Page last updated at 00:53 GMT, Sunday, 27 July 2008 01:53 UK

Catalonia's culinary king feels the heat

By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Roses

Chef Santi Santamaria
No foams in my kitchen - Santi Santamaria prefers simple dishes
One of the world's leading restaurants started life as a mini-golf course.

Set in a stunning natural park near the Catalan town of Roses, it was opened in 1961 by a German homeopathic doctor.

Three years later, the pitch-and-putt business was abandoned in favour of gastronomy, although the name, El Bulli, survived. It refers to a breed of French bulldog favoured by the doctor's wife.

Today, El Bulli is a culinary phenomenon. With three Michelin stars, its constantly-evolving tasting menu has featured a stream of unlikely innovations: rose petals in tempura, monkfish liver fondue, grilled sole skin, ying-yang of chickpea water, and Rice Krispies paella - to name but a few.

Each creation is meticulously catalogued, and a documentary film is in production.

Open mouth, open mind

For three years running, El Bulli has been voted the world's best place to dine by Restaurant magazine.

Chef Ferran Adria

It's crazy to suggest that these additives are the biggest health issue of our times

Ferran Adria

"El Bulli is a language which sometimes you can't understand, but all I ask is that people come with an open mind," explains Ferran Adria, who first arrived on work experience in 1983, and is today the restaurant's co-owner and chef de cuisine.

"For example, we do one dish which is a gently liquefied tea soup, with tiny jasmine and eucalyptus flowers floating on it, like water lilies.

"When you taste that, I don't know how to explain exactly what it is. And I made it! There are no reference points."

If Mr Adria sounds a trifle defensive, it is with good reason. For although many consider him the world's greatest chef, his handiwork has been publicly characterised as "pretentious" and "a public health issue" by a leading Spanish rival.

The accuser is Santi Santamaria, a culinary traditionalist who, in 1994, became the first Catalan to secure a coveted third Michelin star, for his restaurant Can Fabes.

In a new book, The Kitchen Laid Bare, Mr Santamaria takes aim at Adria and his disciples, for their use of synthetic additives - gels, preservatives and thickening agents - allegedly, at the expense of locally-produced, organic ingredients.

Techno-emotional cuisine

"I believe the interference of industry in haute cuisine has reached new levels, in part because of your work," writes Mr Santamaria in an open letter to Mr Adria.

The book rails against what he calls the "Mcdonaldisation" of Michelin stars, and asserts that "a chef who uses chemical or synthetic products, made in a laboratory, is like an athlete who dopes".

The book was just the first glint of steel. At a subsequent literary awards ceremony, Mr Santamaria openly wielded the knife, announcing a "conceptual and ethical divorce" from Mr Adria.

"Chefs should not legitimise forms of eating which are inconsistent with healthy dietary habits," he announced, adding that some rivals were turning cookery into a "media spectacle".

By any standard, it was a breathtakingly bold attack on a man who has led the march of Spanish chefs to the global summit of their profession.

"All of the new chefs want to be Ferran Adria - he's become a kind of god," explains Ricard Martin, the food critic for Time Out Barcelona.

Image of dish served at El Bulli
Each elaborate El Bulli dish is carefully catalogued for posterity

"Two years ago I was at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and they had a huge wall displaying the creative processes of El Bulli. It was faintly ridiculous, but there's no doubt he's a big international star."

Initially labelled "molecular gastronomy" then "techno-emotional cuisine," Mr Adria's work is often defined in laboratory terms - perhaps because, during the winter months, his team of forty chefs retreat to a custom-built workshop to experiment with the following season's menu.

But during our interview, it soon becomes clear that Mr Adria resents the caricature of himself as a kind of Dr Frankenstein in a chef's hat.

"In the past, there was no real dialogue between cookery and other disciplines - like art, design, science and ecology," he explains. "So what I've done is initiate that dialogue. But no one should ever dispute that I'm a chef."

Trademark foams

Wearing jeans and trainers under his chef's whites, Mr Adria is pleasantly informal, but his dark eyes carry just a hint of menace. With greying hair and a strongly expressive face, he calls to mind Robert de Niro doing comedy.

So what does he make of Mr Santamaria's attack?

"It's the biggest madness in the history of cuisine," Mr Adria retorts, "lies, lies, lies! Obviously, if you consume too much of anything it's bad for you - too much roast beef, sugar or salt is bad. But 80% of the products I use are ecological, and the additives under debate account for just 0.1% of my cooking."

Mr Adria cites emails of support from some of the world's leading chefs, and points out that even the Spanish government has come out in his defence.

In a radio interview, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said: "Ferran Adria is recognised as the best chef in the world, and I think the products we consume in our top-end cuisine are absolutely healthy and cause no problems."

Two chefs at El Bulli
The science of gastronomy is a complex business

The nutritionists agree, pointing out that the additives used to create El Bulli's trademark foams and airs have been approved through the European Union's system of E-numbers, while the quantities used are strictly regulated.

"We're talking here about gelling agents, which change the texture of food," explains Magda Rafecas, a chemistry professor at the University of Barcelona.

"For example, a ball of ice cream wouldn't retain its shape without these additives, and they give creme caramel its wobbly texture. There's no health issue - you would have to consume an enormous amount to have an adverse reaction."

Different or dangerous?

Having ignited in May, the row continues to simmer, with Santi Santamaria arguing that restaurants should be compelled to include on their menus a detailed list of additives used, along similar lines to the labelling of industrial food products.

"To portray this as a debate about traditional versus modern cooking is a false contrast," Mr Santamaria insists.

"It's really a debate about home-made versus industrial products, natural versus artificial. The public have the right to be informed about what they're eating."

Back at El Bulli, Ferran Adria is dismissive of such calls. "When Santamaria talks about industrial products," he argues, "bear in mind that sugar is an industrial product, as is the best wine in the world. We've always used industrial products."

And as work begins on tonight's 35-course tasting menu, Mr Adria offers a parting shot to his rival.

"It's crazy to suggest that these additives are the biggest health issue of our times," he says. "There are thousands of problems in day-to-day nutrition, which are much more important that the fact that a handful of chefs are doing something that's a bit different."

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