Inside Next El Bulli | The Food (part 3 of 3)

In anticipation of Next's El Bulli menu (which starts tonight), TOC embedded writer Heather Shouse in the Next kitchen as they held...

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Photograph: Christian Seel

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In anticipation of Next's El Bulli menu (which starts tonight), TOC embedded writer Heather Shouse in the Next kitchen as they held their friends-and-family service (a.k.a. "practice nights,"). The first post in this three-part series covers Next El Bulli’s unique service component; the second post covers the beverage pairings; this one delves into the food.

Grant,

Muchas gracias a ti por todo el cariño hacia elBulli. Estamos muy ilusionados con el menú que vas a preparar en Next. El video es emocionante! Nos ha gustado mucho. Por favor, si necesitas algo, no dudes en decírmelo.

El miércoles pasado inauguramos la exposición sobre elBulli y estamos entusiasmados. Esta siendo un éxito y a quedado fantástica.

Te paso un link para que veas como ha quedado: http://www.gastroeconomy.com/2012/02/de-palau-robert-a-elbullipedia-en-diez-pasos/

En cuanto tenga un vídeo, también te lo pasaré.

Un fuerte abrazo y el mejor de los éxitos,

Ferran

Google translation of the above:

Grant,

Thank you very much to you for all the love to elBulli. We are very excited about the menu that you prepare at Next. The video is exciting! We liked it. Please, if you need anything, please tell me.

Last Wednesday inaugurated the exhibition and we are excited at elBulli for this being a success and to become great. I sent a link so you can see as it has been: http://www.gastroeconomy.com/2012/02/de-palau-robert-a-elbullipedia-en-diez-pasos/

When you have your video, also you will pass.

A big hug and best of success,

Ferran

“If you need anything, please tell me.” So said the email from Ferran Adria to Grant Achatz. What the kitchen staff of Next needed a week ago was the recipe for elBulli’s famed gorgonzola sphere. They didn’t get it.

“They were setting up the exhibit in Barcelona and they were, I’m sure, incredibly busy so they kind of went off the grid,” chef Achatz says. “We had four recipes that we needed from them because they weren’t in any of the books. But [the elBulli guys] kind of disappeared. So Dave was like ‘I need these recipes, I really need these recipes’ and I’m like ‘I emailed them twice, I don’t know what to tell ya’ and his response was like ‘fuck it, I’ll just figure it out.’ Literally he goes ‘how hard can it be?’”

And did it work?

“Well,” Achatz replies. “It was good. It was pretty much the same thing.”

“I mean, it was 50 grams off,” Dave Beran says. “I used ice cream stabilizer instead of xantham gum, but otherwise…"

“Otherwise it was pretty much the same thing,” Achatz says.

“But then they came through with the recipe and now we’re going with theirs. But you gotta learn how to do it or else how do you know?”

So began the process of recreating elBulli in Chicago at Next Restaurant with a team of 11 cooks, compared to a battalion of nearly 70 who staffed the Spanish stronghold that inspired this menu. The task of cherry-picking and recreating the most influential dishes of modern cooking (which some would call the foundation of molecular gastronomy, whether or not you like or even approve of the term) is daunting to say the least, but here in the Next kitchen, the staff seems unfazed. The room hums with activity, as chef Beran methodically pushes granny smith apples into a juicer and discusses how to keep their grassy-green color (flash-freeze to stave off oxidation before poaching), chef Achatz trims the brown bits off the ends of mung beans with surgeon-like precision and sous chef Rene DeLeon cuts quarter-inch slits into croquette wrappers encasing chicken goo that will liquefy into deliciousness when they hit hot oil, just as they did when Ferran Adria invented them on the Catalan coast of Spain in 1998.

It’s been less than a week since the last meal of Next’s Childhood cycle was served. That was a Sunday, Monday was a day off, and Tuesday the crew gathered back in the kitchen to begin preparations for Wednesday’s first round of putting up dishes solely for staff scrutiny. On Friday, about 40 people filed in for the first friends-and-family dinner. On Saturday the number hopped up to 54 and by Sunday the engine is running full-throttle with 62 seats packed with people experiencing the full 29 courses of Next elBulli...precisely one week since the kitchen was in its completely different, youthful, nostalgic mindset. Now, they’re in Ferran Adria’s world, fully immersed in the mind of the undisputed modern master of culinary advancement, and they seem to be doing just fine.

“Rene [DeLeon] and I were antiquing in Michigan for [the] Paris [menu] and talking about elBulli and how we could do it and the idea came up of elBulli regression,” Beran explains. “For the most part when they come up with a new idea or a new concept they tack it on to the front side of the menu, so if you started with their newest dishes and worked backwards through their history, the progression should work because all of their new stuff is early on in the menu and all their old stuff is late. So we started talking about a course from every year but what we realized a couple months ago is that if we did that, we lose Albert [Adria, Ferran’s brother and elBulli’s pastry chef]. Because all of the desserts would be at the end of the menu, where the oldest things would go, but Albert really started to find his feet ten years in, and you can’t omit something that significant. So instead we decided to show a really strong representation of what they do, with key points: the first foam, the first hot foam, the first gel, alginate balls, things like that.”

Without looking up from his mung bean prep, Achatz adds, “Another thing I thought was very important when we were constructing the menu is taking into consideration the American palate. In Spain, they eat sea urchin like they’re SweeTarts. People here don’t, and they don’t really want rabbit brains. They just don’t.”

And of course there are the personal, visceral connections to elBulli, the dishes that Achatz prepared during his stage there in 2000 and the “a-ha” moments from the meal Achatz and Beran shared there in 2007. For Beran it’s the nasturtium dish with smoked eel and bone marrow, which at this moment has yet to make it onto any of the staff practice menus or the friends-and-family dinners because the recipe was just procured hours ago. (“I’ll figure it out Tuesday latest, and we’ll have it on the menu Wednesday for sure,” he says.) For Achatz it’s the multi-component cauliflower couscous, the braised rabbit with hot apple gelee and foie gras, and the cuttlefish coconut ravioli. “This coconut ravioli dish I’m prepping for now, the actual wrapper is very, very thinly sliced cuttlefish that you wrap around coconut milk, which is a really cool technique back in 1997 when they came up with it, but the garnishes, literally, are four mung beans, soy sauce, mint oil, done,” Achatz says. “People think elBulli is inherently more complex, but while this menu is longer, I would say the individual dishes in Childhood were more complex. At elBulli they hone in on one technique, one really cool thing on the plate and then three or four garnishes and then that’s pretty much it. Whereas at Alinea or Childhood, you see four guys with tweezers putting all these garnishes on the plate. This isn’t that.”

Still, the elBulli menu is technically complicated and across-the-board revolutionary, regarded by most in the industry with even a vague interest in progressive cooking as the point of reference. But even if you are Grant Achatz, even if you’ve appeared on Oprah, even if the world knows your story and your restaurant was named the best in the world by every media outlet still printing (and one notable publication that's not), how do you get approval, let alone guidance, in honoring a legendary global dining destination dish by dish, bite by bite? 

“My relationship with Ferran is really solid,” Achatz says. “And once he came here and ate when he was on his book tour he was like ‘you guys can do whatever you want.’ He had been to Alinea and we had become friends but he didn’t really know the level of what we’re doing here at Next, so once he saw it firsthand when he sat at the kitchen table and he saw the guys working he was like ‘all right they can do it.’ And Dave and I knew that we can.”

Here is the almost-final menu for Next El Bulli:

 

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