Editor’s note: James Beard award-winning chef Michael Smith of Michael Smith and Extra Virgin restaurants celebrated his 50th birthday with a meal at El Bulli. Smith’s account, below, was originally published in The Star’s food section in 2010.
Smith was one of 10 local chefs who cooked for chef Ferran Adrià on his recent visit to Kansas City. Smith served a crudo mosiac of tuna, hamachi and marlin with a Japanese chimichurri Ossetra caviar and uni puree.
After a recent trip to Spain, I can say I have shaken hands with the great chef Ferran Adrià, creator of El Bulli.
Following the warm handshake, I got to pose for photos with the genius chef. Since it was my 50th birthday, I felt that perhaps it was all in my honor.
I was wrong.
Everyone who dines at El Bulli poses for photos, and Adrià shakes hands with all of his guests.
In fact, to get to the dining room you must pass through the kitchen — a sort of laboratory, clean, quiet and designed for a meticulous style of cooking that is sometimes referred to as “molecular gastronomy” and famously produced techniques such as deconstruction, spherification, foams and airs.
So what was the dining experience like? The meal cost $1,000 for two, but it was everything it was supposed to be and totally worth it.
The menu was chosen by Adrià and his team of chefs. Every guest ate the same meal, thereby rendering the service swift and efficient. Our servers understood our goals: We were there to have fun, and they posed no threat to that goal. We genuinely enjoyed the experience, laughing and drinking with a few unfortunate f-bombs of giddiness mixed in.
The sheer organization needed to serve 55 guests a 35-course meal was astounding. The dishes started arriving within a minute of our landing in our seats. We didn’t love everything we ate. But we loved seeing everything. Among the highlights: the Gorgonzola Cheese Orb (imagine a cheese ball minus the middle), a “baguette” with vibrant leafy green filling that had the texture of packing peanuts but dissolved into a mojito in the mouth, and something that looked like a red candy wrapper that tasted like a Campari soda.
Still, it was a fairly recognizable 35-course meal, and in the end it was tough to remember exactly what we ate, but we had photos. Lucky for me, a new biography, “Ferran” (Gotham Books, 2010), by Colman Andrews came out recently, and I was able to read it before my visit to El Bulli. Andrews is one of the great food writers of our time, and he introduces us to all of the main characters of the restaurant and chronicles Adrià’s evolution into a genius chef. The book gave me a much clearer picture of the evolution of the restaurant, the food and the chef.
Andrews dispels the notion that Adrià’s molecular gastronomy is dispensed through chemicals, describing El Bulli’s humble beginnings as a snack bar. Andrews also explains the reason behind the multimillion-dollar kitchen juxtaposed with the dated 1970s hacienda-style dining room. Andrews paints Adrià as a very simple man with a raging imagination and a hunger for discovery.