Booking a table is already a frenzied affair at the world's most celebrated restaurant, but this year an accompanying dish of desperation will make it even more fraught. Having been awarded three Michelin stars and declared the best restaurant in the world for four years in succession, El Bulli is to close after the 2011 season.
The head chef, Ferran Adria, wants to devote himself to compiling an encyclopaedia of the dishes served at his restaurant, so he will have too little time to cook for the paying public. El Bulli must shut for at least for two years.
The decision to hand back his Michelin stars will give Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, the chance to reclaim its crown as the world's finest. For the last four years El Bulli has been voted the world's best by the magazine Restaurant.
At El Bulli, in Roses on the north-eastern coast of Spain, every seat is booked within an hour of the next year's diary being opened. There are up to 2 million requests for its 52 seats – or 8,000 seats when spread across the season – and for every successful applicant there are hundreds more disappointed. Each meal costs about £200 per person, yet every seat for 2010 has long been taken, and when email booking for 2011 opens later this year any gourmets hoping to dine there will know that if they miss out this time they will have to wait until at least 2014.
Mr Adria won his reputation by creating dishes from a fusion of culinary imagination and scientific experimentation. He has cited exhaustion from years of working 15 hours a day as one of the factors that has led him to make the decision to close, and a desire to be able to spend more time with his family and lead a more normal life.
He said: "During this time, all the know-how about elaborations, techniques and styles acquired after 30 years of creative research will be analysed, and the results of said work will be compiled in a comprehensive and thorough encyclopedia."
The restaurant will continue to be the base for researching new dishes.
Creations in the years since he took over as head chef at El Bulli in 1987 include ravioli made from squid and freeze-dried foie gras, lamb's brains with sea urchins and sea-grapes, blood orange foam with tomato sorbet, and the substitution of agar-agar jelly for gelatine because it was found it could be used at higher temperatures.
His technique has been described as molecular cuisine because he uses hi-tech methods in which ingredients are "deconstructed" and reassembled in unexpected ways.
While some critics describe his food as the best they have tasted, he has been criticised as elitist and pretentious. Andy Hayler, who became the first person to eat at all 68 three-starred Michelin restaurants in 2008, dismissed it as "Harry Potter food" which is designed to show off to other chefs.