ROSES, Spain – The stairway to culinary heaven meanders up and down a dicey mountain road and ends in an idyllic Mediterranean cove with turquoise waters and food so eye-poppingly and artfully crafted it seems a shame to chew it up and swallow it.
Indeed, it's hard not to sit back in amazement as the staff at Spanish chef Ferran Adria's elBulli restaurant serve an appetizer that looks like a coconut macaroon but turns out to be a fluffy snow-white rendering of Parmesan cheese; what seems a piece of hard candy in reddish plastic wrapping actually is freeze-dried hibiscus petals holding something soft and peanutty.
Adria speaks with almost religious fervor of food and his passion for cooking it creatively, for taking it apart and putting it back together in unexpected ways. "To eat well nourishes the soul," he said during a recent interview. "That is the power of food."
The oft-imitated modernist wizardry that Adria has pioneered for nearly 20 years in Spain's far northeastern tip has earned him fame, awards and the highest of honors. To wit: three Michelin stars, a New York Times Sunday magazine cover story in 2003, world's-best-restaurant rating four years in a row through 2009 by the British magazine The Restaurant, and more than a million requests a year for reservations at a place that seats 50, for dinner only, usually just six months a year.
But that era is coming to a close, or at least its current format is. Adria's titanic 50-course, 270 euro ($385) meals — not counting tax, drinks or tip — will be served for the last time on July 30.
The master and his longtime core crew of eight to 10 people need a rest — time to refresh their creative juices after years of 15-hour days and relentless pressure to conjure up something new and jaw-dropping, year after year.
Replacing elBulli the restaurant in 2014 will be elBulliFoundation, a gastronomic think tank and research facility adjoining the current restaurant. Adria plans to bring in a small corps of chefs, then set them loose to experiment. The results will be posted online daily.
"The world of cuisine has no reason to be in mourning. It should be happy that the spirit of elBulli, that of sharing, of risk-taking, of creating, is going to continue, and for that matter is going to share even more by way of a foundation," said Adria.
He spoke in a sunny courtyard where violet wisteria in full fragrant bloom drew huge black bees gorging themselves on nectar from flowers that resemble bunches of grapes. Below, the sea lapped gently at the shore. The setting could not be prettier, nor Adria prouder of it and his restaurant.
The chef is a shortish, friendly man of 48 with a broad chest and trim graying hair, and he speaks in stream of consciousness — bursts of discourse that splinter into tangents, much of it about his love of creativity.
Adria is a legend in the restaurant world, though most of humanity will never see, never mind taste, his food. Fewer than 1 percent of the reservation requests received can be accommodated.
Yet the man's talent, ideas and techniques nevertheless have rippled through the restaurant world, due in large part to the hundreds of young chefs who have worked at elBulli as interns, then moved on to emulate, for better or worse, what they learned.
"When they leave, they take a little piece of Ferran with them. So there are little pieces of elBulli that are all around the world," said Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food and Wine magazine.
Cowin said that when Adria announced in 2010 that elBulli was closing for two years, the reaction in the world of fine dining was less gloom than a rush to get a reservation while it was still a possibility, even if just a slim one.
There also is admiration for Adria for bowing out as a day-to-day chef while at the zenith of his creative game.
"It is like the greatest athlete saying 'I am not going to pitch the World Series next year even though I won the last three,'" Cowin said. "He is really stepping off a particular stage at the top."
Dinner at elBulli is a dazzling blend of cuisine, art and science, an event in and of itself. Few of the dishes are readily identifiable. Some require instructions on how to eat them, sometimes with your bare hands.
A match stick with a gold tip is actually freeze-dried soy that dissolves in your mouth. Crispy, curly strips that look like pork rinds are made from cod.
"For me, elBulli is theater. You arrive at eight, the curtain goes up and the show starts. And you are part of the show," said Spaniard Maria Calabuig, 39, a former chef who has eaten there six times and knows Adria well.
Adria compares dinner at elBulli to music. Albeit music so complex, orchestrating it requires that kitchen and wait staff outnumber diners roughly 2-to-1.
"Now we do about 140 concerts a year. It is intense. I know there are jobs which are harder, but this one is hard," Adria said. "Starting in 2014, we will do 25 to 30."
An estimated 20,000 people a year will be able to tour the foundation. And who will be lucky enough to eat what the foundation creates?
Adria foresees possibilities like fundraising meals, or even bringing school children in to eat, or having people start their meals with an aperitif on the pebbly beach, then moving up to the courtyard for another course, then sitting down formally for the rest of the meal. Or even assigning a team to come up with a topflight breakfast, what he called "the breakfast of your dreams."
Adria admits this kind of haute cuisine is not for the average kitchen, nor is its purpose to educate.
But he does argue that avant garde cooking such as his and that of similar chefs fuel the popularity of cooking programs on TV these days. "They exist because there is a vanguard that is the driving force," Adria said.
The new foundation, he said, "will give us the opportunity to explore worlds that we do not now touch, and force us to be agile and point our neurons at things we do not dominate," Adria said.
He added: "In the end, with creativity, what you have to do is stop and pay attention to things you do not understand. When you dominate everything, things become predictable."