A tribute to el Bulli at Atelier

In the middle of service, there was a brief moment of panic. The fifth course, a simple mix of raw rhubarb, brown sugar and black pepper, had just been served to the first two tables. But somewhere between the kitchen and the servers, there was a miscommunication: the dish had been portioned out one per table, not one per person, but the first four plates had gone out to four individual diners.

At first glance, the simplicity of “Rhubarb with Light Brown Sugar and Black Pepper” seems downright absurd. Here’s a dish from a restaurant renowned – or infamous, depending on your point of view – for taking ingredients and subjecting them to processes more typically associated with industrial food preparation, and all it is is rhubarb, sliced into strips, and dusted with sugar and pepper. This is an el Bulli dish?

My favourite quote from Ferran Adrià, one I refer to often for inspiration and for argument, as a mantra and as a defence, is, “Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster.” Once you peer behind the veil, remove the sodium alginate, the calcium salts, the methylcellulose and tapioca maltodextrin and xanthan gum from the equation, what you are left with, what el Bulli was about, was celebrating ingredients. Not just the traditional luxury ingredients of French three-star dining, but all ingredients: tubers both truffle and potato.

The rhubarb we were suddenly short on had come from Atelier’s own garden, behind the restaurant, which is one way of celebrating an ingredient. (The flowers I helped pick for the dish “Thaw” were also from the garden.) Chef Marc Lepine explained to me that the rhubarb dish should evoke childhood memories of eating raw rhubarb dipped in sugar. I never had a rhubarb plant growing up, but I still thought the taste I had of the finished dish was surprisingly good: the texture was crunchy, the brightness of the oxalic acid was offset by the sugar, and the black pepper kept it all grounded in the savoury realm. This was an el Bulli dish that anyone could get behind.

* * *

On July 29, el Bulli the restaurant served its last regular meal, closing its doors to prepare for its transformation into the el Bulli Foundation, slated to open in 2014. That night, Marc tweeted: “Atelier and Navarra: The El Bulli Tribute Dinners. Sept. 7th and 8th.”

Marc plating "Corn Nitro-Foam with Black Truffle Jus Jelly and Duck Foie Gras Air."

Four days later, Atelier’s el Bulli tribute dinner was sold out. That one tweet was the only advertising that took place, although a mention did go on the website after all the seats had been filled. There were inquiries until at least the day before the event, giving Atelier a small taste of what el Bulli went through every year, when it would field more than 2 million requests for a mere 8,000 places.

Upon seeing the tweet, I immediately sent Marc a private message asking if he’d be willing to let me play stagiaire that night. He has always been gracious in welcoming me into his kitchen, from the very first time I half-jokingly asked to come in and try out his Antigriddle. Since then, I have both staged and dined there several times, making it the location in Ottawa where I have probably spent the second-most time in the past three years.

And yet, I still feel a little out of place every time I put on a chef’s jacket, and every time I ask if I can come in and log some hours behind the proverbial pass, I worry that I’m imposing on his goodwill. But this time, not only did Marc say yes, he did me one better: he asked if I would feel confident in putting together one of the courses myself. I considered it carefully, then accepted. I would officially be cooking for paying guests.

* * *

Faced with a shortage of the rhubarb dish, the servers shifted uncomfortably, and the cooks all stared with furrowed brows at the remaining plates, trying to make them magically multiply through sheer force of will. Finally, Marc shrugged, and made the only decision possible: “Divide up the rest and re-plate it, one plate per two people.” Everyone sprang into action and the meal went on.

"Raviolo/Mozzarella Chewing Gum." Photo courtesy of the Twisted Chef: thetwistedchef.wordpress.com.

Surprisingly, with a total of 20 courses – all but one of which the kitchen had never prepared before – this was the only significant hiccup during service. There were other minor missteps during prep: an absent rosemary/caramelized honey syrup that had to be made at the last minute; an attempt to tweak the Doritos croquant polvorón with lime pearls that resulted in them having to be dried out in the oven nearly right until service; and me spilling the bulk of the liquid exuded by mozzarella when you gently warm it, needed for the “Raviolo/Mozzarella Chewing Gum.”

The mozzarella dish was a weird one, even to me. It involved heating chunks of mozzarella, collecting the liquid that runs off, then rolling the softened cheese into a sheet. Then, you gel the whey the mozzarella was packaged in, and wrap squares of this gel in squares of the sheet. These are brushed with the runoff liquid, heated under a broiler (a role fulfilled in Atelier’s kitchen by a heat gun), and dressed with hazelnut oil and black pepper. From the name, the final effect was presumably supposed to resemble chewing gum, but I didn’t really get it. After it had been served, though, there were a few extra pieces, which Marc passed around to the staff. I popped one into my mouth, bit down, and immediately started to laugh: it was exactly like chewing gum, but with the flavour of mozzarella.

Initially, this was to be one of 10 courses, but the number grew as Marc realized that 10 courses of el Bulli food really didn’t constitute a full meal. Even on the day itself, the final number of courses was in flux. Curious about the economics of this, I asked if Marc was somehow keeping a running total of food cost in his head. Sous-Chef Jason Sawision looked at me with a sparkle in his eye and said, grinning, “Food cost? What’s that?

You could look at this type of meal as a loss leader, except that every single guest in the dining room that night had eaten at Atelier before. I was curious to hear what they, as experienced Atelier diners, would think about the dish I had made. After the rhubarb went out to the rest of the guests, I still had to wait for 7 more courses to find out…

(Continues in Part 2.)

Rhubarb photo courtesy of the Twisted Chef.

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5 Responses to “A tribute to el Bulli at Atelier”

  1. And THAT’S where you leave us hanging?!?

  2. It was a pleasure to have you help out with this Matt, thank you. And congrats on putting together a couple of great plates!

  3. Thank you, Marc! The pleasure was mine!

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