AT THE start of this century, the world decided that Spain was the New France. Whereas France was boring, snobbish and stuffy, Spain was vibrant, artistic and full of innovation. So, French wine was dull, Spanish wine was under-rated. And French food was pretentious while Spanish food was cutting-edge. through an interpreter) and his passion carried the argument through; though it may have helped that there was wine being served at the lunch where I interviewed him.
Ferran Adria, whom I interviewed some years later, was more circumspect in his views. He had the air of a man who was used to being attacked. He bristled at the use of the term “molecular cuisine” and said that it suited the French (who had very little respect for him – at least, initially) to portray him as the mad scientist in the kitchen because they could then dismiss his food. As for Santi’s criticism, that, he suggested, was just politics.
Santi is now dead. And Adria has closed El Bulli. But their essential battle about the nature of cuisine continues. My sense is that Adria won the battle – if you have ever been served a foam, a freeze-dried fruit or a sphere, then your meal has been influenced by El Bulli. But Santi may have won the war. There is a backlash against science-in-food and the current fashion in food (say Noma) owes more to Santi’s veneration of the earth than to Adria’s science.
What is clear, however, is that Spain is not the New France. It is just Spain. And that should be good enough. Even as memories of Santi and El Bulli fade, Spain still remains one of the world’s great destinations and the gastronomic centre has spread to other regions of the country: San Sebastian, for example. Last fortnight, in Madrid, I was reminded of the fading legacies of the two greatest Spanish chefs of the early part of the century.
Paco Roncero is one of Spain’s best-known chefs and his Terraza del Casino has two Michelin stars. Roncero worked closely with Adria (who was a consultant to Terraza) and his food is sometimes regarded as a logical continuation of the El Bulli menu.
I had an incredibly disappointing meal at Terraza. Some of this was because of the surroundings. Ferran Adria’s brother runs Tickets in Barcelona, a wonderful restaurant which understands that the only way to make molecular cuisine work today is to focus on the fun aspects: surprise, innovation and the joy of discovery.
Sadly Terraza takes itself too seriously. It is a strange room – more like a gray corridor – on top of a private members club with a strict jackets-for-men policy and a solemn 23-course menu. Some of the old El Bulli classics are dusted over (the spherified olive, for instance) but the rest of the menu is gimmick after