elBulli was a restaurant. It was a restaurant two hours north of Barcelona. The man at its core was Ferran Adria. The restaurant is gone, is now a “gastronomic think tank,” but the menus still remain, still float on the digital breeze that may or may not look like the way Wi-Fi is visualized by Nickolay Lamm, and through the entrails of memory, hiking its way through certain trails (like the one semi-foreshadowy time I went into a restaurant that listed meatballs and sausages as a vegetable in boldly proclaimed chalked-out letters, causing my dining companion and I—when we realized it—to blanche with comic horror and make the hastiest of escapes), it’s from these old menus that I’ve set out to conduct my experiment: I’m going to recreate an item off of an old elBulli menu.
First came the sizing up: “clam meringue?” Why, that’s easy. That’s just a clam placed on top of a piece of lemon meringue pie. And “mimetic peanuts?” That one took me by surprise, enough so that I had to say it out loud to someone, following with a preemptively-middle-aged and irate “Fake peanuts? Fake peanuts? Anything can be a fake peanut. I can be a fake peanut.” “Well,” the person said, “you can, but you’d be a really terrible one, so …”
Then came settling on a menu and making one’s way through the items, one menu of which was the “Next elBulli menu,” a menu that highlighted what the restaurant Next deemed to be some of the best dishes produced by elBulli over the past twenty-five years. The first was “Carrot Air With Coconut Milk,” a recipe that makes perfect sense. David Byrne’s mother used to pack his lunchbox with that before David went off to school every morning, right?
And though I was tempted to do a suquet of prawns and dip a wandering hand into the merry confetti of San Francisco Bay-styled colors that the dish seemed to invoke, I decided that the key thing I’d try to make on a snowy afternoon in the greater Boston region would be Parmesan marshmallows. In true comic form, I first thought that that meant making marshmallows and then sprinkling Parmesan over them, ruining some campfire story for a collection of children somewhere (“And then the strange man put on a toque, bowed, and disappeared into the woods…”), but no. Parmesan marshmallows require milk, agar agar, eggs, and parmigiano-reggiano.
Which would have been easy to do, but I didn’t have any agar agar and I’m still somewhat allergic to eggs, so: two out of the four ingredients were a no-go. I was left with milk and Parmesan. Do I … pour the milk over the Parmesan and eat a soggy piece of Parmesan—as one does? Do I use a substitute like olive oil? Do I do the thing of giving up on the homemade meal and order a pizza? What’s the pizza equivalent of a Parmesan marshmallow?
I paced the kitchen. The snow filled the landscape outside the window. I skimmed through a review of Beijing Pop Kabob in The New Yorker. A laundry bag sat in the corner. I impudently wondered about the drunken capacities of Eric Asimov. A quick re-check of the fridge: I could totally do it with just milk and—and it turned out I had neither the milk nor the Parmesan. I’d been had!—by myself, yes, but had.
Though this was, in a way, encouraging. What better way to cook up an elBulli dish than with zero out of the four necessary ingredients? What better way to celebrate the notion of challenge than with a challenge like this? With a soaring spirit of ‘why not?’-ness, I poured gobs of honey over camembert and threw it in the microwave.
The result was blackberry tar. Not in terms of taste—I haven’t tasted it yet, and I doubt I ever will—but in terms of how it looked. The smell…well, to put it politely, the smell was somewhat akin to everyone at Burning Man deciding to spend one day wearing a sweater.
Sans microwave, however, the combination of Camembert and honey was fine, the sliding nature of the honey’s taste and the sliding nature of the Camembert’s taste not directly complementing each other, but each sliding half a beat away from the other.
This is how Magritte cooks. This is how you make a marshmallow.
Evan Fleischer lives in Boston, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.