World's Best Restaurant: Reservations Get Tougher

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Dominique Faget / AFP / Getty

Spanish chef Ferran Adrià of elBulli gives a press conference at Madrid Fusion, an annual international culinary conference, on Jan. 26, 2010

Given the excitement surrounding the press conference in Madrid on Tuesday, you'd have thought that Jennifer Aniston were announcing that she and Brad Pitt had gotten back together. But no. Here at Madrid Fusion, an annual international culinary conference, the news is all about chefs, and no news is bigger than that of Ferran Adrià, the chef of elBulli, reputedly the best restaurant — and the toughest reservation — in the world. To the accompaniment of dozens of flashing cameras and a live feed for Spain's main television channel, one of the masters of the culinary universe declared that he would be closing his restaurant to the public for two years beginning in 2012.

It's not a definitive end to the restaurant that has been voted the best in the world five times (including in 2009) by Restaurant magazine, the recognized arbiter of such things. Adrià and his team will still be working at elBulli, developing ideas and trying to figure out what comes next. But he says the restaurant's current format is finished. "When we come back in 2014, it's not going to be the same," Adrià says.

Although rumors of elBulli's closing have circulated for years, the news still came as a mild earthquake in culinary circles. Frequently referred to as the founder of molecular gastronomy — a term the chef himself reviles — Adrià and his team have revolutionized modern cuisine with their constant search for new techniques and ingredients. In their hands, olive oil has been "spherified" until it takes on the shape and texture of caviar, and Gorgonzola cheese has been transformed with liquid nitrogen into a frozen globe that looked like nothing so much as a dinosaur egg. Dinner at elBulli, which consists of 30 or so courses, is a unique experience that has diners routinely laughing in delighted surprise at the new sensations provoked by the food on their plate.

The lucky few diners, one should say. Eight thousand people get reservations at elBulli each year, a mere fraction of the million who request them. (The restaurant is open only about half the year.) Indeed, despite its 230-euro price tag, dinner at every table for the six months that the restaurant is open is assigned in a single day. And now that it's clear that this year's reservations lottery may well be elBulli's penultimate, the number of gourmands clamoring to get in will surely grow.

The change will bring other sacrifices as well: Adrià and his team will have to relinquish their three Michelin stars, for example, and no one knows how they'll pay for the two years of inquiry without customers to finance them. But citing a desire to spend more time with his family, the chef says he needs a break from serving food to figure out what comes next. "We still want to be creating in 2020," he says, "but for that to be possible, we have to normalize our lives."

Adrià refused to speculate on what elBulli will be like once the two years are over, emphasizing repeatedly that at this point, he has no set plans. He did suggest, however, that although elBulli would once again feed customers, research would likely take on a greater priority than cooking. And he joked — if it was indeed a joke — that in whatever new outfit he comes up with, he might just have one table.

When journalists in the crowded room pressed him for more details, he cut them off. "Our challenge is just this," he said. "To find out if there's anything beyond what we've already done."

Abend is working on The Sorcerer's Apprentices (Free Press), a book about the young cooks who each year come from around the world to work in elBulli's kitchen.