Long read: What Ferran did next?


By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, June 28th, 2015.

It’s a relatively chilly day in April and chef Ferran Adria is walking a group of journalists around the elBulliFoundation buildings in Barcelona. It’s not what you’d expect as the latest expression of creativity from a man who is debatably the world’s greatest chef.

For a start, there is no food to be had and not a stainless steel kitchen surface in sight. Instead, the unassuming second storey industrial space is stuffed with trestle tables and earnest looking young people with fashionable clothes and thick rimmed glasses, tapping away on Apple laptops.

Thick white foam boards divide up the open plan space and are pin-cushioned with cuttings from magazines, books and print-outs from the web. Stick-it notes abound and the atmosphere is more like that of a university than a commercial kitchen. In fact, it feels more like a tech start-up than a culinary institute.

But then what Adria is attempting to do has more in common in terms of ambition with Google or Facebook than it does with his beloved elBulli restaurant – he wants to write the definitive work on food. All food, everywhere and at every point in history. Can it be done? He seems to think it can and if anyone can do it, it’s probably him.

Few people have had as big an impact on their chosen profession as Ferran Adria. Microsoft’s Bill Gates perhaps? Or Apple’s Steve Jobs. But in the world of high end gastronomy, there are few who would begrudge Adria the oft overused title of genius.

This is the man who powdered olive oil, who spherified sauces and who turned food into foam. Most importantly, this is the man who did it first, applying the kind of creativity to food previously reserved for music, painting, literature and art.

While he prefers to call his style of food deconstructionist in nature, he’s most closely associated with the style of cooking known as molecular gastronomy, and it’s difficult to overestimate just how influential it and he have been. Many of the current generation of top chefs spent time under Adria’s tutelage, including Noma’s René Redzepi, Mugaritz’s Andoni Luis Aduriz and Alinea’s Grant Achatz. His influence has travelled past those he’s personally trained as well.

Together with Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the UK, Adria is considered the father of modernist cuisine and perhaps the most influential chef alive. His globally famous restaurant, elBulli, held three Michelin stars and regularly either topped San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list or hovered in the top three until abruptly closing its doors in July 2011.

IMG_8274The critics were perplexed – elBulli was only open to the public for six months each year, with the remaining six months dedicated to the research and development of new dishes, but a table here was amongst the most sought after reservations in the culinary world. If you’ve eaten in a high end restaurant in the last five years, the odds are you’ve been served deconstructed dishes created using techniques pioneered by Adria at elBulli.

From meats and fish cooked sous-vide in a vacuum sealed plastic bag to plates garnished with foams, freeze-dried powders, edible flowers or spherified liquids, the Spanish chef’s influence has been far reaching. The techniques he’s credited with popularising, if not outright inventing have changed the face of performance cooking.

Adria is probably best known for two particular techniques — creating edible foams by mixing flavour bases with a stabilising gelling agent such as lecithin that are then forced out of a nitrous oxide syphon to create a stable foam, and the technique of spherification, in which flavoured liquids are mixed with sodium alginate and then dropped into a bath of calcium chloride to create spheres of flavoured liquid resembling caviar. Both techniques are now found in restaurants all over the world.

However, he’s also credited with popularising the use of fluid gels using different gelling agents to create edible gels that are stable either cold or hot, as well as researching new thickening and emulsification agents that change the texture of food without affecting its flavour for use in professional kitchens.

In 2010, Ferran Adria and his brother Albert taught a culinary physics course entitled ‘Science and Cooking’ at Harvard University in the USA. A meal at elBulli was a dinner to boast about. Bookings were taken on one day each year for the following year, with only 8,000 seats available at an average price of €250 per diner.

The restaurant reportedly received more than two million requests for reservations each year, generating a respectable €2 million in revenue. Why close such a wildly successful restaurant at the peak of its success and influence?

According to Adria, the restaurant itself apparently ran at a considerable loss – it employed over 40 chefs and while the business behind it made a profit, this mostly came from elBulli related books, catering products and personal appearances and lectures given by Adria, who the New York Times reported gets around €80,000 for an hour long lecture on creativity.

Aged just 53, the entire gastronomic world asked themselves the question ‘what will Adria do now?’ While he surely has little left to prove behind a stove, the answer has still taken many observers by surprise. His latest venture is the elBulliFoundation, a kind of umbrella vehicle for a few distinctly different projects.

The first is the reinvention of the former elBulli restaurant. Currently being remodelled and scheduled for a 2017 reopening, it is to be rebranded elBulli 1846—named for the number of original dishes created at the elBulli restaurant — and will function, we are told, as a cultural and educational centre rather than a restaurant.

The second and potentially most interesting is Bullipedia, a vehicle Adria has created to bridge the worlds of academia, science and knowledge acquisition with cooking and the art to be found in high end kitchens. The end goal is to create a repository of information on food and creativity and to refine and codify a new way of researching and categorising knowledge that Adria calls ‘sapiens’.

And as a proof of concept, the first subject matter to be tackled using the sapiens methodology is food. Right now, his team is mostly concerned with writing a series of books on food, producing work, he says, at the rate of one whole book’s worth a day.

Adria champions the creativity that is often attributed to cooking but which actually is rarely there. The majority of chefs are craftsmen rather than artists – their skills lie in reproducing things that other people have created. True creativity is something different, he believes:
“Although I could create a new dish with this tomato, it isn’t possible to create a new tomato.”

When the project is complete, the sum total of the group’s research and methodologies will all be published online for free, available as a resource forever but it will also be sold as an old fashioned set of books, a kind of Encyclopedia Britannica for the world of food.

In one corner of the Barcelona offices, staff members are cataloguing different styles of place settings, while an extensive library of cook books stands as testament to the internationality of the project. Books are organised by country – the only Irish entry on display is Colman Andrew’s Country Cooking of Ireland – and in a side area an impressive selection of Dom Perignon vintage bottles and labels are being studied.

“There is no definitive reference on champagne production and no catering college teaches this. There is nobody to teach it, because those that know it are busy working for the top champagne houses. So we are gathering their knowledge to make it available in catering schools around the world,” says Adria.

If the elBulliFoundation sounds difficult to understand, that’s because it is. Right now it’s impossible to assess just how significant its projects will prove to be, but what isn’t in doubt is that significant resources are being used to create it.

Adria has signed deals with a number of large corporate backers, in return for lending them his personal credibility and making himself available for commercial endorsements. He is a brand ambassador for Telefonica and has also worked with brewing company Estrella to bring his elBulli-created beer Inedit to a wider audience. It was recently launched in Ireland, retailing at around €8 for a 75cl bottle.

And then there are those lectures on creativity. On the day we meet in Barcelona, he spends the morning giving such a lecture, starting by addressing the room while holding a tomato and asking us the seemingly rhetorical question “what is this? Is it a natural product?”

Someone in the assembled crowd replies “only if it’s organic.” The answer seems self-evident, but only if you don’t think like Adria.

“Most people would say a fresh tomato is natural,” he says. “But the tomato has been domesticated by man, it’s the least natural thing in the world. A natural tomato does exist in the Andes but it’s inedible, it’s disgusting. Your preconceptions about what is natural are false.”

He continues. “What about a jar of tomato sauce from the supermarket? Would you use that at home? If you consider yourself a cook probably not. But you will use olive oil and dried pasta? What’s the difference?”

It’s this kind of thinking that has informed Adria’s entire career. What other people took for granted, he questioned. Just because something has always been done one way, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way, or at the very least another and potentially more interesting way of doing it.

But if you never ask, you never know.

From dishwasher to top chef
Born in Barcelona in May 1962, Ferran Adria started his career in cooking like many before him and since — up to his elbows in hot soapy water.

A summer job washing dishes in a French restaurant in the Hotel Playafels in Castelldefels, Spain, quickly led to a job as an apprentice chef, and it was here that he first had his imagination fired by just how good the local cuisine of Barcelona and its surroundings could be.

He worked and travelled from Spain to Ibiza before being obliged to do military service with the Spanish navy, working as a cook. When he returned to civilian life at the age of 22, he applied to do a stage (unpaid trial) at a small but well regarded restaurant called El Bulli, in the remote coastal town of Roses around two hours north of Barcelona.

El Bulli was opened in 1964 by German Dr Hans Schilling and his Czech wife Marketa, and named after their pet bulldogs. It achieved success as a French restaurant long before Adria set foot there, albeit with a reputation for a different kind of cuisine. It was awarded a Michelin star in 1976, and when Adria joined in 1983 he was very much a junior. He managed to turn his stage into a full time job as a chef de partie, or junior line chef, and it wasn’t long until his talent and unique acumen shone through.

He was encouraged to travel and broaden his culinary palate see what was happening elsewhere in Europe, and he spent a significant period working with renowned chefs in France before returning to be made head chef in 1987. It was around this time,that he started to experiment with the chemistry of food, re-examining dogmatic ideas about cooking techniques and applying a degree of scientific rigour to the chemical changes that the organic compounds in food undergo when cooked.

While he wasn’t the first to do this – Harold McGee’s seminal work on this subject ‘On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen’ was first published in 1984 – Adria applied a degree of flair and creativity to his cooking that won acclaim all around the world. El Bulli’s second Michelin star arrived in 1990 with a third coming in 1997, and it was first voted to the top of Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best List in 2002. It held that position on five separate occasions.

Panel out – Dining out in Barcelona today
ElBulli might be closed but it’s still possible to sample some of the magic that went on there. Ferran Adria’s brother – and culinary star in his own right – Albert Adria operates five restaurants in Barcelona. He was the pastry chef at elBulli until 2006 , and the rigourous discipline and attention to detail required to fill that position now finds its expression in his efforts to turn a small area of Barcelona into what he terms “a culinary theme park”.

All of the restaurants can be found within walking distance of the Plaça d’Espanya end of Barcelona’s main arterial road Gran Via. The most celebrated is the contemporary tapas restaurant Tickets, opened in 2010 and awarded its first Michelin star in 2014.

The food here is highly creative, served in a space reminiscent of a Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The dessert room in particular is kitted out with oversized cartoon strawberries hanging from the ceiling. Dessert here is a particular treat – Albert Adria was declared the world’s best pastry chef in the recently announced World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s awards.

Bodega 1900 is an old fashioned tapas restaurant, with only a few nods towards the techniques used to build the Adria name – it features hanging hams, nautical interior décor and perfect execution of Catalonian classics like snow crab on toast, tomato salad, salted prawns and Iberico ham croquettes.

Pakta is a fusion restaurant serving a hybrid cuisine bringing together Japanese and Peruvian cooking, served in a small restaurant kitted out to perfectly mesh Japanese aesthetics with South American flair. It describes its food as ‘nikkei’ in style, referring to the name Japanese people use for emigrants of Japanese descent who have settled elsewhere. Pakta holds a Michelin star.

Hoja Santa is a Mexican haute cuisine restaurant, the big brother of the groups less formal Nino Viejo restaurant, specialising in tacos and botanas, a kind of Mexican snack or appetiser.

Albert Adria will be a speaker at the upcoming Food on the Edge symposium to be held in Galway on October 19 and 20 this year. For more information, visit http://www.foodontheedge.ie


I’ve been working on a book project for the last year or so with Dutch-born chef Martijn Kajuiter of the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, County Waterford. Martijn is an exceptional chef, and his restaurant is one of the most innovative and significant in the country – it was awarded a Michelin star in 2009 and has kept it in successive years, as well as being awarded three AA Rosettes. His food is exciting and progressive as well as being firmly rooted in a very well established repoirtoire of classic methodology.

While not exactly a secret, we haven’t discussed the book publicly over the last year, because the immediate nature of social media would have meant the world was bored stupid by the idea of it, months before it came out. Instead we decided to keep quiet until it made sense to not keep quiet about it.

I still don’t want to say too much about it yet, because The Cliff House is preparing to launch the book and so it’s up to them to publicise it and release images and extracts to the public. However, now that the publication date is drawing near it’s nice to be able to start to acknowledge the book’s existence.

First of all, there are two editions of the book – a normal version and a special edition that has already sold out. (It was mentioned by Martijn casually on Twitter and within 24 hours, all 100 copies had sold out, and there is now a waiting list of over 30 people in case any more come up.)

But of the normal version, what can I say?

Well. the first and most significant thing is the price – €45.

The book is being self published and we’re quite proud to have been able to keep the cost relatively low, given the amount of work and the quality of the finish that’s gone into it. It might not seem low to someone used to buying mass-market food books, but it’s really not expensive for a book like this. It’s not uncommon for self published books of this kind to sell for €100 or €200 and it’s not hard to see why once you start making them.

In our case, there have been multiple photo shoots, spread out over the course of a year in order to shoot dishes in season and at their best. The photography has been presented on high quality paper in a hard back book wrapped in a truly gorgeous cover. The design work has been created from scratch by an excellent design agency and enormous attention to detail has gone into each detail of how the book has been created. Literally every aspect of it has been thought about, considered, explored and decided upon.

The book is currently scheduled to be available in the third week of October. I’ll post more information here as it’s appropriate, along with links to where you can buy the book and perhaps also some of the unused photography and behind-the-scenes material generated during the year we spent working on the project.

Star turn – A day in a michelin star kitchen

This is one of the more interesting commissions I’ve had lately – in March, I spent a 14 hour day working in the kitchen at the Cliff House Hotel in Waterford with Martijn Kajuiter and his team. This piece was published this week as a result. Thanks to Shane O’Neill for allowing me to use his excellent photography. He’s also blogged about this job and you can read his thoughts, somewhat amusingly entitled ‘When Alex met Martijn,’ here.

This story has generated a lot of interest on Twitter, and I’ve picked up a lot of foodie followers as a result. Hopefully you find it interesting – Alex

Star Turn
Published in The Sunday Business Post on May 15th, 2011, by Alex Meehan

How hard could it be? I’ve just persuaded Martijn Kajuiter, the Michelin-starred chef at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford, to let me do a stint in his kitchen.

Now I’m wondering exactly what I’ve let myself in for.

It won’t be a case of dropping in for a couple of hours – Kajuiter has made it clear that he expects me to do a full shift and that I won’t be getting any special treatment. It’s a little more than I bargained for, but it’s an opportunity that’s just too good to miss.

Kajuiter is one of the very few – six to be exact – chefs in Ireland who hold a Michelin star, and is the only one of that small group who is based outside Dublin. Born in the

Netherlands, the 35-year-old came to the Cliff House in 2008 at the invitation of owner Barry O’Callaghan, having worked with some of the biggest names in the culinary world, including Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Henk Savelberg.

A physically imposing man – he is 6 feet 8 inches tall – Kajuiter has established himself as one of the most innovative chefs working in Ireland. Winning a Michelin star in 2010 and keeping it in 2011 has put his restaurant on the map, and made the Cliff House a place that people go out of their way to visit.

While it’s hard to put an exact value on winning a star, at a time when many Irish hotels are struggling to stay open let alone turn a profit, the Cliff House enjoys enviable occupancy rates.

‘‘When we opened, everyone said, ‘oh he’s aiming for a star’ because of what we were serving, but I really wasn’t,” says Kajuiter.

‘‘I was looking for happiness in life, believe it or not. I wanted to work with a great team, be creative and cook in an amazing place. I wanted to do that with my wife and kids alongside me.

‘‘Of course I’m proud of our achievement – I am a chef after all – but the star came because of our approach and our commitment to quality, not because we set out to get one.”

What makes a Michelin-starred kitchen special? Obviously to the diner and the Michelin inspector, it’s the food on the plate – the quality of the ingredients, their seasonality, the design of the dish, the presentation and the taste. But that’s only one part of the picture.

Consistency is the real challenge. It’s one thing to be able to put together a plate of food to Michelin standard, but it’s quite another to do it on a busy Saturday night in a full restaurant, executing each and every plate to the same standard, and making sure that every dish gets to each diner at the right temperature, and at the right time.

Achieving this means starting early.

When I arrive in Kajuiter’s kitchen at 11am on a Saturday morning, the place is already buzzing. It’s relatively small for an operation of this size, but it’s functional. The main kitchen area is constructed around a central island of stoves and ovens, with each station operating in its own distinct area.

Meat and fish are in one corner, as are pastry and desserts, stocks, baking and garnishing.

At the front is the pass, the place where garnishes are finished and assembled dishes pause under the heat lamps for the few critical seconds it takes to get the chef’s approval before they are sent to the dining room.

Kajuiter shows me around, introducing me to a succession of slightly harassed looking junior chefs who are busy making stocks for sauce bases, preparing garnishes, making fresh pasta and ravioli, and otherwise prepping for lunch service in the bar and dinner in the main restaurant that night.

All of the ingredients are sourced locally – on the menu tonight are scallops from west Cork, organic salmon from Bantry Bay, Waterford spring chicken, Helvick monkfish, Black Angus beef, lamb from Lismore and duck from Skeaghanore.

For the kitchen staff, service starts in earnest at around 6.30pm, and once the first guests are seated, there is no longer time to tidy up loose ends.

One mistake can derail the whole effort, and making sure that doesn’t happen takes an enormous amount of advance preparation.

For the senior staff, the working day starts with the daily morning meeting, which is held in the dining room over freshly brewed coffee.

Kajuiter and his second in command, sous chef Dirk Mooren, sit down with Paul and Nick (the meat and fish chefs), and Gareth and Patrick (pastry, desserts, baking and petit fours) to dissect the previous night’s service and discuss their plans for the evening ahead.

Kitchens are notoriously rough and ready places to work, and while Kajuiter is soft spoken and respectful with his staff, there’s no question about who’s in charge. He is ruthless in identifying where things could have been tighter the night before, and when a suggestion is made for a potential special, he quickly points out that it’s not seasonal enough.

‘‘We have a journalist with us today, but I don’t care about that,” he says. ‘‘Everyone is to do things exactly as you otherwise would. He should see things as they are. No pretty faces just for today.”

With that, we’re up and off. The others head back to prep, and Kajuiter brings me out to one of his newly-built greenhouses in the grounds of the hotel, where he grows some of the more delicate and perishable herbs and edible flowers which he uses in his dishes.

There’s cress, marjoram, pea shoots, chervil, beetroot, rocket, fennel, sweet woodruff and edible viola, or Irish molly flowers, as well as a vast array of other unusual herbs he’s grown from seed.

Seasonality and the use of local produce are at the heart of Kajuiter’s food, but that creates its own problems.

‘‘This isn’t Dublin – if we run short of something or sell out of something, we can’t just nip out to get more,” he says. ‘‘We’re in Waterford, and that means careful planning and working with the seasons.”

With this in mind, a few years ago he came to an agreement with the managers of St Raphael’s residential and daycare centre In Youghal to bring its organic nursery back to life.

We spend part of the afternoon in the two large poly tunnels there, picking out fresh produce from the evening service.

Back in the kitchen, as the afternoon wears on things start to heat up, both literally and figuratively. Junior chefs are shouted at when it looks like standards might slip; a fire alarm goes off when someone overloads a tumble dryer, but the kitchen staff barely stop to acknowledge it; and when the staff meal is served at around 5pm, it’s eaten standing up.

It’s an intense working environment, so it’s natural that emotions run high.

The staff are all extremely skilled in their own right – most of them could easily get a head chef job somewhere else if they wanted it – but they stay because they know they’re getting the kind of experience that will stand to them for life.

At one point during the evening service, what seems like a full-scale riot breaks out in the kitchen as Kajuiter picks up on a mistake.

One of the line chefs has got his timing wrong, resulting in three main courses being ready to go at the pass, while one more is late.

The chef is not a beginner, but this is a rookie mistake.

To make matters worse, when he’s asked about his timing, he tries to cover for his error, something which riles Kajuiter more than the initial mistake. He gets a severe dressing down, while around him, his colleagues avert their gaze and keep working.

The atmosphere is extremely tense, but five minutes later things are back to normal and all seems to be forgiven.

‘‘There might be shouting or harsh words, but it’s forgotten about quickly,” Kajuiter says. ‘‘If I’m out of line I’ll apologise. I don’t believe in a culture of fear in the kitchen. It doesn’t get the best out of people, and you don’t keep staff.

‘‘People who work here do it for more than just a pay cheque.

Every single person has a function in the kitchen, and they all make it work. If the kitchen porter doesn’t deliver the goods, we’re all screwed.”

Kajuiter is acutely aware that a Michelin star can be a double-edged sword. While it has sent the profile of the Cliff House sky high, it has also probably led some people to presume that it is out of their price range.

‘‘A Michelin star puts you in a box,” he says. ‘‘It makes people think you are expensive and exclusive, but that’s the wrong way to look at it.

‘‘Having one star means that you are an exceptionally good restaurant in your own category. It’s about what’s on the plate – your restaurant could be in a shed in the middle of the mountains, but if you are cooking fantastic food, you could get a star.

It has nothing to do with being expensive, or Having Wedgwood plates, or what the room is like.”

Prices haven’t gone up in the restaurant since the star was awarded – a three-course meal costs €65,while an eight-course tasting menu costs €85.Matched wines cost €25 or €40 per person with the tasting menu.

If Kajuiter could ask one thing of his customers, it’s that they don’t pre-judge the experience of eating in his restaurant.

‘‘Sometimes people have such high expectations that if one little thing isn’t how they think it should be, then the whole experience is ruined for them,” he says. ‘‘If something isn’t right, it isn’t right – and please tell us if that’s the case – but this isn’t a competition between the kitchen and the guest. It’s a celebration.

We want you to be thrilled.”

It’s 8.30pm, and service is in full flow. The restaurant is packed; 72 guests are eating dinner tonight, and 14 of them are having the tasting menu.

Earlier in the day I’d prepared garnishes and helped with prep, but for the last hour or so I’d been watching from the sidelines, as service started in earnest.

Suddenly Kajuiter is explaining tome what he wants done and how to do it.

The dish is a salmon starter I saw prepared earlier – the organic fish from Bantry Bay is served as a ballotine, as an ice cream and also marinated, along with preserved cucumber and beetroot textures.

It has to be plated up with herbs and leaves in just the right place, and with sauces added dot by dot, in the right order and quantity.

At the pass, it’s topped with a glass dome, and a special gadget is used to ignite oak sawdust, which is then pumped under the dome.

The plate is then whisked away to the dining room, where the server presents it to the diner by lifting off the dome and releasing the smoke. It’s a clever take on smoked salmon – or maybe smoking salmon would be a more accurate description.

By now I’ve watched quite a few of these plates make it to the pass and enjoyed the theatre of the final preparation.

Now, Kajuiter is beside me. ‘‘So you’ve seen how to do it, yes? Okay, time to get those pristine whites dirty.”

He has me plate up with him, watching each step to see if I’ve got it right.

The atmosphere is suddenly tense, and I’m aware that he’s not treating me like a guest in his kitchen any more – we’re working on food that is going out to the dining room.

‘‘Okay, that’s good. Do four more.”

He moves away, leaving a plate for me to copy and I’m on my own, concentrating as hard as I ever have.

The noise and bustle behind me fade away while I hunch over the plate.

A minute later he’s back, examining my work.

‘‘Yes, that’s it. Good. Okay, take them to the pass.”

At the front of the kitchen, the restaurant manager and two servers are waiting.

Kajuiter is beside me, telling me to hurry up.

I load up the smoke burner, switch on the pump and get ready to light the wood. It’s a fiddly job, and Kajuiter is getting impatient with the delay – there are paying guests waiting for this food, and the salmon must go to the table at exactly the same time as other dishes, which have just arrived on the pass.

I’m suddenly painfully conscious of the audience of servers, management and other chefs watching me from the corner of their eye.

‘‘Okay, go! Add the smoke. Like that. No, add more. Okay, and the next plate. Hurry up. Get it right. Too slow! Okay, there. It’s done. SERVICE! Go go go!” The plates are taken away, and I’m struggling to turn the blowtorch off. I’m sweating and my heart is racing. Kajuiter is smiling.

‘‘How did that feel? Scary, huh? That’s how Marco made me feel my first service with him. It’s a buzz, isn’t it?”

Fourteen hours after I arrived, I’m sitting in Kajuiter’s office having a coffee. In the dining room, the last guest is nibbling on petits fours, while in the kitchen, the staff are starting the clean-down process, scrubbing the room until it gleams and is ready for it all to happen again tomorrow.

Including amuses bouches, sorbets, starters, main courses and desserts,430 plates of food have left the kitchen this evening. It has been an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

But, most importantly, it didn’t kill me.

The French Laundry

While having my lunch today and on a whim, I put the words ‘French Laundry’ into youtube to see what would come up. To my delight, someone has posted clips from an episode of Tony Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour featuring a visit to this restaurant.

For those that don’t know (and unless you’re a shameless foodie, there’s no reason why you would know) the French Laundry is a restaurant located in the town of Yountville in Napa Valley, California. Run by Thomas Keller, it’s renowned for being one of if not actually the best restaurant in the world. There are contenders to that title, but at the level these kind of places operate, the criteria for deciding pole position are kind of meaningless – we’re talking about degrees of opulence and luxury rather than what’s on the actual plate.

Thomas Keller is the head chef and genius behind the place, and I’ve had the privilege to eat in a couple of his restaurants over the years (as well as Tony Bourdain’s Les Halles in New York – hey Chris, how’s it going? – which was really good in a different way ) as well as a number of other restaurants that hold one, two and three Michelin stars.

Any restaurant that holds a star is working at a serious level of professionalism and creativity, but for my money, Thomas Keller is the most exciting chef I’ve ever come across. Not only are his restaurants really special places, but his cook books are also head and shoulders above the competition.

To eat in the French Laundry is to experience the elevation of food and the sensory experience of eating to a true art form. I was lucky enough to go for dinner there a few years ago and the memory is a defining one for me. It was simply stunning, and going back there one day is quite high on my list of ambitions. But at the same time, I can’t help but feel that a repeat experience might disappoint, compared to how amazing the first time was. Maybe it’s better left as a perfect memory?

Anyway, Bourdain has captured pretty accurately my experience of eating in this establishment, the sense of wonder and playfulness and sheer impressiveness of the whole exercise. Give his show a watch, to get an insight into how things work at this level of artistic expression.

Often there is an element of smoke and mirrors about fine dining at this level (and at this price tag) but my opinion is that Keller on a good day is worth every dollar and cent he charges and more. I left his establishment feeling that the experience offered the most astonishing value – it cost a fortune but was worth every cent to me. Out of interest, just a minute ago I had a look on trip advisor to see if there were any recent reviews, and there are hundreds. One caught my eye – the person who wrote it said that the experience was very impressive, but he also suggested that The French Laundry could lose one of its Michelin stars, based on his experience of dining there. In particular, he levels the following accusations at the staff:

“In general all courses tended to be a little too cold when served. There seemed to be something going wrong between the kitchen and the waiters – their relation was not super sharp. For one course in particular we even had to wait, for which the headwaiter apologized – and when it finally arrived it was too cold.”

Fair enough. Temperature is something of a subjective issue – too hot to some people is just right to others. This is probably fair comment.

“We asked for sparkling water but got regular water instead.”

Okay . . . hardly a crime against humanity, but then people expect a lot at a three star restaurant.

“We asked for a list of the wines that we had tasted – we never got it in the end and had to ask for it again.”

Again, is this really an issue? Hmm.

“In the restroom there was a nick in the toilet seat.”

There you have it – that’s the kind of standard chefs running restaurants at this level are held to.

There will be a certain type of person who will look at the whole idea of Michelin star cooking and rightly feel a sense of outrage that people spend so much money on what is essentially just food. And of course, they’re right. But when you experience the senses played with the way these guys can do it, then you’re eyes can be opened. Is it worth the money? I think so, and eating in these kinds of restaurants isn’t something I do very often – once or twice a year if I’m lucky and can save up to be able to afford it.

(I have had disappointments – The Waterside Inn in the UK is another three star establishment and that was a complete letdown, but perhaps that’s a subject for another blog entry.)

In other art forms, people don’t bat an eyelid at the prices pieces of sculpture or paintings command, and to me, it’s obvious that food at this level is an art form as well, and guys like Keller who are at the top of their game have much more in common with artists than they do with cooks. I suspect they might argue with that comparison, but that’s the way it seems to me.