The El Bulli experience

Today I’d like to tell you about El Bulli. I learned about this restaurant in a marketing class a long time ago. I’ve never been there in person but I’ve been fascinated by what I read about the place.

The restaurant was a white, small, unpretentious building by the sea, a two hour drive from Barcelona. You’d have to take a curvy, mysterious and romantic mountain road to get to El Bulli. Many guests mentioned they got lost on the way.

El Bulli was a restaurant that broke many standards. It revolutionized, elevated and made an adventure out of the art and science of dining.

It was open for only 6 months of the year and served only 50 customers per evening. It was estimated that over 1 million people tried to get a reservation each year, which means the chance of getting a reservation at El Bulli was much lower than the chance of getting into...well, almost anything else, I suppose. In spite of the high demand, Ferran Adria, the restaurant’s founder, refused to increase the price to dine at El Bulli (250 euros per evening).

After they arrived, customers were guided through a series of carefully thought out experiences, each one like a step on a ladder that leads to culinary ecstasy. Nothing was left to chance. 

First, they were greeted and taken on a tour of the kitchen where they saw the immaculate equipment and innovative techniques used by the cooks. It wasn’t your typical kitchen. One of the guests described this kitchen as a “lab-like room full of stainless steel, immaculate” and he described Chef Adria as “willy wonka”.

After the kitchen, guests were taken to the terrace, which overlooked the beach. They were served welcome cocktails and a selection of appetizers. The sun was setting. You could hear the peaceful sea waves in the distance. 

Finally, the guests were guided into the main dining room, where they would spend the next 6 hours living the El Bulli dining experience and tasting 35 dishes that were served in a fixed sequence.

“We conceive of the sequence of dishes to be like a movie. Montage is sometimes hard to explain. The rules are relative and I focus on breaking them.” (Chef Adria)

Spherical melon caviar

Spherical melon caviar

Most of the dishes were not what they seemed. They looked different than what they were made out of. You never knew what flavor to expect. They came as an avalanche of sensory experiences, not just about taste, but also about touch, smell, sound and looks. Every detail contributed together to make the whole greater than its parts. 

Here’s what a guest said about a “simple” dish from the 2008 menu, spherical olives: “it looks like a kalamata olive, but put it in your mouth and as soon as you press it, it explodes with an intensity of flavor that’s 10 times that of a regular kalamata. Baby, you don’t have to chew anything, it hits you like a ton of bricks.”

The El Bulli experience wasn’t just about tasting the innovative dishes, it was about feeling the food, becoming one with it and learning about it by experiencing it in all of its newly discovered splendor. It was an adventure.

Caramelized quail egg

Caramelized quail egg

El Bulli was selected as the top restaurant in the world for a record 5 times. It’s now transformed into a culinary research institution.

Something about the mysterious road, the kitchen with its willy wonka equipment and the terrace by the sea made me remember the story about this business to this day. I don’t know much about fancy foods, but I do fancy a good customer experience. 

I love how Chef Adria thought of every detail in his guests’ experience. I love how passionate he was about his craft, how he obsessed over the creativity and quality of his products and how he incorporated his passion into the experience he created for his customers. Experiences are beautiful because they make your customers feel differently and remember you forever. 

I’d like to share with you today 3 of the lessons that I garnered from the El Bulli experience. 

#1. Focus most of your energy on your craft.

Your craft is usually what you love doing the most in your work or business. It is often what others or you view as your core strength. 

In El Bulli’s case, it was the creativity of the dishes that earned the restaurant its reputation, that made it unique and that brought guests from far away. It wasn’t the terrace, the sea or the layout of the restaurant, even though these details certainly did enhance the experience. Therefore, it was the dishes and the uniqueness in which they were presented that received the most attention to detail and the most investment of time, resources and energy. During the 6 months when the restaurant was closed, the team experimented through trial and error to create new, innovative dishes that would always uniquely and unexpectedly surprise guests who expected the unexpected.

Chef Adria didn’t spend his energy thinking about the best pricing strategies. He focused on what he loved doing the most. His creativity earned him a reputation, which earned him revenue from the books he published and from similar activities with wide distribution.

#2 You can make an honest experience out of your customers’ anticipation.

In El Bulli’s case, the anticipation of the product was an important part of the experience. The location of the restaurant at the end of the curvy mountain road, the tour of the kitchen, the terrace, the moment of wondrous expectation when seeing a dish for the first time, not knowing what will happen once the dish touches the mouth - these were details that made an experience out of the anticipation process itself. It is all like the first date leading to the first kiss leading to marriage leading to whatever comes next. The different steps make the journey more enjoyable. 

#3. The quality of the product comes first.

Or, in chef Adria’s words, “creativity comes first, then comes the customer.”  Without a great product, there’d be no experience to follow. No matter how amazing the customer experience, it can’t retain a customer if the product is not made out of passion and with attention to detail. 

To make a great product, you have to start with trusting your craft abilities, giving yourself permission to spend more of your energy on what you love and feeling at peace with breaking so called business norms.  

Sometimes you have to break standards, like Adria did. Sometimes you have to listen to your gut and create something that’s completely different from what anyone else in your industry advises.

This article's details about El Bulli come from "El Bulli: the taste of innovation", a case published by Harvard Business School.

Images credit: El Bulli

Mihaela Akers