By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
To eat at El Bulli, chef Ferran Adrià's justifiably famous avant-garde restaurant two hours outside Barcelona, is to enter something of a gustatory trance. You experience spheres that look and taste like olives but are liquid inside, an edible orchid, chocolate that is neither sweet nor bitter, crunchy freeze-dried strawberries with buffalo milk, and two kinds of razor clams: one real, one faux.
And that's just the start of a 35-course journey to previously unmapped continents in the world of flavors and textures.
This food tastes wonderful, but it is hard to find words to describe it. We have terms for basic flavors (salty, sweet, bitter, sour) and textures (soft, crunchy, brittle), but it is more difficult to explain the interaction between taste and mouth feel, or the effect of surprise, perhaps the most important single ingredient at El Bulli. How can you convince someone who has never tasted tuna marrow that it is delicious?
I didn't snap out of my trance until a bit of wobbly beet-and-rosewater jelly slipped out of my hand and onto my white shirt. No attempt was made to remove the stain; Adrià signed the shirt for me instead. (I didn't clean it, and I never will.)
Once home, I had a reaction similar to mourning, as if I had been allowed into an enchanted garden for one evening and had then seen the iron gate close irrevocably behind me when I left. I had gone to the world's best restaurant, one that inspires half a million people to compete for a chance at the season's 6,750 available seats, and all I got was this stained shirt.
In my search for another entrance to the garden, I have been experimenting with El Bulli-inspired cooking at home.
Few restaurants have been as influential and as surrounded by myths, but one of the secrets behind El Bulli's success is that there is no secret. Although the food seems more like something created by a magician's wand than by cooks in a kitchen, the magic formula behind it is available to all. Each culinary invention there is carefully documented and described in massive, highly instructive and incredibly expensive cookbooks. (Some weigh more than 15 pounds and cost about $250.)
The techniques are not as impossible as they might seem, even for the liquid olives and artificial razor clams. The mechanism behind them is light years away from everyday cooking but still within reach of us mortals. All the chemicals for this "spherification" are used in the food industry and are commercially available, either by sourcing them from large-scale producers in the food industry or by buying Adrià's own stiffly priced but nicely packaged range of products, Texturas El Bulli. It is a food-loving adult's version of the home chemistry kit.
Playing with the combination of alginates and hydrochloride from my Texturas kit, I was able to make fairly good spheres myself. For a few days I did little else, creating sweet versions with strawberry, rum, cream and custard, firm on the outside but with a liquid interior, and savory varieties such as one with reduced stock and crisp pancetta served as a small surprise inside a light-tasting fennel and potato soup.
There were fragments, flavors and textures similar to those I had in Spain, but the masterly complexity of El Bulli dishes was lacking, and it made me realize how much work the 42 cooks there put into every dish. In truth my spheres were rather rubbery, like a party trick that was gradually less impressive each time it was repeated. After a few days, not only my family and friends, but even I, longed for some sort of normalcy at the table.
So what could I do? I got in touch with Adrià and asked him for advice. It was not all that uplifting.
"I think high gastronomy cannot be exported to home cooking," he said. "With the big infrastructure of equipment, installations and teamwork needed, that would be impossible at home."
What kind of cooking does he do at home?
"Normally I'm not at home. If I must cook at home, I like simple things, like grilled fish and vegetables."
But he did offer a little consolation: "It is true that some of my findings can be used at home; for example the siphons for making foams and sodas. But the real important thing is the philosophy that it is always better with a good sardine than a bad lobster."
So rather than copy the most-advanced techniques, I tried to use the El Bulli approach: to make food that challenges my perceptions; to gently tweak the way I cook, rather than to revolutionize. I abandoned the chemist-in-the-kitchen approach for something simpler, more sardinelike.
Using a combination of gelatin or agar-agar and frozen canola oil, you can make small, caviar-like droplets flavored by anything you like. I am not sure how useful or groundbreaking the technique is, but it is surely simple, and it is no doubt a different way to serve soy sauce and lemon on a piece of gently poached salmon.
And, remembering a small pre-dessert I got at Les Ambassadeurs in Paris, made with the El Bulli range of unusual textures, I made a chocolate dessert with popping candy. (I used Pop Rocks.) You don't have to be a child to appreciate the way the crunchy dessert explodes in your mouth, but it helps to remember having been one once.
Playing with a cream whipper, in my case a $45 Isi Mini Whip with a carbon dioxide charger, I could turn almost everything into foam. And when I got tired of that, I tried a technique suggested by blogger Martin Lersch on his Web site http://www.khymos.org: making sparkling grapes. When you fill the cream whipper with the fruit and then charge it with CO2, the high pressure will, over time, infuse the grapes, leaving them carbonated inside for a couple of minutes after they are released.
It is not exactly like having chef Adrià in the kitchen, but it gives you that feeling of making and tasting something that you never knew existed, a glimpse into a wonderland that exists outside the limits of normal everyday cooking. Proudly I put on my El Bulli shirt and said what Adrià had told me, as if they were my own words: "One of the most important things when cooking is having a bit of fun."
Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and co-host of the upcoming public television series "Perfect Day," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. His Gastronomer column appears monthly.