El Bulli is closing but Spain looks forward

El Bulli, currently the most influential restaurant in the world, will serve its last dinner on July 30. The next morning, Spain’s chefs will wake up to a radically changed universe.

Picture an armada without a flagship, a solar system without a sun, and that is what high-end Spanish cuisine will look like in the absence of El Bulli. In a single generation, it helped transform Spain from a culinary backwater to a world leader, and Ferran Adria’s cocina de vanguardia (the term he and other chefs prefer to “molecular gastronomy”) became a global obsession among young chefs.

Food as performance art, transformed through wizardry and wit, is now seen as the signature style of modern Spanish restaurants. As Antoni Gaudi transformed the country’s architecture and Pedro Almodovar its cinema, Adria redefined its cuisine. Although many chefs contributed to Spain’s gastronomic revolution, especially Juan Mari Arzak, Santi Santamaria and Andoni Luis Aduriz, it was the sustained daring and smart marketing of Adria himself that kept the bar rising.

“It is impossible to say too much about his influence,” said Carme Ruscalleda, a chef in Catalonia who has six Michelin stars to her name, more than any other woman in the world. (She spoke in Catalan; some interviews were conducted through an interpreter.) “He was the first one to tell the chefs of Spain we could think for ourselves.”

Tourists from all over the world now come to Spain for the food, drawn by the mystique of El Bulli, even though only a few hundred managed to eat there each year. Many chefs fear that the closing of El Bulli will combine with European economic woes to create a general plunge in culinary tourism.

“I don’t think it’s a good situation,” said Josep Roca, one of the brothers who own Can Roca, a destination restaurant north of Barcelona. “I am afraid that without El Bulli, a certain energy will disappear from the restaurant scene here.”

But amid the worry, it is also dawning on chefs that the Adria monopoly on the international press may finally be broken.

“The cuisine of El Bulli and Ferran Adria has been so huge that it eclipses whatever is beside it,” said Quique Dacosta, an avant-garde chef in Valencia.

During the El Bulli era, millions of euros in private and public funds became available to promote Spanish gastronomy. “Now other chefs will have more opportunities, occupying the spaces that El Bulli and Ferran Adria will leave,” said Rafael Anson, the president of the Royal Spanish Academy of Gastronomy, an umbrella group for the country’s multiple culinary promotion and education programs.

Now that El Bulli is going dark (Adria says it will operate as a culinary research foundation, at least until 2014), where in Spain will the world’s spotlight shine? Who will be the new darling of the gastro-tourists? Many chefs, including Dacosta (known for his edible landscapes), Josean Martinez Alija (famous for groundbreaking work with vegetables) and Ruscalleda, are contenders.

One group plans to keep pushing the boundaries of cuisine with new technologies and global ingredients. Another group is vigorously digging into the roots of Spanish cuisine for traditions that they can elevate, through refinement and innovations, to three-star status.

It is a given that cocina de vanguardia will continue. It is already visible in virtually every high-end restaurant in Spain, and even in modest cafes and tapas bars.

At Si Us Plau, a beachfront cafe not far from El Bulli in the Mediterranean resort town of Roses, the sherry vinegar sprinkled over a plain green salad is gelatinized into tiny, bouncy bubbles. Inside the Boqueria market in Barcelona, Quim Marquez Duran runs a tiny lunch counter, frying the top-quality ingredients stacked on the stalls around him: eggs, artichokes, tiny fish and squid. These days, even his traditional desserts like natilla (cinnamon custard) or mel y mato (soft cheese with honey) are put through a nitrous oxide charger and foamed, a la Adria.

Not so long ago, any ambitious chef in Spain had to go abroad for culinary education, learning to cook the French dishes that tourists and moneyed Spaniards expected in elegant restaurants.

“There truly was no such thing as Spanish haute cuisine,” said the culinary historian Claudia Roden, who has just published an exhaustive cookbook called “The Food of Spain.”

And yet, young chefs like Dacosta, whose eponymous restaurant is in the southern province of Valencia, are already exploring new media for cuisine. He is the creator of Oyster Guggenheim Bilbao, a single oyster, heated over juniper wood and draped in a film of edible titanium-silver alloy that mirrors the surfaces of Frank Gehry’s museum. Eating his Animated Forest is supposed to evoke the soil and flora of a Mediterranean woodland.

Another group has embraced the serious perfectionism of la cocina vanguardia, but not its alien flavors and occasionally unsatisfying weirdness. Nandu Jubany, Victor Arguinzoniz and Mari Carmen Velez are leaders in a regresar a las raices (return to roots), using local ingredients and traditional techniques, but refined to an extraordinary level.

They are not anti-technology culinary Luddites (though there are still plenty of those in Spain). They are practicing the new cocina de producto, ingredient-driven cuisine, in which the raw materials are paramount, pristine and always recognizable.

Arguinzoniz, a chef so in touch with the earth that he even makes his own charcoal, has devoted decades to cooking over fire in the Basque country, where grilling is almost a local religion. Once a forest ranger, and entirely self-taught as a chef, he has developed equipment and methods for grilling unlikely ingredients like caviar, whole egg yolks and baby eels. Each mouthful at the elegant Asador Etxebarri – even during dessert – is infused with the taste of fire, but it never becomes monotonous. One chef (perhaps the only one) who transcends the rivalries and cliques among Spanish chefs is Carme Ruscalleda, a self-taught, self-employed 58-year-old. Her restaurant on the coast north of Barcelona, Sant Pau, has three Michelin stars; her restaurant in Tokyo, a precise copy of the original, has two; Moments, her restaurant in Barcelona, has one.

Her food is delicate and minimal, seasonal, and enhanced by the tiny watercolour portraits she makes of each dish, which are printed on the menu. But dishes like a gorgeous, lightly jelled Mondrian made from green almonds, red peppers and olives, and a juicy chunk of roasted foal are jammed with flavour.

Whether Spain will descend from the dizzying heights that it has reached during the El Bulli era remains to be seen, but the language of cuisine, both on the plate and on the page, has been transformed by it. When asked whether the faltering Spanish economy will continue to sustain expensive and experimental cuisine in the future, Dacosta’s answer was characteristic:

“What is expensive? What is experimental? What is the future?”