Bulli for us

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 May, 2006, 12:00am

MOST TOURISTS PLAN their trips around weather, scenery or cultural attractions, but gourmet travellers are a unique breed. Their holidays are dictated by the schedules of the world's top chefs.

They book six months in advance to eat at particular restaurants or jump on a plane and fly around the globe at short notice to fill a cancellation, having put themselves on a waiting list months before. For diehard foodies, one meal isn't just a highlight of a trip, it's the main reason for it.

'We get a lot of that,' says Kristine Keefer from the French Laundry in Yountville, California. 'First, the guests make the reservation, then they plan the trip around it.' Such is the success of the French Laundry that its chef, Thomas Keller, opened a similarly high-end restaurant in New York - called Per Se - and the Bouchon French bistros in Yountville and Las Vegas.

The 15-table restaurant, housed in what was a brothel and French laundry (although not at the same time), is widely considered to be one of the best in the US. It was the highest-ranked US restaurant (No4) on this year's World's 50 Best Restaurants by British Restaurant magazine.

Keefer says the restaurant gets 200-300 phone calls a day, mostly from people asking for a table two months in advance - the earliest that bookings are accepted. 'We find many people coming from out of the United States who have heard this is a restaurant they should eat at. We get people from Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, Hong Kong.'

Guests who manage to get a table pay US$210 (including service charge) for a nine-course tasting menu that changes daily - although the non-vegetarian version always includes Keller's signature dish of 'oysters and pearls' (sabayon of pearl tapioca with beau soleil oysters and Russian sevruga caviar).

Per Se, Keller's restaurant in New York (which has three Michelin stars and is No8 on the World's 50 list) takes bookings no more than two months in advance, as do other top restaurants such as the Fat Duck in the British town of Bray (Michelin three stars and No2 on the World's 50).

Although it's difficult to get a table in these places, the hardest restaurant to book is probably El Bulli in Spain. The Michelin three-star restaurant - which topped the World's 50 - is open each year from April to October. For the other six months, chef Ferran Adria leads a team that includes his brother, pastry chef Albert, experimenting and creating dishes of the most innovative food in the world.

Luis Garcia, maitre d'hotel and the man in charge of bookings, starts taking requests - by e-mail or fax - on October 14 each year for the 8,000 seats (at $1,680 a head, not including wine) available for the upcoming season. On October 19 last year, the El Bulli website announced: 'We regret not to be able to attend more reservation requests for 2006. The demand has again surpassed our limited space for one season.'

El Bulli is in the town of Roses, about three hours' drive from Barcelona. To get there, hire a car and driver to navigate the beautiful, wild road along the Costa Brava. It twists and turns, with barely enough room for two cars, and with sheer drops and overhanging rocks on either side. It's not a road you'd want to negotiate after imbibing lots of wine during a five-hour dinner - a 30-course degustation of dishes that were astonishing, exciting, amusing, innovative - and delicious.

But food lovers are so eager to make the trip that, last year, Garcia received about 500,000 requests. The demand for this year was even higher. 'We received so many requests, we couldn't count them,' Garcia says.

People have been known to fly from the US to Spain - at two days' notice - to fill last-minute cancellations.

Such high demand is a problem most restaurateurs only dream of. 'It's a great problem to have, but it is a problem,' says Keefer at the French Laundry, where there's a 100-strong waiting list most nights. 'Thomas is very generous and would like to accommodate everyone, but obviously he can't.'