El Bulli is a small restaurant that overlooks Cala Montjoi in Spain’s Costa Brava region. It isn’t easy to get to as it is located 160 kilometres to the north of Barcelona and includes a final 40 minute drive around a winding cliff road. The restaurant is famous for its 36 course tasting menu, each individually crafted by its team of 20+ chefs. Since 2002 El Bulli has been voted the World’s Best Restaurant by Restaurant Magazine no fewer than five times and finished second on another two occasions. It has also held the coveted Michelin 3 Star rating since 1997.
It’s tough to get a booking at El Bulli. The restaurant only opens for six months every year ((June 15th to December 20th) and bookings are only taken on ONE day every year in January. Despite this, the restaurant reportedly receives more than 2,000,000 annual requests for its 8,000 available booking slots.
El Bulli’s success comes down to two important factors – extreme innovation and the relentless pursuit of excellence.
El Bulli pioneered the concept of “molecular gastronomy” inventing cooking techniques, food categories and dishes that have been emulated around the world. The same applies to the design of tableware, utensils and cooking devices – each have been designed to complement the food being offered. The restaurant spends a lot of money on R&D and this is expensive. To pay for this El Bulli took the seemingly radical approach of entering the catering business to leverage its expertise into easier to prepare meals. This helped provide the capital to pursue the vision for the business. Along the way, el Bulli trail-blazed the modern tapas bar that is now common-place through-out Spain and elsewhere.
Relentless Pursuit of Excellence
Every year the chief chef, Ferran Adria, sets the same two goals for el Bulli:
- Create a new and original menu of dishes using new techniques
- Provide El Bulli’s patrons with “3 hours of delight”
These two “seemingly” simple goals are probably the most challenging goals that any business could set itself. It essentially involves a significant re-invention of the business every SINGLE year. How El Bulli accomplishes it is what makes it great.
To achieve these goals the restaurant is shut for six months every year and no longer serves lunch as it was viewed as a distraction to these goals. Each day the El Bulli development team works together to create new menu concepts and cooking techniques. They work in a separate research centre and are not bothered with day to day operational matters. Their responsibilities are captured in the dual goals listed above. The approach taken is disciplined – copious notes are taken and all work is catalogued and documented. Every new dish and cooking technique is tested, re-tested and refined until it is perfect. Failures are quickly discarded but the lessons are recorded and there is little data lost. No short-cuts are taken and company memory/history is considered a prized asset. Few businesses, restaurants or otherwise, can claim this level of discipline in their operations.
Interestingly, Adria says that he does not listen to his customers. His reasoning is that if you listen to customers they will tell you what you already know. For example if they like a good steak you can serve it to them and they will enjoy it but it won’t be a once in a lifetime experience. For these types of experiences you have to give them something unexpected and full of surprises that will knock their socks off. He’s dead right, of course and this mindset guides their approach to achieving their goal of providing “three hours of delight” to their patrons.
Innovation and discipline go hand in hand. One without the other doesn’t work. To become a great business both components must be taken to extreme measures. El Bulli has ramped this approach up to fever pitch, tearing up the fine dining rule book and presenting its customers with food that often defies description. Along the way it has cemented its position as arguably the world’s best restaurant and even more importantly spread its influence and approach around the world.
Thank you El Bulli, you are an inspiration.