Book Review: A Day at elBulli
Last night I stuffed myself into a room at Per Se, got on my tippy toes and peered over the heads of the glitteratti of the food world to see Ferran Adrià, the world-famous chef of Spain’s elBulli restaurant, talk about his new book, A Day at elBulli: An Insight Into the Ideas, Methods and Creativity of Ferran Adrià (Phaidon).
Though it contains recipes, A Day at elBulli is not a cookbook. It is a heavily photographic look at what goes into a day at the restaurant, from sunrise to the wee hours of the following morning when the floors are being mopped. In short, it’s a gorgeous book and anyone with a fascination for culinary creativity will get a total kick out of it.
A little about elBulli:
elBulli has been open since 1964. Andrià has been on staff since 1984. It is located in Spain in the northern coastal province of Girona, close to the French border. It is open from April until October each year. Andrià spends the remaining six months of the year in his workshop in Barcelona dreaming up dishes for the coming season.
A meal at elBulli is an event: with 28-32 courses, it is a set menu (vegetarians are accommodated) with only one seating since it takes around five hours to consume. Two million requests are made each year for the 8,000 spots available. The meal costs 200 Euro, not including drinks, which is $271 US Dollars with today’s exchange rate.
A little on why you should care:
Most of us will never eat at elBulli and consider ourselves in a different league both as eaters and cooks. Personally, fussing over my food with science just isn’t my style (not to mention my skill set.) Still, what makes this book such an inspiration is how deeply it goes into the philosophy behind Ferran Andrià’s cooking. Put aside any nitrogen tank-inspired intimidation and look for passages like the insert at page 40 titled “Creativity Means Not Copying” and pay attention to the portraits of dinner guests enjoying their meals to see one important tenant of Andrià’s style: “The principal aim of a dish is to give pleasure to diners in the conventional ways as well as in more unusual ones.” To think, even just a little, the way Adrià thinks would make even an amateur cook an innovator.
The photograph above is of an invention called Pumpkin Oil Sweet, using a technique whereby oil can be encased in a thin brittle layer of a melted sugar substitute called Isomalt that melts rapidly in the mouth, leaving a burst of oil. I tried an olive oil version of this last night. Insane.
While you’ll be hard pressed to find many recipes you can make in your own kitchen, there are a few you might be able to navigate. Below you’ll find the recipe for Pineapple/Fennel, and for that you’ll need no gelatin papers or nitrogen tanks. For more inspiration for the average guy (like me and you) see the profile of the staff’s family meal on page 219 (how does Macaroni Carbonara and Cauliflower au gratin sound?) and read through the pull-out sections on shopping in the local markets and those in Barcelona.
One criticism: What makes this book a little annoying is that it is beyond cumbersome: 528 thick glossy pages make for a seven pound confection. There is no other place for this book but your coffee table.
One hope: That Adrià or someone like him one day writes a cookbook inspired by this kind of cooking, but aimed at those of us who don’t routinely stock ascorbic acid and liquid nitrogen in our pantries.
1 x 60 g (1 lb 7 oz) pineapple
1. Slice off both ends of the pineapple and cut off the skin.
2. Cut into 40 5 x 1.2 cm (1/2 inch) batons.
Pineapple infused with fennel and star anise
40 pineapple batons, previously prepared
1 handful fresh fennel fronds
5 star anise seeds
1. Wash the fennel thoroughly in cold water.
2. Put the fennel and star anise in a container.
3. Place the pineapple batons over the fennel and star anise, leaving space between them so that they will be completely infused with the aroma. Then cover the pineapple with another layer of fennel and star anise.
4. Cover the container with an airtight lid and refrigerate for 7 hours.
FINISHING AND PRESENTATION
1. Just before serving, open the container and separate the pineapple batons.
2. Take some fennel sprigs from the container and fill 10 black bowls.
3. Arrange 4 pineapple batons in each bowl so that they nestle among the fennel and do not touch one another.
4. Finish by placing 3 star anise seeds between the fennel and the pineapple.
5. Serve on a slate accompanied by silver tweezers.
There is another version of this dish using peach instead of pineapple and fresh lavender instead of fresh fennel.
Cutlery: Silver tweezers.
• Buy A Day at elBulli (Amazon, $32.97)