The Night elBulli Danced: The World's Most Influential Restaurant Shuts Down

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Albert Gea / Reuters

Ferran Adrià, chef and co-owner of elBulli, at a press event marking the closing of his world-famous restaurant. Behind him are top chefs, many of whom trained at the restaurant over the years

This past weekend, a handful of the world's best chefs, including Rene Redzepi, Joan Roca and Grant Achatz, gathered in the speckled morning sunlight of Spain's Cala Montjoi to commemorate a passing. It should have been a sad occasion. But the man who had brought them all together emphasized that there was no death, only transformation. "My brother Albert said we had to kill the monster," said Ferran Adrià. "But I said, No, we have to tame it."

The monster to which Adrià referred is elBulli, the restaurant that he and his brother — along with, over the past 25 years, roughly 2,000 other chefs, cooks, waiters and captains — have made the most acclaimed and influential of our time. As anyone even mildly interested in food knows by now, elBulli served its last meal as a restaurant on July 30. But for the journalists who came from around the world for that morning's press conference, as well as for the close friends and longtime patrons lucky enough to dine that night, the occasion felt like anything but a wake.

Admittedly, some of the chefs were in a reflective mood. Massimo Bottura of Modena's Osteria Francescana remembered the long hours he put in as an apprentice in 1999. "We would start at 8:30 in the morning and work straight until 1:30 a.m.," he said. "But I never got tired, because the commitment to the group was so strong." Recalling the impact of his own apprenticeship, Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant Noma is currently ranked first in the world, observed, "The courage and freedom to do what we do in Noma came from here. I thank elBulli for helping free my imagination."

But any pensiveness dissolved in the face of the 90-lb. (40 kg) meringue bulldog (the restaurant's emblem) that master pastry chef Christian Escribà had made for the occasion, adorning its neck with a sugar-paste collar that hid appropriately culinary references like oysters and fried eggs. As Adrià took congratulatory calls from admirers like French master chef Michel Guerard, his front-of-house staff — dressed in T-shirts bearing the words "The Last Waltz" — passed celebratory glasses of cava. They were aided by minibar chef José Andrés' three young daughters, who did a stellar job serving air baguettes and brie-stuffed blini.

The festive air could be attributed in part to the knowledge that in 2014, elBulli will reopen as a foundation dedicated to culinary creativity. Blueprints for the new center, which will be located on the same site as the restaurant, were on display at the press conference. They depicted a spectacular new structure with archives and an audiovisual room as well as spaces dedicated to more esoteric things like an "empathic tree experience." Construction on the center is scheduled to begin in January 2012.

For Adrià, the foundation — that "taming" of which he spoke — represents an opportunity to free himself and his staff from the obligations and drudgery that accompany the running of a high-end restaurant. Now they will be able to devote themselves to what they do best, which is create. "I'm not nostalgic at all," he told TIME. "In fact, I'm happier than ever. It's almost as if we're going back to our origins in 1993, '94, '95, when we were just boiling over with new ideas. Now we have the chance to make elBulli into something new every day."

But the happiness also stemmed from the knowledge of what had been accomplished. elBulli was born as a beachside snack bar in the 1960s, though by the time Adrià joined it in 1983, it had become a respectable restaurant specializing in French nouvelle cuisine. About a decade later, Adrià, having risen quickly through the kitchen's ranks, began the radical experiments that would transform not only his own menu but also the face of haute cuisine. Among the general public he is perhaps most famous for the new techniques, like liquid nitrogen and foam, that he applied to cuisine. But among chefs his supreme accomplishment was more philosophical. By interrogating fine dining's assumptions — does soup have to be liquid? Does dessert have to be sweet? — Adrià opened the way for food as a form of artistic expression.

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