I highly recommend finding it in your cable box. His crew gets unparalleled access, including a meal with Adria in which he marvels at his own creations in a way that's both endearing and puzzling, like watching Tom Brady giggle helplessly at a well-thrown 15-yard out. The end result is an awesome story wonderfully told by Bourdain's crew -- the sort of story I might have drooled over had it shown up in my mail box 10 summers back.