Monday, February 13, 2012

Why I turned down dinner at Next el Bulli

Last night a friend very kindly offered me a seat at her party’s upcoming dinner at Next elBulli. My instinct was to say yes. In attempts to secure these tickets, thousands of people appear to have played a complex game with instructions that seemed written in Catalan then translated into English by a Chinese exchange student learning Spanish in Chicago public schools. Only a fraction of them succeeded. Of course I wasn’t going to turn down a seat that just landed in my lap, right?

Then my friend told me the price: $490. Those of you who have paid more attention than I over the last few weeks must have already realized how much this meal was going to cost, but I was shocked. $490 to dine at Next? Now, I’ve never spent anything close to that on a meal anywhere, but when I’ve dreamt such things, I’ve envisioned elaborate settings with gold chandeliers and Rembrandts on the wall. Truth be told I don’t remember much of anything about the setting at Next, but I think that probably means it was pretty nondescript. It was a room. It had a kitchen in the back. It was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. Not beautiful and not ugly. A room where people eat. None of this is to say that I place value the expensive artwork or precious metals at the world’s most expensive restaurants. I don’t. It’s just that I couldn’t believe that a meal at a place with little to none of that flash could possibly cost this much. Who knows, maybe their videographer is actually the next Rembrandt.

Once the shock of the price wore off, I had some serious thinking to do. My instinctive reaction went from “yes, of course” to “Whoa! That’s a shitload of money!” My gut told me that I had to decline, but still – so many people practically begging for a seat to this restaurant, and here a golden opportunity has just landed in my lap. I asked my friend to give me a little while to think about it, which she kindly obliged. Her dinner is coming up in just a couple of days though, so I wanted to give her a decision quickly so that she could be sure to find a taker if I said no.

In the couple of hours that passed, I waffled. I went from “Screw it. I might spend that much on a few dinners in a couple of month period, so what’s the big deal if I spend it on one very special opportunity like this;” and, “I just used miles to pay for my trip to the Florida Keys, so I’ll put what I saved towards this;” to “I have a daughter who might struggle to go to college someday and a mortgage that’s for more than my condo is worth. Only an irresponsible idiot would spend $500 on dinner in such a situation;” and, “I’m not really convinced that I’ll even like the meal.”

Regarding that last thought, it may shock all of the Achatz/ Beran/ Kokonas fans out there to hear that yes, there is someone who isn’t convinced that he’ll even like this very special meal of theirs. I understand that elBulli is to many people what dining looks like when it has reached the pinnacle of perfection. I also understand that Adria himself said something akin to “The Achatz team is the only one that can pull this off.” I understand that the team’s other venture is often regarded as the best restaurant in the country, and that Next too has received high accolades. So, who am I to think this might be anything but the best meal of my life?

Well, I am a guy who ate at Next during the last cycle and thought it sucked. I am a guy who thought that the kitchen paid way too much heed to presentation and storyline at the expense of taste. I am a guy who hates the aroma of burning embers as part of a dish’s plating, and I am a guy who thought placing 5 or 6 disparate, uncomplementary toppings around a plate of macaroni was an insult to serious cooking even in the context of a menu called “childhood”.

So, in the end this is what made up my mind. I am simply not convinced that the kitchen at Next will cook a delicious meal. Will it be true to the techniques they learned from some master sent over from Spain? Almost surely. Will it represent hours and hours of hard work, studying, and overcoming obstacles? I bet it will. Will those things get in the way of it being a delicious meal? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that this kitchen has shown that what matters to them does not matter to me, and in fact detracts from my enjoyment of food. So I passed.