A look back at the history of a restaurant that started life as a beach bar and ended up on the front pages of the world's press.
If one restaurant has shaped the history of Spanish gastronomy more than any other, it's elBulli.
The legacy of Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler has had an impact on more than one generation of chefs, and will continue to do so for many years to come—maybe without the true extent of their contribution ever being known.
This is a look back at the history of a restaurant that began as a beach bar and ended up gracing the front covers of international publications.
Thanks to Dr. Schilling's interest in gastronomy—having traveled all over Europe visiting the best restaurants—their simple fare evolved into ever more elaborate dishes. Following the trend for nouvelle cuisine in the 1970s, they added some French dishes to their menu.
In 1976, with Jean-Louis Neichel in charge of the kitchen, the establishment received its first Michelin star.
Juli Soler was an outstanding maître d'hôtel, with great organizational abilities and an exceptional way with people. He set the scene for Adrià to become the chef who would shake the existing foundations of cookery.
"Finding a partner like that is almost impossible. And he has been as—if not more—important than me in this story," Adrià stated before Soler's death in 2015.
Adrià Joins the elBulli Kitchen
Taking advantage of a month's leave from military service in 1983, Ferran Adrià did some work experience as a chef at the restaurant on the recommendation of their mutual friend Fermí Puig. Before he finished, he agreed to join Juli Soler's team the following year.
In October 1984, chef Jean-Paul Vinay left the restaurant, and Adrià and Christian Lutaud became the head chefs.
During the winter months, when there weren't so many customers, they took the opportunity to visit foreign restaurants and markets, working perfectly as a team to reformulate the menus.
Dishes from that Era
In the 3 years from 1983 to 1986, when Ferran and Christian ran the kitchen, they revisited and reworked dishes from classic Spanish cooking, as well as nouvelle cuisine.
Among their creations from this period were an adaptation of "perdiz escabechada" (partridge escabeche) in the form of a boneless pigeon; Roses langoustine stew; vine tomatoes and brown crab; Troisgros seared red mullet escabeche; and the "truffle surprise."
Creating Is Not Copying
Ferran heard this statement from Jacques Maximin—chef at the Le Chantecler restaurant in Nice and a champion of nouvelle cuisine—and it led the way for the Catalan chef.
"This simple phrase was the catalyst for the change of attitude in our cooking, marking the transition from 'recreating' to a firm decision to focus on originality. We were convinced that we needed to stop referencing the cookbooks of important chefs and carve out an identity of our own instead. It was the beginning of our creative journey at elBulli."
Journey to the Cutting Edge
Gault & Millau magazine was founded by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who had given nouvelle cuisine its name almost 2 decades earlier. It was thanks to the magazine that the elBulli team discovered the 2 most avant-garde chefs of the moment: Michel Bras and Pierre Gagnaire, and the team decided to pay a visit to their kitchens.
The trip marked a turning point for Ferran in his understanding of cookery. "We learned something from Gagnaire that can be summed up in 3 words: anything is possible. From Bras, we discovered sensitivity and the natural world."
In 1992, Soler and Adrià bought the restaurant, becoming co-owners as well as the head chef and manager. This laid a new foundation for the restaurant.
Everything was remodeled, except for the dining rooms, which were left unchanged in tribute to Marketta Schilling. A state-of-the-art kitchen of over 3,000 square feet was built, along with a parking lot. The garden and terrace were also given a makeover.
The Origins of elBullitaller: A Creative Team Concept
In 1991, Ferran Adrià had moved into the workshop belonging to the sculptor Xavier Medina Campeny. While the artist worked, Adrià created dishes that they then ate together, chatting about art and creativity as they dined.
This sowed the seeds of an idea they had, in 1994, to set up a professional creative team: the "development squad."
El Bulli: The Taste of the Mediterranean (1993)
"The intention with this book was not to limit it to recipes, but to offer a real analysis of our cooking. It came from a desire to classify our cuisine from a theoretical point of view—an approach that continued in later books. It was a period at elBulli that impacted a whole generation of chefs in Spain."
A new style emerged, resulting in a radical approach that questioned every aspect of cuisine that came before it.
It was an approach in which the priority was not to create dishes, but to create concepts and techniques that would offer the diner an experience. The textured vegetable panaché is a trademark of this new era.
This style was forged and adopted beyond the elBulli restaurant, influencing chefs around the world.
The Backing of Joël Robuchon: A Vital Boost
In an interview in 1996, the prestigious French chef pointed to Ferran Adrià as his successor, declaring him the best chef in the world. The eyes of every critic and gourmet fell on elBulli.
Robuchon had first dined at elBulli 4 years earlier, on a summer's day in 1992.
In 1990, the Michelin Guide awarded the restaurant in Cala Montjoi a second Michelin star.
The then Spanish Academy of Gastronomy (now the Royal Spanish Academy of Gastronomy) gave Juli Soler the National Award for Best Maître D'Hôtel. Two years later, Ferran Adrià received the award for Best Head Chef.
The first edition of the guide "Lo mejor de la gastronomía" (The Best of Gastronomy) was published in 1995, and the critic Rafael García Santos gave elBulli the highest possible rating.
And in 1997, the restaurant in Cala Montjoi became the third in Spain to be awarded 3 stars in the Michelin Guide, along with Arzak and El Racó de Can Fabes.
From 1999, the Sunday supplements of the most prestigious newspapers around the world would feature Ferran Adrià and his cuisine. In 2003, he and elBulli graced the cover and 14 pages of a supplement in The New York Times.
A few months later, in 2004, he appeared in the supplement of Le Monde, and Time magazine included him in its 100 most influential people in the world that same year.
In 2001, Ferran Adrià and his team began collaborating with a Swiss industrial designer based in Barcelona, Luki Huber. Luki came up with some new utensils for serving food, including pipettes, various spoons, and very wide straws called sniffs that held jelly, to help solve problems posed by certain dishes.
"This synergy with other creative disciplines is one of the most special aspects of our work in recent years. And since 2005, it has been consolidated through the Faces project, which we collaborate on with some prestigious designers."
This considered decision showed, on the one hand, that the elBulli experience could not be removed from the context of the restaurant. On the other, it raised the debate about artistic disciplines that do not belong in museums.
On each of the 100 days of Documenta, 2 people came from Kassel for dinner, acting as a point of connection between the 2 locations of Kassel and Cala Montjoi.
Science and Cookery at Harvard
In 2008, Ferran Adrià, the Alícia Foundation, and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences signed an agreement that resulted in a general education course on science and cookery: "From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter."
It was an innovative concept and format that explained science through cookery, in collaboration with Harvard professors and scientists, and world-renowned chefs.
On July 30, 2011 they held their last dinner, entitled The Last Waltz. It was cooked by Grant Achatz, René Redzepi, José Andrés, Massimo Bottura, Joan Roca, and Andoni Luis Aduriz; head chefs Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, and Mateu Casañas; and the rest of the elBulli team.
elBulli's Other Legacy
elBulli's legacy can be seen on the menus of haute-cuisine restaurants around the world, but its direct disciples are those who worked as its head chefs. They include Castro, Xatruch, and Casañas, who are now fronting Disfrutar, and Albert Raurich, owner of Dos Palillos (both in Barcelona).
Other names include Andoni Luis Aduritz from Mugaritz, who worked in the kitchens in Cala Montjoi right after finishing his cookery studies; José Andrés, who runs restaurants throughout the United States; Paco Morales from Noor in Córdoba; and Sergi Arola.
Text: María García, in collaboration with Ferran Adriá / Marc Cuspinera.
Image: elBullifoundation / © F. Guillamet / Bob Noto / Visual13
Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.
This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.