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The chefs who raised Spanish cuisine to the stars

“It’s too bad,” said my fellow diner thoughtfully as he sipped on a spoonful of liquid ham. “I really feel sorry for all those other chefs.”

The comment was made at El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s restaurant, as we waded through a 40-course meal. My friend is a connoisseur. He represented Oxford against Cambridge 30 years ago at the annual blind wine tasting competition; he has a personal collection of thousands of top-quality wines; he is a wonderful cook; and he has dined at more than 20 restaurants with Michelin stars, most of them in France. But none of them are like this one, which even the French consider to be the best in the world.

“In 500 years of cuisine, nobody had thought of anything like this,” added my friend as he picked on a sheet of paper with inlaid wild flowers. “My guess is they’re never going to reach his level.”

I would be hard pressed to tell a Burgundy apart from a Bordeaux, and I am able to speak of gastronomic issues with the same authority I could talk about life on Mars. But after a three-week trip, during which I ate at the six best restaurants in Spain – or at least, those that the Michelin Guide awarded three stars to – I had reached three conclusions.

First of all, I think my friend is wrong to feel sorry for the other chefs. The other five I met, at least, are among the luckiest people in the world: they have talent, they love their job and they make a very good living. Second, contemporary Spanish cuisine symbolises the country’s great qualitative leap forward: in little more than one generation, it has moved from rural scarcity to technological wealth. Third, my friend is

Ferran Adria, chef at El Bulli

right: Adrià truly is from another planet.

Spain’s most venerable chef, the first one to earn three Michelin stars, Juan Mari Arzak, agrees. Although he has been described as a competitive man, he showed no hint of jealousy when he said: “Ferran is the most imaginative chef in history, the most imaginative one that will ever walk the earth.”

Some people will question whether El Bulli really is the best restaurant in the world, but certainly nobody will doubt that it is the most inaccessible one. It is located two and a half hours north of Barcelona, and the last 20 minutes take one along a tortuous mountain road that seems friendlier to sheep than to cars.

Once there, it was surprising to see half a dozen cars (including a Porsche, a Mercedes, and a Jaguar) parked in front. In some cases, the drivers have waited up to two years to be allowed to dine here. Are they not planning on drinking alcohol, then? You cannot drink and expect to make your way back over that road in one piece. And yet it would be a crime not to drink, or at least that is what my expert friend said, as he pored over the wine list, a 147-page volume with 1,618 wines from 15 countries, including Canada.

“But, but…” he mumbled as he examined the document as a bishop would examine the Gospel according to Saint Luke (in its original Aramaic). “Some of these wines are below market prices! French wines are half the price they are at French restaurants of an equivalent category…”

“Yes,” explained the sommelier. “Our philosophy is that everyone should be able to enjoy these wines.”

The balance of our brains as we climbed up the road to the restaurant made us enter a slightly hypnotic state. This feeling only increased when we met the waiters, who made us feel as if we had entered a magic castle suspended in time and space. They wore grey and black (making them look somewhat like Dr No on his island), and showed neither an intimidating stiffness nor an irritating familiarity. They had, in fact, achieved a collective tone of perfection. They were even able to inform the client about the result of the latest Barça soccer match. But they imparted this information the same way that they presented their avant-garde dishes: with no passion, as if they themselves were deconstructed the same way that the food is, and had been transformed into perfect androids.

But perhaps this was an optical illusion due to the gin fizz we were offered as soon as we sat down on the outdoor terrace, overlooking the bay. The concoction was served inside an egg carton and consumed with a spoon.

El Bulli offers both performance and visual art – each dish is a painting – as well as experimental science and Germanic rigour. For the diner, this offers infinitely pretentious possibilities for mental gymnastics. What is served is not food in any regular, recognizable sense of the term. It is a sequence of experiences through taste, eyesight, hearing and touch. Almost all the dishes are swallowed in a single gulp (40 dishes, 40 gulps) for fear of getting food on their clothes. The “spherified olives” are particularly dangerous. If one were to nibble on them as they would a normal olive, their suit would be spoiled. They are as soft and delicate as a peeled quail’s egg, and they consist of a fine green ball-shaped membrane filled with a concentrated essence of liquefied olive.

The liquid ham is so transparent that it looks like water; yet it is as tasty as the original. One’s jaws have little work to do with this dish, as with most of the others, including the tiger-nut flowers, the oyster yogurt and the frozen air of parmesan cheese with muesli. Adrià’s food is a combination of space meals and Dr Seuss.

Despite this sophistication, the first impression one gets when Adrià opens his mouth is that the man has trouble speaking, and furthermore he doesn’t know what to say – his words and his grammar sound confused. But then one realises that his ideas flow so rapidly that his tongue and throat cannot process them fast enough. The main thing to notice about this down-to-earth Catalan is his eyes: they are eyes that take in everything, for him to later transform the information into one of the dishes that he experiments with at his Barcelona laboratory during the winter months.

“This is not eating,” he says. “This is eating art. It is an orchestra and a ballet. It is magic, presented with feeling and with pragmatism.”

If Adrià has been compared to Dalí inside a kitchen, then Pedro Subijana is much more akin to a 19th-century French chef, like the ones we see in the movies. But the moustachioed Basque is also a contemporary man who knows his business. Besides his restaurant, Akelarre, he owns a publishing house and gives talks around the world. He is now building a five-star hotel next to his restaurant, which promises to be as spectacular as the food he serves.

His dishes show the Adrià influence but also deep traditional Basque roots. This means that his food is playful but that it also requires, on occasion, the use of a knife and fork. The first course came inside what looked like a chocolate box, containing an oyster inside a false, edible shell, pearl-shaped foie and basil shaped like green candy. But the fish he served actually looked like a recognisable fish, and the meat also had the appearance of meat, even though it was wrapped in what looked like a copper sheet – which turned out to be potato.

Subijana says he has always had a dreamy nature, as demonstrated by his huge moustache. “But I hate the attitude of people who work without caring about what they do. If you are not patient and conscientious, talent and imagination are worthless,” he says.

He was the last of the six Spanish chefs to obtain the coveted third Michelin star. He says that when they heard the news a year ago, both he and half the staff burst into tears. But how do they stand the pressure, the frantic pace inside the kitchen and the dining room, and the need to keep every utensil spotlessly clean, every day, every hour?

“That kind of stress is necessary!” he exclaims. “That way you avoid falling into a routine, which is the worst thing that could happen.”

At nearly 60 years of age, that appetite for stress is pushing him to open a hotel. “My family asks why I get myself into these messes, but I say that when I die I’ll be dead, so in the meantime I welcome a mess!”

Perhaps the most different of the six three-star restaurants is Racó de Can Fabes, in Sant Celoni, and run by Santi Santamaría, who owns another restaurant in Madrid with two Michelin stars and another one in Barcelona with one. For one thing, he serves more food on each plate than any of the other five chefs. That might have something to do with his size: he is by far the biggest of them all, and closest to the stereotypical image of a fat, epicurean cook.

Spain’s most venerable chef, Juan Mari Arzak

The other difference is that at Racó, what you see is what you get. If the menu says ham and melon, then you are served ham and melon. If you order squid, what appears on the plate is clearly a marine creature with tentacles, as if it had just been picked out of the sea – and rather than being rubbery, it is exquisitely tender.

“Good food was made for shitting it out,” was Santamaría’s controversial war cry at a recent food symposium in Madrid. He was being deliberately provocative, making fun of what he sees as the unnatural, technological excesses of what has been termed as the Spanish cuisine revolution. Santamaría stands at the opposite end of the spectrum as Adrià. He is more in tune with the French tradition (all seven kinds of bread he offers are homemade) and he is proud to make truly Catalan dishes with the best local produce. Adrià looks down on bread and only serves it when a client asks for it, and finds inspiration in cuisine from all over the world. The big difference between both menus is that Adrià’s food is urinated out, while Santamaría’s is defecated.

Santamaría’s restaurant is located in a tiny village, as is Martín Berasategui’s. This Basque chef chose Lasarte as his headquarters for the simple reason that his wife, Oneka, is from there.

“I am extremely hardworking,” he confides, to explain how he manages the pressure of running one of Spain’s only three-star restaurants. “I go to bed at 1am and get up at 6.30am. I stay in the kitchen all day, except for a pause between 5 and 7pm. And this is no stress at all. The main thing is that I have a great team, and a perfect family. I concentrate on the food, and that is not hard at all.”

His background is traditional – he learned from his father, a butcher, and his aunt, who ran a restaurant in San Sebastián called Bodegón Alejandro. “There are no limits to my creativity, but my roots are Basque,” he adds. “If a Japanese person comes here, I want him or her to feel what Basque food is, just as I would want to feel what Japanese food is like when I go to Japan.”

Yet Berasategui, 47, is closer to Adrià than to Santamaría. His 15-dish menu is rife with aromas, foams and infusions, while there are few items there to be “defecated.” His small seafood and meat dishes look like what they are supposed to be, but they give the impression of having been deprived of all fat and cholesterol.

“I like to cook like this,” he says. “I don’t want someone to come to my restaurant and enjoy himself for two hours, then suffer for the next 14.”

Not too far from there, in San Sebastián, sits Arzak, the first restaurant to obtain three Michelin stars in Spain. When you walk through the door, you feel like you’re walking into a family home, not a fancy food hall. And that is in fact what it is: Juan Mari Arzak was born here, just like his parents. His daughter Elena is his right hand in the kitchen and will inherit the business when he retires. Everyone here acts as if they were cousins, siblings, aunts – very unlike the atmosphere at El Bulli.

The food is delicious, a combination of old and new complemented by a wine list with 2,600 entries that would make any great French restaurant jealous. His laboratory also features a big machine called a lyophiliser that can turn a piece of hake into dust. A young technician explains that this machine can freeze dry anything, removing the water but preserving the minerals and nutrients. For the last four years, it has been an essential part of Arzak’s kitchen.

A German woman named Ulla is eating alone at a nearby table at Arzak’s. She leans over and says: “This is the best food I have ever had! The attention to detail, the presentation, the atmosphere, the service, which is not pretentious nor phony! And the military discipline that you know is behind it all… But above all, the food! It’s so good I feel like crying!”

Only one woman chef holds three Michelin stars, and that is Carme Ruscalleda, who presides over Sant Pau, a restaurant in Sant Pol de Mar, near Barcelona. Each one of her dishes is a small work of art, and attacking her plates with a fork or a spoon would be something akin to vandalism, almost psychopathic – like taking a knife to a Monet watercolor. Touching, much less eating, dishes such as her prawn salad should be forbidden. The “salad” comes in a small transparent box made of hardened gelatine the size of a golf ball. Inside, in a condensed form, are all the flavours of the sea and the land: shrimp, olives, basil and vinegar.

The surroundings are very important here. The dining room is right above the kitchen, and has views on a Mediterranean landscape with the sea at the far end. Ruscalleda describes her own food as “art made to be devoured.”

“This food should make people feel voracious,” she says. “It would be a pity if people left and said ‘It was just food’.”

[December 2007]

[Copyright EL PAÍS, SL. / JOHN CARLIN 2007]

Subject: Spanish news