It's natural to look across the ocean for inspiration. But restaurants in the United States often leave out two crucial ingredients: integrity and tradition.
When I was working in Italy in 1995, I started hearing about a Spanish restaurant called el Bulli that was doing very provocative and unusual food in a little coastal town called Rosas, just north of Barcelona. It took me four years but finally one summer, a friend and I scored a lunch reservation. We arrived the night before and slept in the back of her van. In the morning, we showered on the beach, changed into our fancy clothes in the bathroom at the coffee bar, and had a splendid lunch in el Bulli's garden. The setting was spectacular, and some of the food was mind-expanding: I still remember the mint and pea soup in a shot glass, the shock of the cold followed immediately by hot, two versions of one flavor all at once. Afterwards, we slept off the wine on the beach in the cove below the restaurant. It was July or August, when the air in the Mediterranean is perfumed by the smell of aromatic herbs in the maquis and the endless drone of cicadas is inescapable.
I came back to New York at the end of the summer and it seemed like el Bulli was on everyone's lips. Soon, American chefs were excitedly playing with many of the concepts coming out of Rosas. El Bulli soon became the hottest restaurant in the world, with people planning entire trips to Europe around a single meal there. Chefs around the world made the pilgrimage, ate, and staged in the kitchen. They came home and busily set about redoing their menus in ways that reflected what they'd seen there. People waxed poetic about the reinvention of food, but mostly they just seemed obsessed with the technique -- less appreciative of the deep roots of the traditional Catalan flavors, ingredients, and pairings that were entwined in it. They didn't seem to realize that the food at el Bulli had a traditional foundation that resonated far beyond the surprise of a spherical olive made out of solidified olive juice.