A wall full of spices in
the El Bulli
restaurant laboratory kitchen
The Taller, or workshop, is located
160 kilometers away from El Bulli’s dining
room in a touristy, pedestrian street in the heart of Barcelona.
For six months of the year, the staff gathers here to research
and plan the next year’s menu, a deliberate, step-by-step
process that takes the menu from theory to reality. Thousands
of people, many of whom probably long for a reservation at
the restaurant, walk by the dark, unmarked door every day;
blink and you’ll miss it.
Although El Bulli has been churning
out innovative cuisine for well over a decade, it is only
within the last eight years that the Taller has been
up and running in Barcelona. The space was developed for experimentation,
theory development and menu planning, but it is above all
a kitchen built for no-holds-barred creativity, with the brains
behind it to take advantage of it. Every detail of El
Bulli’s 30-course tasting menu is meticulously
planned, from aperitifs to dessert presentation.
Albert Adrià in the
conference room of the El
Bulli restaurant laboratory
Before the restaurant opened for the season
this year in late March, the laboratory’s entry way
was strewn with dozens of prototypes for plating. The restaurant
has its own industrial designer, and these shapes, made of
materials as diverse as paper, cardboard, aluminum, mesh,
foil, and Lucite, were being considered for the next year.
Paper plates for catering or serving in the restaurant were
made to echo the shape of kitchen molds. Large gold foil wrappers
encircled chocolate balls the size of cantaloupes, meant to
look like giant Ferrero Rocher hazelnut candies. Pastry Chef
Albert Adrià gingerly picked one up and turned it over
to show that it was hollow.
The hollow chocolate ball
inspired by chocolate hazelnut candies in the
El Bulli restaurant laboratory kitchen
“Maybe we’ll fill it with smoke
and smash it at the table,” he said, adding that it,
like everything else there, may or may not make it onto the
The laboratory’s kitchen wasn’t extraordinarily
large, but half of one whole wall was filled with tiny bottles
containing spices and herbs. A workspace held bottles of flavor
essences made in Paris - from mandarin to lavender. A chef
worked at the corner of a Charvet range combining yogurt powder
and starch so that they form a solid hemisphere when baked
for a short period of time in a mold.
“Everything we can, we test with water first,”
said Chef Albert Adrià. “If it works, then we
can add flavor.”
Prototypes from El Bulli's
restaurant industrial designer that are being
considered for next year's plates
The final process of the menu-making, though,
doesn’t even take place in the kitchen but in a conference
room crowded with paperwork and spreadsheets. The small conference
room has vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows, and the
tables and walls are covered with sheets exploring the theory
behind the menu, binders containing logs of kitchen experiments
and charts depicting different cooking methods. It looked
almost like a political war room during the height of campaign
season, but these chefs were campaigning on behalf of innovative
cuisine. Each successful experiment is tasted by Ferran,
photographed and written up. The best are further developed
with garnishes and side dishes.
Still, just weeks before the restaurant
was to open, they did not know what would be on next year’s
The conference room of the
El Bulli restaurant laboratory, covered
charts of ideas for next year's menu
“The first couple of weeks we stick
with the old menu,” said long-time El Bulli
collaborator Chef Oriol Castro. Then they slowly tweak it,
adding in new courses and elements, patiently ironing out
the kinks. It is only a few weeks into the new season that
the entire new menu will have emerged from the fray.
That first week in March the laboratory experimented with
fruit pasta, but Chef Castro wouldn’t give too many
details so that diners can remain in suspense about the new
menu. He hinted that they might be akin to fruit roll-ups.
And as he, Ferran and Albert all rushed off to other
interviews and appointments, the Taller still buzzed.
All this work and dedication to food might seem extreme, but
with more than 600,000 people vying for spots at the restaurant
this season, and only 8,000 getting the nod, nothing less
would cut it.