Welcome To The Labyrinth Of The Catalan Chef

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From the first sip of the proffered aperitif at El Bulli--a frozen gin with hot lemon fizz--you know you're in for something different. Ferran Adria has won the adulation of food critics and cooks by whipping up startling combinations of texture, temperature and taste: bite-size cuttlefish ravioli that explode in a burst of coconut and ginger, soft-boiled quail egg with a crispy caramel crust, a polenta of frozen powdered Parmesan cheese, almond ice cream on a swirl of garlic oil and balsamic vinegar.

Set on an isolated beach on Spain's Catalan coast near the town of Rosas, El Bulli has become a pilgrimage site for foodies brave enough to make the dizzying drive down for the experience--not really a conventional meal but a series of 25 to 30 small courses, some no more than a bite-size morsel or slurp. They are presented on a silver spoon or on a stick or in a tiny fluted glass, often with suggestions about how things should be eaten--in one go, in separate bites or in a certain order.

Adria's recipe for innovation, he says, is "cold and methodical." Adria starts with "information, information, information"--garnered by traveling, tasting and above all reading. He has an extensive gastronomic library installed in his new "laboratory workshop" in nearby Barcelona, and claims to have memorized thousands of tastes on his "psychological palate." He says, "What I hate most is monotony." He doesn't have to worry. Says superstar chef Paul Bocuse: "He's doing the most exciting things in our profession today."