The last supper: El Bulli closes its doors

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Famous for its 34-course dinners and the million-strong waiting list, El Bulli could have gone on forever: instead, chef Ferran Adria is closing it tonight. John Walsh looks back at 24 years of extraordinary taste innovations

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. And it must be said, what seemed inspired, magical and cutting-edge in the 1990s has lost some of its wow factor in the 2010s, when foams, spumes and frizzes can now be found in the kitchens of provincial hotels, and when our home-grown Adria, Heston Blumenthal, has stamped his name on the concept of molecular gastronomy. 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". But it took a while to get that way.

It was built by a German doctor called Hans Schilling who, with his wife Marketta, discovered the picturesque cove of Cala Montjoi on Spain's Costa Brava, two hours' drive north of Barcelona in the late 1950s. They bought five acres of land as a money-making venture, built a mini-golf course and added a snack bar on the beach. When the golf course failed to find many takers, they converted the snack bar into a restaurant and named it after Marketta's French bulldogs.

When it opened its door in 1964, it was singularly unpromising. It had no telephone. The road to the nearest village, Roses, was atrociously rough, rocky and pitted, so much so that the village shops refused to deliver produce. It took El Bulli a decade to hit its prize-winning stride, when the Schillings signed up Jean-Louis Neichel to be their chef in 1975. The young Frenchman won his first Michelin star a year later. The next chef, Jean-Paul Vinay, added a second star in 1983 – the same year that Ferran Adria happened by.

He was 21, the son of a Barcelonan plasterer and a mother who ran a beauty parlour. A keen footballer, and high school drop-out, he'd done his military service in an admiral's kitchen, where he met Fermi Puig, a young chef; the two young Turks taught themselves classic French cuisine, displayed a remarkable aptitude for it, and Fermi suggested Adria try working for El Bulli because it had two Michelin stars. Adria later recalled that at the time he had no idea what that meant. But he made the pilgrimage, as so many other chefs (especially British ones) have done, joined the staff in 1983 and became sole chef de cuisine in 1987.

That year, he had his Road-to-Damascus moment. Inspired by a lecture from the French chef Jacques Maximin – who made such dishes as duck mousse inside turnip-petal ravioli and whose watchword was "creativity means not copying" – Adria threw himself into experimentation. El Bulli was closed for six months while he closeted himself away with a battery of machines and a head full of ideas. "To cook well," he once wrote, "it is essential to learn history, techniques, products, tradition and innovation, culinary processes... and then to think, discuss, try out, reflect, choose..." With his brother, Albert, who joined El Bulli as a pastry chef in 1985, Adria transformed himself into a Dr Jekyll-style lab rat. He experimented with hydrocollids, which transform fruit purée into a dense gel. He toyed with thickening agents such as Xanthan gum and algin. He played with freeze-drying, spherification (which puts a skin around liquids), Pacojets and liquid nitrogen.

He would try anything. In a recent biography by Colman Andrews, there's a charming vignette of Adria standing in the kitchen, holding a bowl of almond-milk gelatine and looking meaningfully at a pot of boiling oil on the stove. One by one his colleagues, guessing what he has in mind, began to shout, "No, Ferran! Don't do it!" Too late. He threw in the gelatine and the mixture exploded.

He has come up with more than 1,200 dishes over the last 24 years. The El Bulli catalogue of ingredients and recipes runs to 8,000 pages. And, it must be said, not all have been greeted with unalloyed delight. There were surprisingly few takers for his "Sea Anemone 2008," which interestingly combined sea anemones and oysters with raw rabbit brains.

From 1987, however, his reputation grew and grew. In 1996, the year before Adria won his third Michelin star, the great Joël Robuchon announced that he was the finest chef on the planet, and nominated the Spanish maestro as his "heir", an adoption that went down badly with French haute-cuisineurs. Other chefs, even the famously combative Gordon Ramsay, concurred. In 2006, Restaurant magazine dubbed El Bulli the world's best restaurant, a title it held until it was toppled by the Copenhagen-based Noma in 2010.

Adria's success, however, never translated into riches. He never expanded El Bulli. It continued to feed just 50 people per session, while employing 42 chefs in the gleaming kitchen. Although it received over two millions 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 – taking all the bookings on a single day – 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.

"In 2001 when El Bulli was becoming very well known," he told Jay McInerney in a Vanity Fair interview last October, "the logical thing would have been to open year-round. But for us, the most important thing was creativity. So we decided to close for lunch, and the level of creativity kept getting higher. But at some point I realised we wouldn't be able to evolve as a restaurant."

So what happens now? After tonight's valedictory blow-out, and the last 50 diners polish off the final spheroidal lychee, 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."

In a very perverse move, that will have foodies all over the world scratching their heads, Adria is bringing out a new book this October – but it's not what you'd expect at all. The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria (Phaidon) is a plain-as-a-pikestaff guide to simple cuisine (spaghetti with tomato and basil, salt cod with braised vegetables) that features 1,500 colour illustrations and step-by-step instructions, as though for slightly dim children.

It's a world away from the stratospheric inventions and mad-scientist visions of his Catalonian laboratory. Many people will feel it's a shocking anti-climax that the man who woke up the world to whole new forms of gastronomy should close down his operation; that he should retreat from the actual business of serving food to hungry humans, into the chilly back room with the microscopes and enzyme-buffers.

But 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."

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