My second work shift in Ibiza finds me sitting on a stool in a large glass box. There’s a spotlight shining down on me as Cirque du Soleil makeup artist Chloé Lefebvre paints my lips, face and décolletage in special green chroma key. The paint, applied in broad geometric strokes, changes colour and reveals images such as a soothing sunset on the massive pixelated screen beside me as a roomful of dinner guests nonchalantly look on from their club chairs. I look back at them, wondering what two-bite delicacies that couple is plucking from a giant fibreglass tusk. And is that man’s crab glowing? Stage performer is just one of the jobs I’m doing during my stint at Heart. Created by modernist culinary icons Ferran and Albert Adrià and Cirque du Soleil founder (and Ibiza resident) Guy Laliberté, it’s a dining concept so conceptual, I’m not sure it qualifies as a restaurant.
When I arrived in Spain the previous steamy morning – and unlocked the door of my staff apartment surprised to find two shirtless young men living there (this would prove to be the least surprising thing that happened during the trip) – the nation’s prestigious party island was in the midst of a month-long heat wave. Nobody had slept in days. And not for the regular Ibiza reasons, though it’s true that evenings really do start around midnight, which sounds late for dinner except that the night before doesn’t usually end until 6 a.m. the morning after. People talk about the summer party season here, the fun, the excess and the hedonism. But they rarely mention how beautiful the island is, with rocky cliffs and warm aquamarine waters cupped by powdery beaches. Rural coves with dirt roads lead down to the Mediterranean, isolated from the constant techno beat, where everyone is decompressing, floating away on inflatable air mattresses, drinking Coke Zeros from glass bottles.
But I’m here for work, joining a crew of some 300 seasonal employees – including 30 artists and performers, from body painters to electro DJs – while doing everything from interpretive dance (apparently, no training required) to taste testing (putting my cooking school skills to the test). In short, I’m going behind the scenes to see just what goes into making a new global culinary destination.
My first task is finding my way around the two-storey complex, which shares a front door with the Ibiza Gran Hotel on prestigious Passeig de Joan Carles I, part of a wealthy enclave overlooking the yacht-strewn marina, where Hollywood famously comes to party. (Pacha nightclub, and Cipriani, just around the corner, host the likes of Leo and the Bieber.) Dim lighting in the main-floor restaurant Supper accentuates two key performance areas: a stage to the right, and an open kitchen burning bright at the back. Walking up a spiral staircase, I emerge onto another dining venue called the Terrace, where sunshine momentarily blinds the views across the harbour to Ibiza’s old town. Making my way through a vast space scattered with stalls, mobile stands and elaborate mismatched patio furniture and featuring a focal-point bar with a Seussian fake tree at its core, I finally find the radical restaurateur Albert Adrià, who I suppose you could call my new boss.
“You go to restaurants to have the emotion of experiencing a great dish,” he says, sipping agua con gas as the action swirls around us. “You feel this too at Cirque.” And so it is that when you approach the statuesque woman wearing the literal cocktail dress (fabricated from leather and 3-D prints) who’s traipsing about; she presses a button in her hand and a backpack full of premixed cosmopolitans dispenses a beverage (via pumps and siphons), which she hands you as the electric heart on her chest lights up and starts “beating.” It’s the work of Anouk Wipprecht, a visiting Dutch-based fashion-tech designer who has created what she calls “interactive couture” for the restaurants. “We’ve been experimenting with the food concept here, so I wanted to make dresses that also serve food and drink,” she explains.
When I’m not rushing around trying to follow instructions in Spanish (I do not speak Spanish), I’m monitoring quality control before guests arrive, plus enjoying some bites of Adrià street food from the colourful food carts (note: nobody has asked me to do this). A Japanese egg and octopus popper is reinterpreted as potato, “the Spanish way,” says the takoyaki chef as he pours the batter into the special griddle, cooks it for a couple of minutes and then tops the delicate domes with aioli and salsa brava. A mini Heart burger is made from coarsely ground oxen, dressed with a murmur of special sauce and cheese on a toasted bun, and is at once earthy, funky and delightful and… ¡Ay, ay, ay! Goh! Behind me, two Cirque performers are stumbling through the Terrace, one with a rope tied around her waist attached to the ice block she’s dragging, which is filled with shooters. “Por favor,” she squeals as she hands out mixed shots.
The vibe up here is akin to the midway at a county fair, only instead of deep-fried Oreos and funnel cakes, chefs are composing ceviche à la minute and rolling masa into corn tortillas for fresh cheese and zucchini-blossom tacos. It’s easily the most talked-about happening of the season; after all, Madonna and Kate Moss have already visited. A trio starts playing sitar music in front of street artist Decko’s fresh backdrop as guests gather round. A family of five sits down at a picnic table. A man in a swinging rattan chair drinks a coupe of champagne while smoking a cigar. I’m beginning to understand what Frank Helpin, the creative director of Cirque du Soleil Hospitality, was saying when he’d tried to explain the Heart concept to me earlier in the day. The experiment of having the partners not doing what they’re internationally known for – El Bulli’s legendary six-hour dinners on the one hand, and acrobatic extravaganzas on the other – created a dichotomy, “to try to see what happens when these worlds collide.”
Nowhere is this better illustrated than downstairs at Supper Club, where on my next evening a stream of eight women dressed as pillbox-hat-era flight attendants pushes meal carts down the centre aisle of the dining room, handing out packets of homemade crackers to an upbeat tempo. Sashaying in unison, they’ve all got maniacal smiles painted on the sides of their faces, crooked like a Picasso. The guests are beyond delighted as they put down their forks, cheer and snap photos. The Adrià brothers haven’t watered down their mind-bending perfectionist ways for mass consumption: 20 chefs stand shoulder to shoulder under the tutelage of Heart executive chef Rafael Zafra and Supper Club head chef Ricardo Acquista, the crew eager to show off their dishes, which are based on global tastes. Literally: You choose your meal from menu cards that are pegged to the spinning globe delivered to each table. The young Alberto Pacheco is charged with the cold-seafood station and waves me over to explain his oysters of the world. He speaks little English, so instead, by way of explanation, he squeezes half a dozen sauces into a silver teaspoon for me to try. “Brazil, caipirinha,” he says of the first, then “Lima,” which tastes like the essence of corn and cilantro. Each bright sauce is destined to dress a plump, subtly salty and eminently creamy Gillardeau oyster from France (these are oysters so revered that lasers ensure the family farm’s shellfish cannot be forged).
Each meal begins with a kiss on a golden frog’s citron-pepper-dusted mouth and a lick of its passion-fruit-powdered back. (Amuse-bouche, indeed.) What looks like a burnished baguette wrapped in prosciutto is neither of those things: Using the small wooden mallet provided, I smash the loaf, which reveals itself to be a delicate hollow cracker – an air baguette – wrapped in housemade cured beef, the whole thing giving way like the controlled implosion of an old Vegas Strip hotel. Pacheco tosses giant king crab pieces in a light mayo dressing with simple garnishes of avocado and umeboshi, and serves it in its own shell on a bed of ice and seaweed in a large silver tray, the crab glowing pink from beneath. (So that man’s crab was glowing!) It’s a theatrical dish, but it’s also confidently uncomplicated. And the taste? As if the seas met the heavens and decided to send out “Save the Date” wedding invites.
On my final night, as I find myself back in the glass box, throwing my body against a sheet of stretched white fabric along with my roommate Ekenah, who implores me to climb onto his shoulders, I ponder the meaning of art and its relationship to food. To say that this is interactive dining would be an understatement. To call it dinner theatre would also be wrong. Meals are much more than nourishment here – they are meant to engage all of the senses and, yes, the heart. A memorable meal is usually one that you’re still thinking about the next day; here, the Adriàs and Laliberté seem bent on creating experiences you’ll remember forever. How often does a woman in a hot-pink leather dress shoot gumballs out of her plastic shoulder pads into your greedy hand? And how many times have you felt an Adriàs’ liquid olive (olive juice made to look like olives through a spherification process) dissolve upon your tongue as if it were never even there to begin with? And when was the last time you witnessed me push my tush into a wall of theatrical Lycra for your dining pleasure?
Albert Adrià knew the initial draw to Heart would be his last name; he tells me that as a culture, we know more today about food than we ever have in history, and that at Heart they’re trying to make a different truth. He says he’s glad the restaurants are full, but adds, “It’s only art when people get emotional about it, when they feel it.” For now, he’s got next season on his mind. “The clientele in Ibiza is difficult,” he notes. “We need more time for them to feel it.” From my vantage point, through the paint and glass and Lycra, I’m definitely feeling it.