A year after El Bulli's closing, a community of passionate chefs is proving that the top-ranked restaurant was neither the beginning nor the end of the region’s culinary greatness.

When the world's top-ranked restaurant, El Bulli, served its last meal on 30 July 2011, two collective yet distinctly different-sounding sighs heaved from the mouths of foodies and critics around the world.

First: the sigh of disappointment and anxious anticipation. El Bulli would never turn out another alchemical 35-course meal, and those who had not enjoyed a coveted spot at an El Bulli table now never would. With the former seaside shack-turned-Michelin-starred restaurant (named for a bulldog, no less) shuttered, what would become of chef Ferran Adria, the man credited with pioneering the cooking technique known as molecular gastronomy? And who was Adria's heir apparent?

Second came the sigh of relief. Critics of Adria's style -- and there were plenty -- hoped that the nearly global obsession with Adria's “kitchen chemistry” style of cooking might finally dissipate. (Unlikely, given that Adria disciples have set up their own El Bulli-inspired establishments in places as predictable as restaurant-rich Chicago and New York, and as unexpected as not-so-haute Asheville, North Carolina.) 

For locals, though, there was a more pressing question: what would be the next phase in the evolution of Catalan cuisine? Though this northeastern region of Spain had its own rich food traditions before diners worldwide made pilgrimages to the tiny town of Roses for a meal at El Bulli, Adria effectively put the autonomous community of Catalonia, and in particular its coastal Costa Brava region, on the world’s culinary map. Would the region that had experienced such gastronomic fame suddenly disappear from the food world's radar?

They need not have worried.

A year after El Bulli's closing, Catalonia and Costa Brava have continued to maintain their claim as innovative and exciting food destinations. In fact, El Bulli's end seems to have opened up space for other farmers, food producers and chefs to step out of Adria's shadow and show off their culinary diversity.

There are the obvious accomplishments that have affirmed the region’s continued prominence, chief among them the naming of El Celler de Can Roca as the second best restaurant in the world this year by San Pellegrino in its World's 50 Best Restaurants list. And El Celler, headed up by the Roca brothers (Joan, executive chef; Josep, sommelier; Jordi, pastry chef), definitely deserves the accolade. When you the tour the kitchen and the wine bodega -- as you inevitably will if you secure a reservation at El Celler -- you will quickly realise that all three men were born with a culinary gift that they continue to develop. Joan's “olive tree” snack (caramelised anchovies and olives shaped into spheres and attached carefully to a bonsai tree) is a visually brilliant and delicious nod to one of the most recognisable ingredients of the region -- olives. Josep's knowledge of and reverence for wine is conveyed through a nearly monastic, meditative, ritualized presentation as you move with him through the different sections of the cellar, learning about the wines of Catalonia and Spain, as well as the imports he recommends and pairs specially for your meal. And youngest brother Jordi's playful desserts, such as his blown sugar “apricot” with a caramelized vanilla apricot cream suspended inside, is as light and sweet and memorable as the Costa Brava itself.

But El Celler de Can Roca is not the only bright light in the post-El Bulli landscape. The whole area is rife with experimenting chefs and food producers doing amazing things. That is great news for travellers, who could easily spend weeks exploring the region's culinary culture, particularly as some of these other chefs and food producers offer unique, hands-on experiences at much more affordable prices than an El Bulli or El Celler dinner.

Take Iolanda Bustos' La Calendula Restaurant for starters. Not far from El Celler de Can Roca, La Calendula's menu is built entirely around the flowers and plants that are typical of Costa Brava and Catalonia, including wild carrots, sorrel, liquorice and marigolds. But do not expect raw food, vegan or even vegetarian-centric dishes; cod, prawns and rabbit -- also sourced locally -- all feature prominently on the menu. Flowers are not merely decorative either; they provide both the base and the shape of an entire meal, from the rabbit loin with pickled rose petals to the Gala beer made with hops, calendula, hibiscus and elderflower. Bustos calls her food “landscape cooking”, and while she forages for most of La Calendula's ingredients herself, she also has pots and trays of plants and flowers sprouting around the restaurant. 

El Celler de Can Roca and La Calendula are both located in the Costa Brava town of Girona, a medieval city that perhaps seems an unlikely spot for vanguard modernist and hyperlocal “landscape” cooking, given its history and closely held traditions. But across Catalonia, even in the smallest, most rural towns, you can find farmers, home cooks and professional chefs all drawing inspiration from the land, just as Adria did. Thanks to its position between sea and mountains, Catalonia is marked by dozens of microclimates, each producing ingredients and plates that are tied indelibly to their terroir. The ingredients and techniques are not necessarily novel; in some cases, they extend back generations. But what these gourmands have in common is the goal to make these techniques and the dishes they produce more visible and accessible to foodies around the world.

One such technique is “volcanic cooking,” promoted most passionately by independent chef Pep Nogue i Puigvert of Garrotxa, an interior region of Catalonia ringed by dormant volcanoes. The particular properties of the volcanic soil are ideal for growing purple potatoes, black truffles, buckwheat, white corn and tomatoes, and Nogue insists the ingredients have a distinct flavour profile compared to the same vegetables and grains grown elsewhere, a characteristic he attributes to the soil's perfect balance of absorption and porosity, as well as its mineral properties. Nogue offers cooking demonstrations in a rustic, outdoor setting within the Garrotxa Volcanic Region Natural Park, but other chefs, namely the executive chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants Ca l'Enric and Les Cols, also in Garrotxa, are sharing volcanic cooking with a much bigger audience.

About 185km south of Garrotxa is the town of Falset, where the equally passionate chef Roger Felip-Soler works to familiarise visitors with the ingredients and cooking styles of his little corner of Catalonia. Neither coastal nor volcanic -- though not far from either -- the yield of Felip-Soler's land in Falset is no less impressive. Olives, walnuts, stone fruits and rosemary are typical, and Felip-Soler is one of many local food producers whose meats are fully pasture-raised. At his rural farmhouse, Mas Trucafort, he and his wife host cooking classes and meals featuring foods that are typical of the region, like delicious calcots -- a cross between a spring onion and a leek -- served with romesco sauce, and artichokes served with Catalonia's favourite accompaniment, the garlic sauce allioli.  All of Felip-Soler's meals, from appetiser to dessert, are cooked over open, wood-fuelled fires outdoors. Felip-Soler explained that focusing on the “raw material that nature offers” brings his family closer to the land and motivates them to not only learn more about their own food heritage, but to work actively to share and preserve those traditions. 

The Roca brothers, Bustos, Nogue, and Felip-Soler are just some of the many figures in this new wave of Catalan cooking. Behind them stands a large community of passionate farmers, food producers and craft food artisans who are taking the abundant yields of Catalonia's diverse microclimates and proving that El Bulli was neither the beginning nor the end of Catalonia’s culinary greatness. There is no single heir apparent to Adria. And while Adria's influence will continue (he plans to open a culinary think-tank in Catalonia in 2014), the closing of El Bulli might be the best thing that has happened to Catalonia since... well, El Bulli.