This is the history of a restaurant that changed the way we cook today, told through its most significant dishes, selected and told by Ferran Adrià.
"The days of keeping recipes in the drawer are over." With this remark, Ferran Adrià changed the direction of not only Spanish cuisine but of gastronomy all over the world.
When elBulli shared the results of its overwhelming creative talent with the rest of the world, a wave of appreciation rippled through culinary circles. Its impact and influence on the work of other chefs can still be seen today.
Ferran Adrià's culinary universe was built around the desire to develop elBulli as a gastronomic restaurant. Juli Soler, Ferran Adrià, Albert Adrià, and Oriol Castro tore down culinary and gastronomic conventions. They took a critical and analytical look at all the essential, surrounding components before rebuilding. The idea was to forge new connections between elements that had never been linked before.
Here are some of the most momentous creations and contributions in elBulli's history, shown next to the recipe number and the year in which they were made.
10—Red Mullet Gaudí (1987)
This was an iconic dish from elBulli's early days, when creative curiosity took hold of the area in and around Cala Montjoi.
The dish can be categorized within a sub-style known as "Taste of the Mediterranean," which defined elBulli's first cookbook and drew connections between land, produce, techniques, and dishes.
Red Mullet Gaudí was a dish served hot. It was a completely clean fillet of red mullet covered with a mosaic of vegetables. At a time when fish was more commonly coated in breadcrumbs, this red mullet was served with a finely chopped "samfaina" (a Catalan version of ratatouille).
The creative technique used in this recipe was inspired by the artist Antoni Gaudí. The influence of the fragmented tile mosaics that characterized his works is unmistakable.
52—Cep Carpaccio (1989)
The carpaccio that defined an era.
This is probably one of the most widely reproduced dishes outside of elBulli, and the one that the most people have been able to savor.
The produce and techniques used to create it explain the complexity of the elements that accompany the carpaccio.
This dish was inspired by a link to local produce, based on preserved mushrooms.
The way the dish is prepared is influenced by the association sub-style, and the earliest uses of this technique. It aims to combine apparently disparate elements: pine nuts, potatoes, black truffles, lamb's lettuce, and rabbit kidneys.
159—Savory Tomato Ice with Oregano and Almond Milk Pudding (1992)
This dish represents a sub-style that elBulli developed in the 1990s, and exemplifies one of the restaurant's gastronomic cornerstones: savory frozen cuisine.
Tomato sorbet was the first dish of many of its type, and one that remains popular to this day.
Another sub-style evident in this dish is the symbiosis between sweet and savory: a process of blurring the lines that traditionally separated savory dishes from desserts.
And finally, the idea of shaping food so light that it would otherwise collapse, by serving it in a receptacle to give it structure, would also become a sub-style in its own right.
186—Veal Marrow with Caviar (1992)
This dish was devised during the period when elBulli was seeking to use local ingredients in novel ways.
This recipe is based on the "mar y montaña" (surf and turf) concept, which is deeply rooted in the area. It combines seafood with produce from the land in dishes such as chicken with langoustine, or meatballs and cuttlefish.
This adaptation plays with produce from opposite realms, in impossible combinations. A simple, light, veal bone marrow is combined with the exclusive, elaborate ingredient that is caviar. It's a contrast of textures and flavors that never fails to excite.
This dish fits within the sub-style of essential cuisine, which uses only the necessary elements, discarding the superfluous.
240—White Bean Foam with Sea Urchin: The First Foam (1994))
The quest to achieve a texture lighter than mousse, with a more intense flavor, led to the discovery that a siphon could be used to whip cream. The result was foam.The white bean foam—served cold using the sea urchin itself as a base—was the first of its kind to be served in the restaurant.
The siphoned creations were categorized within a sub-style focused on technique and concept, which paved the way for the gastronomic vanguard.
247—Textured Vegetable Panaché (1994)
The textured vegetable panaché is an icon of elBulli, and of techno-emotional cuisine. Few dishes have so perfectly represented the beginning of a revolution: it marked the end of the "Taste of the Mediterranean" era and cleared the way for everything that followed.
This vegetable stew shattered all existing stereotypes of what the dish—so deeply ingrained in both domestic and professional cooking—should be.
It was a completely cold and/or frozen dish that obliterated the boundaries between sweet and savory, with its blend of fruits and vegetables.
The incredible combination of techniques used to create the different elements of the stew offered the diner a symphony of textures: almond sorbet, peach granita, beet foam, tomato purée, basil jelly, and corn and cauliflower mousse.
It's a dish that's difficult to categorize into a single sub-style, with elements of sweet and savory symbiosis, as well as techno-conceptual style and texturization.
298—Two Ways of Presenting Chicken Curry (1995)
In 1995, a number of dishes with names referencing traditional or classic recipes appeared on elBulli's menu. However, what diners were served bore very little resemblance to the original dish as they knew it, and would completely change their concept as soon as they tasted it.
These dishes were developed as part of the reconstruction sub-style.
Having started with a savory curry ice cream, they looked for dish to match it: chicken curry. Each of the ingredients or elements (in this case chicken, apple, curry, coconut, garlic, and onion) underwent a different process, radically changing their texture and appearance.
There was an implicit humor in the exchange with each diner. The question was always: "Would you prefer thigh or breast?" It was a dialogue between reconstruction and deconstruction.
361—Mollusk Platter: Pluralism (1996)
Another of elBulli's sub-styles was pluralism—an extrapolation of the concept of essence and simplicity. The novelty is that the dishes are not based on a single ingredient, but rather focus on a family of products.
One of the greatest ever pluralist dishes is Michel Bras' gargouillou.
Pluralist dishes incorporate various products from the same family: each of them can be savored individually, but together they form a different, unique harmony.
It is a sub-style constructed around product families, whether they be scientific families, such as crustaceans, or based on conventions, such as meats or seafood.
367—The Spice Dish (1996)
The sixth sense involves introducing parameters of logic or the subconscious during the act of eating to reach a higher intellectual appreciation of gastronomy, taking it beyond the sensations generated by senses and perceptions.
Playfulness, provocation, and irony all inhabit the sixth sense, and they are all at play in this creation, known as The Spice Dish.
An apple jelly acts as a 'base' for 12 aromatic herbs and spices. Their names are revealed to the diner, but not the order in which they are presented.
This is how the concept of play was introduced. The idea of challenging and interacting with the diner was a constant feature until the day elBulli closed its doors.
400—Smoke Foam (1997)
Smoke Foam was emblematic of elBulli's cuisine and led to an exploration of another parameter of the sixth sense, this time based on provocation.
It represents the sub-style of conceptual cuisine, in which the concept itself is more important than the resulting dish.
The idea came about at a time when the debate about foams was at its height. It was ultimately a snack, but one intended to provoke a reaction from the diner.
Smoke Foam was essentially a small glass filled with smoked foam, with the minimal addition of some oil, salt, and croutons.
It was a simple little glass, designed to enable the diner to "eat smoke," but which added another dimension to elBulli's cuisine, blurring the lines between what was considered cooking, and what was not.
485—Hot Black Truffle Jelly with Cod Skin (1998)
Some dishes not only signal a new way of operating, but create a whole world of possibilities, and even a new style. Hot jelly did just that.
The quest to create hot jelly was a priority at elBullitaller, and dishes from Chinese and Japanese restaurants offered the solution: they used agar-agar, a gelling agent that can withstand temperatures of up to 185°F.
Hot jelly was introduced in 1998, and served in a number of different ways: jellied consommé, an open ravioli filling, a garnish sauce, jellied soup, or as in this dish: Hot Black Truffle Jelly with Cod Skin.
Agar-agar was initially used to create gelatinous soups, and paved the way for other gelling and thickening agents.
486—Cala Montjoi Goose Barnacles (1998)
This dish stemmed from research involving seaweed, and was undoubtedly a controversial one among diners.
The process of infusing seaweed and its flavor, which resembled that of a goose barnacle, inspired the idea of creating a false one. Its flavor would be similar to a barnacle, but with a different texture: it was a "trompe l'oeil" or deception, another elBulli sub-style that fits within the concept of the sixth sense.
Playfulness, and a desire to invoke irony, led the team to name the dish Cala Montjoi Goose Barnacles. The added provocation was that the locals knew very well that there were no goose barnacles (percebes)—which are typically found on the wave-battered rocks in the north of Spain—in the area.
The seaweed infusion meant the flavor of the sea could be used in other creations, without being restricted to the use of mollusk water.
486—Norway Lobster au Naturel (1998)
Declination means presenting an ingredient in various textures and/or at various temperatures, without it being altered by the process. This technique would be included under what was known as "essential cuisine."
This dish, created in 1998, represented a step forward. It revolved around just 2 ingredients: Norway lobster and water, employing the techniques of hot jelly and elBulli's "American Express" (the essence of Norway lobster extracted from the head).
560—The "Piñonada" (1999)
This elBulli product is magic in its purest form: the chance discovery of raw pine nuts (or "piñones"), after a year of breaking open cones to make a pine infusion, are like white caviar.
They are a delicate and distinctly enchanting ingredient, similar to raw almonds in a very early stage of growth, and their preparation was always kept to a minimum so as not to change the texture.
Raw pine nuts were a brand new ingredient, with no evidence that they had been used in cooking before. They are characterized by their very specific seasonality, since they are only available for one month of the year.
The "Piñonada" dish presented a particular difficulty: to make 8 servings, 6 people were needed to peel pine nuts for an hour.
733—Ceps Slurps: New Ways of Tasting (2001)
The year 2000 saw the development of some new concepts. Some of these, such as serving a cocktail inside a drinking straw, were unsuccessful.
However, Lucky Huber, one of the designers in the elBullitaller team, took the idea a step further, acquiring straws of different thicknesses and sizes to experiment with.
One of these straws led to the development of a new concept: canapés (without bread, of course) that could be sipped.
Unlike the earlier straws, their content was a jelly rather than a liquid, and the pressure exerted when sucking it into the mouth produced a unique taste sensation.
It is iconic of elBulli's reimagining of where and how to taste.
Spherification is the controlled gelling of a liquid mixed with sodium alginate, which produces spheres of different textures and consistencies when it comes into contact with a calcium citrate.
The use of sodium alginate in spherification paved the way for experimentation with dozens of texturizing ingredients and creations.
878—Carrot Air with Bitter Coconut Milk (2003)
A range of texturizers emerged out of elBullitaller's frenzied interaction with the scientific world. Among them was soy lecithin—a true gem.
Whisking the surface of a liquid with a little soy lecithin can produce textures as airy and ephemeral as soap bubbles.
1133—Pistachio-LYO with Black Truffle Jellied Consommé and Mandarin Air (2005)
One of the latest developments in contemporary cuisine comes from the dialog established between the food industry and science. This has allowed the food industry to develop products, recipes, and techniques that have never been used in cooking before, or only in a very basic way.
The technique of freeze-drying to produce dry foods with concentrated flavors is a perfect illustration of this new direction.
Freeze-drying is based on techniques that are difficult to apply in cooking due, among other things, to a lack of access to the appropriate technology.
In 2005, elBullitaller used freeze-drying to experiment with different products and recipes that would later be incorporated by the gastronomic restaurant industry. This was the case with this dish, Pistachio-LYO Black Truffle Jellied Consommé and Mandarin Air.
1364—Flower Paper: Sensuality in Sugar (2007)
Sensuality and poetry can be expressed through dishes that generate pleasure based on the sensations and perceptions they evoke.
That is the case in this wonderfully poetic dish: a recipe that seduces as much through the subtlety of its flavor as the suggestiveness of its appearance.
Japan and the Japonism sub-style are influences here.
1501—Water Lilies (2008)
From 2003 onward, elBulli created a number of different dishes—mostly desserts—that could be classified under a very distinct sub-style known as "natural."
This style was inspired by the natural world, and employed a series of new or revised techniques to emulate natural forms such as landscapes, meteorological phenomena, and flowers.
This symbiosis also made its way into savory dishes and, in 2008, a series of savory creations appeared that could be classified under the same style.
One of the concepts developed in the workshop in 2009 was folding a large sheet of obulato and sealing it, first with a vacuum sealing machine and, later, with a purchased sealer.
This created an "envelope" that was then filled to create a new kind of ravioli.
It was important to bear in mind, when filling the ravioli, that water or moisture is obulato's worst enemy, so the ingredients used were always dry, freeze-dried, or oily (such as pralines and oils).
The combination of elements in this recipe allowed the diner to sample different, ephemeral ravioli that combined the flavors of pine—both the cone and its seed.
Sequence of Game (2009)
1637—Jellied hare consommé with sea urchin / 1638—Jugged hare brains / 1639—Hare ribs à la royale / 1640—Loin of hare with duck foie gras ravioli and cocoa and red berries
Sequences were one of the most significant additions to the menu in 2009, and indeed of the final years of the elBulli restaurant. Earlier versions of the sequences existed, such as the Oysters in Two Servings, created in 1991 and in turn based on a concept invented by the French chef, Jacques Maximin. Dishes from classic cuisine, such as duck à la presse, could also be considered forerunners of the concept.
A sequence may be defined as a series of dishes, all of which are related to a single product or a specific theme. The aim is to create multiple perspectives on the product or theme by serving it in several different ways.
Sequences represented an important shift in which the menu played out as a series of recipes articulated in several parts, each one separated by harmonious moments. They are unquestionably the epitome of what we expect to see on the ideal menu at elBulli.
In this case, the sequence revolves around a hare, its parts, and the dishes that can be made with them.
1846—Peach Melba, elBulli's Final Dish (2011)
For its final dish, elBulli went for a homage to Auguste Escoffier's peach melba, using several different elements.
Three simulated stones represented the peach stone, which is one of the ingredients in this dish. An iced almond stone, an iced peach stone, and a toasted, almond-milk stone, freeze-dried to achieve a very delicate, crunchy texture, were all served with peach cru and custard.
From the early 1990s onward, we focused on a tasting menu as the ideal formula through which to express ourselves and to make our dishes known. That structure began to take shape and grow in substance as our confidence in our own language grew.
We served a total of 30 recipes in 2006, and increased to 34 in 2007 and 2008.
From 2009 onward, the sequences, the rhythm of the menu, the tempo, and the number of dishes were coming closer to this ideal formula in an unprecedented way.
Text: Ferran Adriá
Image: elBullifoundation / © F. Guillamet / Bob Noto / Marina Roca / 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.