This Wednesday, February 8, Next Restaurant begins its fourth iteration: Next El Bulli. Pulling off Paris 1906, tackling Thai and channeling Childhood were unique challenges unto themselves, but in this particular shapeshift, Next attempts to recreate perhaps the most storied restaurant in modern times. El Bulli, the gastronomic destination of Spain’s Costa Brava, served its final meal on July 29th of 2011; last week, an exhibit opened in Barcelona detailing the influence and evolution of the restaurant and its genius Catalan chef Ferran Adria. With Next El Bulli, chefs Dave Beran and Grant Achatz are attempting to do the same, but through 28 courses highlighting what they have deemed Adria’s most monumental creations since he took the reigns as El Bulli’s head chef in 1987.
In the first of this three-part series leading up to Next El Bulli’s first dinner, Heather Shouse, who spent the weekend embedded with the Next team as they held their friends-and-family service (a.k.a. "practice nights,"), explores the front of the house. Tomorrow, she'll go into the beverage service. Finally, on Wednesday, she'll delve into the food.
Two servers in street clothes attempt to pass each other without touching in the narrow pathway that leads from Next’s kitchen to its dining room. Seems simple enough, but each holds a plate, one in each hand, that’s been drizzled in olive oil and topped with an upside-down apple half. Again and again they practice maneuvering past each other and setting the plate down on an empty dining table, mindful of the fulcrum their wrists and fingers create to stabilize that slippery apple.
This balance drill is one of many preparations the front-of-the-house staff has taken to get ready for the launch of Next El Bulli, starting with classes that turned the dining room into El Bulli 101. The first week of December, while the Childhood menu was still running in the evening, general manager Will Douillet began a ritual of gathering his crew for lessons a couple days a week. Different staffers were tapped to lead different classes: Those with an interest in wine split up the task of researching and presenting detailed info on various Spanish and French regions, while a history major on staff was put in charge of a series ranging from the evolution of Catalonia to a who’s who of the El Bulli main characters. “Where did [El Bulli chef de cuisine] Oriol Casto work before he worked with Ferran? How old is he? Where did [pastry chef and brother of Ferran] Albert Adria work before he worked with Ferran? These are the things I wanted everyone to know,” says Douillet. “And so we started in a very broad sense, with a map of Europe in the 19th century and the influence of the Gauls and who brought written language there, and then moved into things, such as Ferran’s own feelings of being Catalan over being Spanish and his duty to represent that. [It was all] done in a very visual way, with PowerPoint presentations on a projection screen set up in the dining room…I’m kind of into the details.”
So is the rest of the team, so much so that they worked tirelessly to track down El Bulli serving pieces, scoring some from the restaurant directly but also locating still-in-the-box utensils purchased by European collectors back when Adria had his short-lived line of retail serviceware dubbed Faces. Customization was also employed: Large pieces of black slate were brought in, which servers took hammers to, smashing them into large pieces intended to carry the “nitro caipirinha,” a slushy cocktail in a frozen hollowed-out lime, into the dining room. (The slate keeps the concoction cool.) “For a lot of the cues on front-of-the-house, the El Bulli website itself and the book “A Day at El Bulli” was incredibly helpful, with everything from daily tasks to style of service,” Douillet says. “We’ve had long conversations about our service, which for most of our menus has been relaxed and moved away from pomp and circumstance. What worked for [Next] Thailand was this really casual faster service, but for El Bulli we’re going to try and be a little more reserved. We’ll also have the time to take it nice and slow, to leave a bottle on the table after the pour, that kind of thing, because we’re only doing one seating a night so there’s nothing to worry about on turning tables…other than we don’t want to keep you here for four hours.”
The concern of meals stretching past the four-hour mark stems from the previous night, the first of the friends and family nights. Timing seemed a bit too slow for the team’s taste, so this night they’re focusing on kicking up the pace without giving the guests any feelings of being rushed. Readying the room a few hours before the first diners arrive, servers are a blur of activity, steaming imperceptible wrinkles out of tablecloths, rolling napkins into perfect cylinders with the help of paper-towel tubes and hanging single red roses from lengths of fishing line suspended from the ceiling. El Bulli, located in the tiny coastal town of Roses, carried on a tradition of presenting a single rose in the center of each table, swapping out the vases from year to year. “I constantly deal with how much space we have on the table and we’ve always struggled with how small they are given the size of some of our serving pieces, so we were struggling with how to put a vase on the table, which isn’t ideal,” Douillet says. “I think it was Jeremy, our expeditor, who said ‘Why don’t we just hang it from the ceiling?’ Dave said ‘Let’s try it.’ I wasn’t convinced, and Nick [Kokonas, the owner] definitely wasn’t convinced, saying it would look like a cheesy ’70s Italian restaurant.”
Just then chef Beran walks by grinning and chimes in, “Nobody liked it, but I liked it and I was like, no, it’ll be awesome…I was right.”