It’s 6:30 in the evening in Cala Montjoi, not quite 20 miles south of the French border in the Catalan region of Spain, and the 40 chefs, dining room staffers, and stagiaires (kitchen apprentices) at El Bulli—which has been called the greatest restaurant in the world—are sitting down to a dinner of frozen-foie-gras-fat tagliatelle and dill soup with sea anemone, rabbit brains, and oysters….
Actually, no they’re not. Those are among the creations that diners at this one-of-a-kind establishment, the preserve of the renowned chef Ferran Adrià, will be enjoying (or not, as the case may be) later in the evening. The staff, perched on plastic chairs hastily pulled up around long stainless steel work tables in the middle of the kitchen, is eating potato soup with croutons, wild mushrooms sautéed with tiny meatballs, and chocolate ice cream. I’ve been invited to join them tonight, and I can report that it’s all very, very good.
“I guarantee that El Bulli feeds its people like no other restaurant,” says Adrià. “How else would we convey to a young chef one of the most important principles of our métier: that he must look out for himself in order to look out for others?”
The kitchen at El Bulli runs with incredible precision: Earlier in the evening, for instance, I’d watched as eight or ten stagiaires stood around one of the same tables at which they’re now eating and painstakingly removed and separated the individual thread-like stems from heaps of golden enoki mushrooms (they were to be cooked like fideus, the short Catalan pasta)—a task which occupied them for more than an hour. But precision is one thing. The word that comes to mind is “obsession” when I learn that already—this is only September, 2008—the menu for every single staff meal to be served during El Bulli’s six-month season in 2009 has been planned.
Thus I can report than on July 30 of next year, employees of the restaurant will be sitting down to Caesar salad and teriyaki pork loin with polenta. On August 21, the menu offers pasta Bolognese and the Yucatán slow-roasted suckling pig dish called cochinita pibil. On September 19, it’ll be gazpacho and risotto alla gorgonzola. On November 11, it’s back to Mexico, with “Mexican rice” followed by chicken mole and guacamole—“But the real guacamole,” Adrià stresses, “because guacamole can be very bad.”
The dishes are all classic (even Waldorf salad makes an appearance on several occasions), and obviously not necessarily Spanish. And there’s nothing haphazard about their preparation. “Sometimes we even test alternate recipes,” says Juli Soler, the co-proprietor of El Bulli, who runs the front of the house. “We tried four or five different ways of making pesto, for instance, to be sure we had the right one. We are very, very well organized.” He pauses, then adds with a smile, “To the point of madness.”
In fact, one chef in the kitchen devotes most of his time to nothing but the staff meals. But he’s not the real boss of this domain. “I concern myself with what the staff eats first of all,” says Adrià. And then, as if concerned that I don’t quite believe him, he adds, “No, really. I cook traditional food very well.”