How to Eat a 17 Course Meal

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.

Menu from the multi-course meal at El Celler de Can Roca.
Menu from the multi-course meal at El Celler de Can Roca.
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.

Ryan & I enjoyed identifying flavors in this dish, "The World."
Ryan & I enjoyed identifying flavors in this dish, "The World."
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.

A chef puts the finishing touches on El Celler de Can Roca's famous olive tree.
A chef puts the finishing touches on El Celler de Can Roca's famous olive tree.
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.

Marea: Restaurant Review

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo


Before I actually tell you anything about Marea, I should tell you about Francisco’s “window of pleasure” theory.

I should also acknowledge that eating a meal with me can either be the most sublime experience you’ve ever had or one of the most challenging.

So first, the “window of pleasure” theory.

This theory posits that the more you know about something–food, let’s say–the more critical you become in assessing it. Further, the theory proposes that rather than enjoying the thing itself more, you have actually become so discerning and, well, demanding, about it that the most pleasure to be derived is to chase the same feeling you had when you first started learning about that thing. You’re always chasing the original high and the current high almost always fails to satisfy. The window of pleasure has shrunk.

To summarize, let’s evoke the wise words of Sade: “It’s never as good as the first time.”

Knowing what we do about the window of pleasure, Francisco and I do not eat out often. Plus, he’s a chef, so there’s no need to spend money we don’t have on someone else’s overpriced victuals.

But here we were, a few days before his birthday, and I had made no plans whatsoever. My mom would be visiting so she could watch our daughter and we could–could we?!–go on a date. I did some quick Googling. And despite my better judgment (there’s a reason I’ve never read a single Yelp review and why I never consult TripAdvisor when making hotel reservations), I was sufficiently convinced by reviews of Marea to make a reservation: “a cultural experience staged on a plate” (New York Times), and shockingly, amazingly awesome” and “sublime” (varied diners who fancy themselves writers). And there were Michelin stars… two of them.

There was no dinner reservation to be had, no matter the hour, so I made a lunch reservation and dusted off a pair of heels just for the occasion.

Apart from eating at home, my very best experience eating–one that really was a transformative moment for me, and I don’t exaggerate in the least–was at Chef Enrique Olvera’s Pujol in Mexico City (but he and it deserve their own review). Pujol has set the standard for me as far as fine restaurants go. You can’t just have exceptional food, though that’s essential. You have to pair it with a space that allows the food to be the main attraction without distractions , with service that is attentive and respectful without being smothering, and a personality behind it that isn’t about stars or accolades or ego, but about being in touch with one’s gifts and talents and being driven, above all, to share those with others.

So this meal was to be a festive occasion, a celebration of Francisco’s birth and his life, and our relationship, and, yes, the fact that this was one of two times in as many years when we’d been alone. But as we can deconstruct and critique a meal with the kind of efficiency and attention of a scientist dissecting a specimen, none of our talk was about love or life plans; it was about how everything about Marea was off, from the server with his affected “I don’t really know what the first dish on the tasting menu is. I don’t know how to explain it.”, to the water glasses that went without being refilled for 15 minutes, to the funghi risotto that was dead boring and the desserts that were trying so hard to be interesting that they lacked any cohesive identity whatsoever.

For anyone who might have dined with us, our scathing commentary would likely have become grating, and fast. But we found plenty of reasons to laugh… and we did enjoy one dish, the polipo (pictured above), an octopus tentacle that was tender and delicious with an intense smoky flavor. I enjoyed it all the more because I didn’t expect to enjoy it at all.

But would we go back? Never. There’s no need for us to pay $180 to have a few laughs; we’re pretty adept at having a good time without spending a dime.

Valencia, Spain in 4 plates

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
In the world of “alta cocina,” (translation: high-class cooking) one of the greatest achievements to which chefs aspire is earning a Michelin star.

A Michelin star is a global stamp of approval that says “This food is capital G “Good.” Two Michelin stars means “This food is even better,” and three Michelin stars, which are rare bestowals, means “This food is bucket list good.”

The stars are serious business. They can make or break careers and reputations. They can elevate chefs from obscurity to popularity almost overnight. They are, for some travelers, the axis around which their trips are organized (a colleague on my recent trip to Spain told me that she knows a couple who travel the world solely by Michelin stars, their goal to eat at every Michelin starred restaurant in the world).

Spain has a respectable share of Michelin stars and Valencia, the country’s third largest city, located on the Mediterranean coast, is home to 13 Michelin starred restaurants at last count (January 2011). I ate at a few of them on my trip to Valencia last week, including La Sucursal and Vertical. The former is included below in a round-up of excellent Valencian restaurants– with and without Michelin stars.

Restaurant: Agua de Mar
Location: Puerto Deportivo Marina de Denia
Atmosphere: The restaurant, located inside the marina at Denia, has indoor and outdoor dining; outdoor is best, as you’re overlooking the Mediterranean and the collection of fancy sport boats and leisure yachts at rest here. Plus, the outdoor tables allow more room to spread out… which you’ll need.
Tip: Finish the meal with muscat, a sweet dessert wine, served here in chilled shot glasses.
Best Dish: One of my first meals in Spain contained this monstrosity, which was a “starter” plate:

This should be its own meal.

Filled with onions, potatoes, and local ham, then topped with not one, but two eggs, this could have–and probably should have– been its own meal. It was the first dish that made me certain I’d never get any work done if I lived in Spain.

Restaurant: La Matandeta
Location: Carretera Alafar-El Saler, Km. 4
Atmosphere: This family owned restaurant is located inside a nature reserve, and if you doubt for one moment that paella is the house specialty, just step outside on the patio to confirm that the restaurant is surrounded by Valencia’s famous rice fields.

This is the kind of restaurant best enjoyed with friends or family; the tables are large, as are the portions, made for sharing. If you don’t have anyone accompanying you, the owners’ family will make you feel at home; the restaurant is an extension of their own homestead, and children play on the patio while you eat.

Call in advance and ask if it’s possible to have a tour of the rice fields before your meal (you’ll be too stuffed after your meal to enjoy such an excursion). If you prefer hands-on activities, La Matandeta also offers paella-making workshops.

Also, ask if there’s a special menu; when I visited, there was a special menu on which every dish was accompanied by some type of ice cream.

Best Dish: Paella

Paella is cooked outside over a wood fire.

Cooked slowly outdoors over a wood fire, you can choose from several different paellas. I tried two–the vegetarian paella and the paella with rabbit, duck, and snails– and both were dense, rich, and smoky.

Restaurant: Casa Montana
Location: Calle Jose Benlliure 69
Business in the front, party in the back.

This tapas taberna (tavern) is old-school in the front, with antique-type details and a bustling waitstaff dodging among tables. The newer “Sala de Barricas” is more sleek and modern, with long communal tables perfect for sharing tapas.

Be sure to taste the tapas that you wouldn’t be inclined to try. I resisted the mussels but when I finally gave in, I was glad I did; they were creamy, not at all fishy, and melted in my mouth.

Best Dish: Codfish

Creamy codfish, proof that you should try everything.

I’ll eat codfish, but it’s not my favorite. I dipped into this dish hesitantly at first, but after the initial bite, I surreptitiously pulled the plate closer to my side of the table for more. And more. And more.

Restaurant: La Sucursal
Location: Guillem de Castro 118
La Sucursal is located inside the Institute of Modern Art of Valencia. Decor is modern and minimalist, allowing almost complete focus on the food.

Pair your visit to the restaurant with a visit to the museum, which is on the smaller side and can be enjoyed in an hour.

Best Dish: Molecularized gazpacho

Gazpacho, molecular gastronomy style.

Molecular gastronomy is popular in Valencia, and this dish shows off how fun a well-executed dish can be. The red dots quivering in these spoons are mouth-pops of delicious gazpacho.