Flushed with a torrent of optimism, for the third year running The Hungry One typed out the request, Babel fished it to both Catalan and Spanish and sent it into the ether.
Actually it started years before that, with a dessert.
A boy who loved to surf and a girl who liked theatre had been dating for four months. Secretly they started to wonder if they had enough common interests to sustain them.
A double chocolate raspberry silk cake at Dish answered that question, by rendering them both silent. Food became less of an adjunct to, and more of a focus of their conversations. Birthday, anniversary and Christmas presents were marked with meals, not gift boxes. The bookshelves slowly turned themselves over to a collection of obscure books, cataloging the eating experiences of others.
Somewhere down the line things happened that made them appreciate the importance of the fantastical and magical. Life is short. If there’s something you want to do; grab it with both hands.
Yet sitting down to dinner at El Bulli had always belonged in my mental bucket of ‘things that are entertaining to contemplate, but will never happen’. They live in that vessel with going heli skiing, waking up six feet tall or attending the Oscars.
I kept thinking- ‘What were the chances that we’ll be one of the chosen few, first timer, non Spanish residents to get a booking at the best restaurant in the world?’
A booking at a place that shuts its kitchens for 6 months each year to experiment. A place that is so extreme it’s designed to run on a financial loss. A place that has created its own language to describe their food, because simple syntax will no longer suffice.
A place where ‘dinner’ means 35 courses that will bend and warp your perceptions of what food is, and what it can do.
8000 out of 2 million. Those were the chances.
And so, it started with an email.
When the response came back, promising a reservation set for eight months in advance, for four people, at 8.30pm on the 29 of July I thought it was a sick hoax.
From there it was a voyage through incredulity. Then through the tundras of scrimpings and justifications. Some people instantly understood that we had to go. Luckily one of those was a patient boss. Only when the flights were booked did the pearlish mists of anticipation descend.
Then there were other choices to be made; most specifically- who should join us at the table. We had a field of enthusiastic volunteers; but two made special cases. One is a chef, the other an art critic. Surely this was the perfect combination to come with us to the only chef who’s been invited to exhibit at Documenta.
Fast forward eight months and The Hungry One and I emerge at the bloated tail end of another escapist odyssey, this time traipsing across Dubai, Italy and Provence. Perhaps it can be all be chalked up as training for the stomach.
The night before the booking the chef, his mum, an art critic, The Hungry One and a girl all walked into a bar. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.
It’s Barcelona and we drink too much pink wine, and get rosy with excitement.
At 10 am the next morning four of us pile into a sensibly sized rental car and commence the two hour drive north, to Roses. The ipod is whirring, but it’s two hours characterised by blandish scenery and white noise; a backdrop that lets our brains meander and contemplate the possibilities.
We set up a game of whacked food bingo. We take punts on what we think might make an appearance.
The art critic thinks we might have to bob for apples. The chef muses that he thinks beetroot will feature. I take a punt on eucalyptus and aniseed- and maybe I’ve got flowers on my brain, but I think they might pop up here and there.
‘Bark’ pipes up the critic. She thinks there may be bark. I start speculating that we might be licking things off paper. The Hungry One has a feeling about lychees, and sweet tomatoes.
On the agenda first is a swim in the turquoise salty soup of the main beach of Roses, a strategic lunch of melon, jamon and some manchego and a disco nap.
There’s a little whiff of school camp to all the preparation. We’ve put the girls in one room and the boys in the other. Us females wake an hour before we need to leave ready to play with bling and princess-braid each other’s hair. We settle on summer dresses with empire line waists, made of flexible fabrics. Sunglasses are packed in the hope of sunset drinks on the terrace.
At 7.30pm we knock on the boys room. There’s a scuttling and a panic.
The Hungry One has been having El Bulli dreams for days; the last one had him arriving to find his dream transmuted into an elaborate buffet, and one without sufficient cutlery at that.
The nightmare of sleeping through the booking never entered into his equations.
Yet 10 minutes later they’re sheepishly dressed and sweeping the last bits of sleep from their eyes. We’re in a taxi, negotiating perilous cliffs, winding past pastures, cyclists and coves to the secluded beach at Cala Montjoi. There’s a reason the El Bulli website doesn’t recommend visitors to use GPS. Carrier pigeons would have much better luck finding the place.
We’ve arrived 15 minutes early, to rubberneck outside and take trashy food tourist photos. We’re not the only ones. We enter the driveway and above the gentle sound of the waves we hear a braying question, in an American accent.
‘How long ago did you guys book to get in here?’
With the answer, they hear our accent. ‘How far have you travelled?’
‘A long way’ is the answer’.
And we’ve only just begun- arriving is just the first part of this journey.