As announcements go, it was like David Bowie telling his fans in 1973, at the end of the Aladdin Sane tour, that his career was at an end. It was like Garbo explaining, after Two-Faced Woman, that she wanted to be left alone, but permanently. To food lovers everywhere it was akin to the announcing of the Crack of Doom. In January 2010, Ferran Adria, attending a ceremony in his honour at the Madrid Fusion food festival, announced that he would be closing El Bulli, his world-famous, world-conquering restaurant, for two years.
As the gastronomic world pondered this chasmal hiatus in its future plans, and gourmands from Brest-Litovsk to Bristol sprang to the phones to try to score a last-ditch reservation, Adria followed up with a secondary announcement: that he'd be shutting the place permanently.
Since then, he has delivered maddeningly contradictory statements about the future of his brainchild – he told me last November that "Bulli 2014" as he called it would be "a centre for creativity," but later talked about reopening as a simple tapas bar – but one thing's for sure: tonight, 50 lucky diners will sit down to the last supper of the old El Bulli style, and a phenomenal chapter in the history of cooking will be closed.
What's all the fuss about? It's about a 34-course eating experience, far too rarified and polytextural to be called anything as mundane as "dinner", in which the human tastebuds are put through the most strenuous workout of their lives. Guests are given things to eat that they've never dreamt of, tastes they've never glimpsed before, combinations of flavours so outré and bizarre that the human brain struggles to process them.
You can start with a dry martini, which involves an intensely olive-flavoured sphere (of, since you ask, pulped olives reconstituted without the pith) being placed on your tongue which is then sprayed with gin and vermouth from a silver atomiser. You may continue with a deconstructed Spanish omelette – a sherry glass containing potato foam, onion puree and egg-white sabayon topped with deep-fried potato crumbs.
Try some of this bread – oh sorry, it's actually asparagus. See these tiny orange caviar balls? They're the most fabulously honeyed melon you've ever tasted. Lick this square of clingfilm and you discover it's made of (and tastes vividly of) peas. If the passion fruit soup on your spoon tastes unusually dense, it's because it's made from seawater. Do you enjoy a cigarette at the end of your meal? You must try Adria's tobacco-flavoured blackberry crushed ice. Fancy some cheese? Here's some Parmesan foam to send you on your way...
Yes, well. For every foodie who ever clapped his or her hands in delight at such alchemy, such hectic prestidigitation, there have been many others who've dismissed it with an oath. Adria's critics call his experiments precious, tiresome, pretentious and tricksy, more about showing off than preparing edible meals.
But El Bulli still stands as a monument to cooking at its most conceptually sublime. It's been described as "the most imaginative generator of haute cuisine on the planet".
Adria's success never translated into riches, however. He never expanded El Bulli. It continued to feed just 50 people per session. Although it received more than 2m requests for reservations a year, it fed only 8,000 patrons annually. Did I say annually? Adria closed the place for half the year. He opened for business only from June to October and spent the rest of the time experimenting in the kitchen-laboratory he calls El Taller.
He could have charged any sum and punters would have paid it for the unique experience, but he charged a flat €250 (£220) per meal. As a result, El Bulli has operated at a loss for the last decade, though Adria enjoys a tidy second income from selling books – especially the massively detailed A Day at El Bulli.
So what happens now? After tonight's valedictory blow-out, El Bulli will be no more.
The place will remain as an experimental zone, with little for the foodie to put in his mouth and chew.
"The Taller, the workshop, has long been a centre of creativity," Adria told me. "But it will now go on year-round. The team will be bigger, it'll be like a private foundation, and they will share the results of their work online. They will create and someday, somebody will try out what they've done. We must have some kind of feedback. But the mission is to be creative."
That's genius for you. "The mission is to be creative," he told me for the umpteenth time. "It's like investigating new material for chairs. Asking who is going to sit on them isn't important. What's important is to keep on researching."Reuse content