Nevertheless, some things can be said as fact about what El Bulli achieves night after night. First, the sheer output of the kitchen is phenomenal. 50 guests receiving 40 dishes is 2,000 plates that leave the kitchen every single night, nor are these simple dishes.
Second, not every table has the same. In order to accommodate food preferences and allergies, each table is getting a unique menu. This adds a new layer of complexity to the service.
Third, the co-ordination of front of house with the kitchen was incredible, we’ve never seen waiters move so much or work so hard in our lives. Logistically, they pulled off a stunning service. They do that every night.
Fourth, this restaurant won the world’s Best Restaurant at the awards inauguration in 2002 and has won it over 50% of the years since then. Clearly it is neither just lucky nor a flash in the pan.
Fifth, the menu changes up year after year. True, he closes for six months of the year to develop new concepts, but to constantly rework such an extensive menu when he could rest on his laurels, open for longer and make more money, that is impressive. And after all, it’s not like he’s catering to repeat diners.
El Bulli is undoubtedly a hugely impressive restaurant from a technical, logistical and industrial standpoint. But that doesn’t answer the question how we feel about it? Lets do pros and cons and see where we get to.
Pro: you get involved with the food. Of the five senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, El Bulli continually uses four of them, only hearing gets left out (Heston is one of the few who has used this with his Sounds of the Sea dish). The fact that you don’t get silverware unless absolutely necessary highlights the interaction the restaurant expects people to have with their food. The lighting too is arguably extreme.
Pro: giggles. This is kind of geeky but we took a Dictaphone to El Bulli and placed it on the table so we could record our thoughts as the meal progressed rather than make written notes (turned out to be a smart move given the pace of the meal). I listened to it again while I wrote the earlier blog and was amazed how much we laughed through the meal as we discovered things and played with the food (in the way it’s supposed to be played with). The food genuinely delighted us.
Pro: wow factor. The word most recorded on the Dictaphone was ‘wow’ rapidly followed by the word ‘full’ as in ‘I’m really full up’. To have so many wow dishes in a single service is truly special. Most restaurants will go a lifetime without serving a single wow dish.
Pro: think factor. It was of course Bertrand Russell who said that ‘most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.’ El Bulli challenges you on food and some people wont like that. In fact, El Bulli challenges you on so many levels and makes you think about food in ways that again, almost no other restaurant could match. You never have to think about steak and chips, there’s no debate; every dish here though evokes discussion.
Con: the pace. This is a natural consequence of serving a forty course menu. The first 20 course were also a lot quicker than the second 20 course for various reasons, not least, our insistence on taking a break. While we appreciate that that’s what they have to do to fit it in, it again devalued some of the dishes; so much effort, over in one bite, the next dish already on its way before you can even compare notes on whether you liked it.
A word on taste. I have neither included taste as a positive nor negative because it is too amorphous to label. Should a restaurant only be about taste? Is that the yard stick to judge? The answer must surely be no or we should spend our lives eating only comfort food. As well as taste, we want to be shocked, surprised and awed. El Bulli delivers here. For the most part, El Bulli does deliver on taste, exceptionally so. Can I criticise the sea anemone dish because I discover I don’t really like sea anemone? No. Did any dish lack taste, hardly. In a forty course menu based around innovation, should someone expect everything to be to their taste? Of course not.
Restaurants that offer more than just taste need to be given credit for the full spread of what they do offer. Those who judge El Bulli harshest we suspect will most often come back to ‘I didn’t like this dish’ and ‘I didn’t like that’. Put another way, they judge El Bulli on a single axis of achievement.
Perhaps that leads to the real conclusion. While many restaurants understandably aim for achievement across the single dimension of taste, El Bulli operates across dimensions, and not just two or three, but every conceivable dimension available within the constraint that EL Bulli is currently a restaurant (maybe why El Bulli is transforming into a research foundation). For the customer, it can be disorientating and confusing and some will inevitably elect the safer ground of a more traditional stance. A willingness to accept food and theatre, food and science, food and giggles, food and thought as well as food and taste all in a single course, or even a single bite, takes you some way to the EL Bulli experience.
To eat at El Bulli is to eat Ferran’s food vision and food genius. It’s been asked time and again in blogs whether you need to be a genius to ‘get’ his genius. I don’t understand every word of Shakespeare but I enjoy his plays and Beethoven can certainly carry a tune. I appreciate their genius without being one and I enjoy their genius without being one. Brighter people than me understand more of both. We didn’t ‘get’ everything that was put in front of us that night at El Bulli, but nor should we expect to. And nor does it matter. Take what you get out of it, the occasion, the laughter, the joy of surprise, or simply the taste, and enjoy those dimensions. The fact about genius is more often than not, it’s so large that there’s something for everyone, in as much quantity as you need, and still some left over.
What we can say now is that El Bulli was a unique experience. While often held to be similar to The Fat Duck, we found it totally different. Having never had an experience like eating at El Bulli before, nor can we imagine that we’ll ever have an experience like that again. It was worth the wait, worth the travel and worth the money. The bottom line is that if you ever get a chance to spend up close time with a genius take it, for that’s a moment you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
And don’t worry, he (or she) will have enough genius for both of you.