Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
File this under “First World Problems”: It is not as easy to eat a 17-course meal as you might think.
I have eaten at three of the world’s best restaurants: Pujol, my favorite restaurant in the world, in Mexico City #31; Biko, also in Mexico City, #33; and, most recently, El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona, Catalunya, #2.
Now in full disclosure, I did not have to wait for the Great Reservations God to answer my call and grant me a much-coveted table (with the exception of my second visit to Pujol, which I visited de mi propia cuenta; my reservations were made for me by people–either a PR firm or a tourism board–with some pull… and pockets deep enough to pay the respective bills). Regardless, I was, as I suspect many diners are– even those who consider themselves full-on-foodies– utterly unprepared for the experience of eating a meal whose courses push into the double digits.
Most recently, the 17-course meal* at El Celler de Can Roca, almost undid me. The nearly five hour event–and it was an event– left me feeling simultaneously elated and completely and totally (yes, the redundancy is intentional) flattened, so much so that I had to go to bed for an hour afterward.
It’s not necessarily the amount of food that can do you in; at these restaurants, you’ll never leave feeling stuffed. Instead, it’s the sustained intensity of the experience–the multiple sensory synapses firing at once; the attempt to make sense of it all; and, in my case, at least, the effort to extrapolate lessons from what’s happening in the back of the house (the kitchen) and apply those to “The Creative Life” generally.
There are people who wait a long time–a really, really long time–for reservations at the world’s “best” restaurants. Perhaps they know why they’re waiting, but I suspect that they’re not doing much, if anything (other than rolling pennies), to prepare themselves for the meal that will, if they’re lucky, be awaiting them when (no, no, IF) the Great Reservation God at the other end of the phone or Internet decides that they will be consecrated The Ones.
I realized I really could have used a primer for the experience of eating a 17-course meal at El Celler de Can Roca, but not having had one, I decided instead that I could write one. In doing so, I realize these tips are only going to be relevant or useful, for the most part, to either one-percenters who love to eat exceptional food or people who, like me, find themselves with some great good luck that places them, incredibly, at one of these tables.
1. Choose your seat–and your seat mate–carefully.
The thought that I might want to exert some degree of control over who sat next to me during the meal at El Celler de Can Roca did not occur to me until afterward… and the only reason it did was because I had an incredible seat mate.
Ryan King, a British-born, Italian-based food writer for Fine Dining Lovers, was the perfect person to enjoy the Can Roca experience with, and he possesses qualities you might want to make sure your dining partner has. He is knowledgeable about food but utterly unpretentious about it. He doesn’t compare the meal (not out loud, at least) to the dozens of other wonderful restaurants where he has eaten. He has a profound enthusiasm for ingredients, ideas, and presentation, and he is wonderfully encouraging when the server presents you with a slab (ok, it was more like a sliver) of pigeon liver; his “Aw, c’mon mate, let’s try a bite!” is inviting rather than challenging. We had a ball deciphering flavors and ingredients and comparing our preferences.
In contrast, the first time I ate at Pujol, I sat next to a man who detested spice, who disliked trying “new” food, and moaned about heartburn and indigestion during each course.
If you’re going to eat at an epic restaurant, do what you can to make sure your dining mates are up to the task.
2. Make a decision early on about what’s important to you.
Yes, you can take photos (unless the restaurant has a policy against it) and yes, you can meticulously write down every course presented you, along with a ratings system and parenthetical raves and rants. But over the course of the meal, dividing your attention between the experience itself and your documentation of it is probably going to take a bit of a toll. I know this because I didn’t want to make that decision early on, unlike table mate Sherry Ott, who decided she wanted to savor every bit of the experience, even if she had no physical evidence of it afterward. (By the way, you *can* ask for a copy of the menu).
3. Pace yourself.
As mentioned before, the amount of food is not likely to overwhelm your system, but if you’ve got a 17 course meal with alcohol pairings, the effect of 17 successive glasses of wine–however delicious they are–may leave you nodding out on the table. And that means you’ll miss your multiple desserts, which would be a shame.
4. Don’t skip the optionals.
The invitation to see the kitchen, the guided tour of the 30,000 bottle collection in the cellar with the lead sommelier… don’t pass up these opportunities. They are an important part of the overall experience and give you both insight into and appreciation of the creative geniuses at work. For me, getting a peek at the discipline, order, and quiet collaboration among Can Roca’s kitchen staff was inspiring, as was sommelier Josep Roca’s sensorial explanation of the different properties of wines from the region and the world.
5. Get up often.
By the end of our meal at El Celler de Can Roca, I was exhausted. It hadn’t occurred to me to simply get up and walk around a bit between courses, but I think that doing so would have helped me feel like I wasn’t totally down for the count after the last dessert course was eaten. If it’s possible and appropriate, get up, stretch your legs, and get some fresh air.
6. Don’t eat and run.
Servers are not waiting to turn your table over for the second, third, or fourth seating, so don’t rush. Trust the kitchen and front of house staff members’ timing, and let them set the pace. Savor every moment.
Have you had an incredible eating experience you’ll never forget? Tell us about it in the comments.
*There was some dispute as to whether we actually ate 17 courses.