Laboratory Door

by Kelly Snowden

Ten years ago, you had to go to El Bulli to sample dishes like avocado foam or apple caviar. But that was before Ferran Adrià of El Bulli transformed the culinary landscape of Spain and the world, bringing science and a playful sensibility to food and dining. Now his experiments are re-interpreted in countless dishes spanning almost every culture. This spring a peak into the laboratory revealed what could be the next culinary invention to grace diners' plates: fruit pasta and solid yogurt balls.


A wall full of spices in the El Bulli restaurant laboratory kitchen on

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 Adriá in the conference room the the El Bulli restaurant laboratory on

Albert Adrià in the
conference room of the El
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 menu.

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 on

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 menu.

The conference room of the El Bulli restaurant laboratory, covered with 
charts of ideas for next year's menu on

The conference room of the El Bulli restaurant laboratory, covered with
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.

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   Published: June 2006