Looking back at the highlights of my life, dining at El Bulli is in my Top 10 experiences.
In 2004 a surge of newspaper and magazine articles lauded the revolutionary cuisine being served in the restaurants of Northern Spain, all naming El Bulli as the most outstanding of the bunch. The chef, Ferran Adria, graced the cover of nearly every publication. At the time the restaurant was receiving over 400,000 reservation requests annually, of which only 8,000 were granted. And that was before it hit the mainstream radar.
Bored with the monotony of everyday life, I hand-wrote letters – on personalized stationery — to Ferran and the owner, and sent them to both El Bulli in Roses and their laboratory in Barcelona. I may have mentioned being a single, female traveler who would be flying (solo) from Chicago to Spain for the sole purpose of experiencing their culinary mastery. And that I had one year to live. And it would be a shame if I died a virgin.
Two weeks later I received an e-mail informing me that my request for a reservation was confirmed.
After a colonic, 36 hours of fasting, three planes, a train, and a bus, I finally arrived in Roses. Took a nap, dressed for dinner, and met my car. No way was I driving: actually getting to El Bulli was about as difficult as securing a reservation. The restaurant was wedged into the side of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and the approach to it consisted of several blind, single-lane, hairpin curves necessitating drivers traveling in both directions to honk and flash their lights before risking the bends they shared. Foreplay for the evening ahead.
I was granted a tour of the El Bulli kitchen when I arrived — every diner is — but I did not spy Ferran, much to my dismay. My meal lasted from 8:00 p.m. (dorkily early, by Spanish standards), lasted four hours, and at no point was I remotely distracted. Granted, I had informed my sommelier not to go easy on me, to pair wine with each course as he deemed fit. All 31 courses.
The El Bulli experience? A cross between Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, 50 Shades of Gray, Dr. Seuss and 9 1/2 Weeks. A daliesque-gustatory-marathon-slash-culinary-adventure-slash-sado-masochistic-surrender. Scary, and exciting, and ultimately draining? As the guest/victim/audience/food slave, I was expected to relinquish control and succumb to the mad genius of Ferran.
The twisted fun began with a martini glass spilling over with cotton candy. My server drizzled it with a magical liquid, transforming the fluff into a piña colada. Yay! No sooner did I finish one dish than another, more bizarre number followed: itty-bitty spherical scoops of cantaloupe disguised as caviar, served in a tin; foams extracted from rose petals; pine nut-infused snow; glistening orbs balanced on coke spoons; a Chinese finger cuff formed of spun sugar, gifted to me in an elaborate box. I was ordered to extend my index finger as the utensil for the device/delicacy, and a good submissive, I did.
“It is very important that you eat this in one bite!” commanded my server, presenting me with a ball of dough the size of a grown man’s fist. I stuffed it in my mouth.
“It is very important that you eat this now!” he barked. I did. Oil squirted from the amber capsule (topped with edible gold foil) down my chin, across the table and into the air in a graceful arc.
About halfway through the meal I was warned, “The menu gets interesting now.” I won’t even attempt to describe the delicious torture that followed.
I stumbled out of the restaurant at midnight, in a spent, drunken daze, and awaited my driver. It was a little dizzy out that evening, so I took a seat on the steps. Steadying my lolling head on my hand, I glanced through the window beside me. There sat Ferran, the Master of my meal. I looked over his shoulder as he paged through a magazine at his desk, so close to him that I followed right along. Then after several minutes, intuiting that he was being observed, he turned around. Stared straight at me. Smiled collusively. I smiled back.