Ferran Adrià’s ‘techno-emotional’ cooking changed food forever. But with his famed restaurant no more, the mad scientist of fine dining tells Stuart Husband he has a new plan: to change the world itself.
Ferran Adrià is throwing what amounts, for him, to a hissy fit. His customary intensity – the rapid-fire Catalan, the rollercoaster eyebrows, the expansive gestures – has ratcheted up a notch. “They want a picture of me at the stove, in the act of cooking,” he says of our photographer. “Why? The fact is that we are not cooking anymore.” And therein, for foodies the world over, lies the rub. A year ago, Adrià closed his restaurant, the world-conquering, hysteria-generating El Bulli, a modest beachside hacienda two hours north of Barcelona that topped the Restaurant magazine poll a record five times and was widely regarded as the best in the world. Adrià achieved this by pioneering molecular gastronomy (he prefers the unwieldy “techno-emotional cuisine”), with the aid of freeze-dryers, liquid nitrogen tanks, gelling agents and “spherifiers”. In Adrià’s surreal culinary universe, melons were reconstituted as orange caviar balls, anomalous flavours – tobacco-flavoured blackberry crushed ice, say – formed an unholy alliance, and the humble green olive became an intense nectarous essence inside a simulacrum of its own skin.
El Bulli served 35 courses at £350 a head, and more than two million petitioners would bid for the 8,000 places available during the restaurant’s annual six-month stint (full disclosure: I, in common with most of the civilised world, never made it there).
Adrià’s decision to shut made worldwide headlines (“It reminds me of how I felt when I heard the Beatles were breaking up,” wrote Jay McInerney, quoting a “gourmand friend” of his in Vanity Fair), and blew a huge hole in those “Things You Must Do Before You Die” lists. None of this was mollified by Adrià’s announcement that, since 2014, El Bulli itself has been reconstituted as the El Bulli Foundation, a “centre for creative excellence”, or by the fact that his influence is now embodied in every foam-filled menu and teat-pipette-wielding chef, from Heston Blumenthal downwards. We’re meeting Adrià in El Bulli Taller, the restaurant’s former “laboratory”.
Housed in an 18th-century mansion just off Barcelona’s Ramblas, this is where he and his fellow visionaries would research new dishes for the coming season. Today, it resembles the lair of a mad taxonomist; Adrià is cataloguing his vast archive of dishes, and the hobs and workstations are obscured by sheaves of paper ready to be worked into catalogues that already tip the scales at 53lb. Upstairs are display cabinets filled with the specially designed glass and metalware – fried-egg-shaped saucers, like Dalí’s floppy clocks, and twisted silver stanchions, based on origami folds, in which the cauliflower couscous or pistachio sherbet lollies would be served.
A more prosaic room showcases Adrià’s revenue-generating collaborations with Lavazza coffee, Pepsi, and United Biscuits; El Bulli famously never made money: “We were more about generating enthusiasm,” he shrugs. Alongside the honorary degrees, there’s a portrait of his Simpsons likeness (in an episode called The Food Wife, he ran a restaurant called El Chemistri, and served a course called “Regret,” where a bowl of soup was flavoured with a tear from its server). Adrià looks misty-eyed. “That was like a thunder-crack,” he says.
“When we knew our revolution had gone beyond cooking. Now, if you have a chef on the cover of such a magazine, it’s not a novelty. Then, it was a paradigm shift.” In August, the myth of El Bulli was further burnished with the release of Cooking in Progress, a documentary following the restaurant’s 2008-9 season. The action begins in the Taller before shifting to the restaurant’s army of stagiaires, or interns, as they attempt to follow orders (“We want the texture of a warm jelly, but deep fried”).
The film’s certainly reverent, and if it fails to convey the rapture of the five- hour El Bulli eating experience, perhaps that can be supplied by Adrià’s own Historia de un Sueño, a four-DVD history of the establishment, or by another forthcoming documentary, The Last Waltz, following El Bulli’s final day of service, or even by a mooted Hollywood treatment of the El Bulli story, based on Lisa Abend’s book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, tracking the stagiaires’ experiences. Who will be playing Adrià? Brad Pitt? George Clooney? He snorts. “I don’t want a star,” he says. “You don’t believe in a famous actor playing someone equally famous who’s still alive. Look at Will Smith playing Cassius Clay.
You’re always comparing him to the real thing, to his detriment.” Adrià himself references The Social Network as a conceptual template – “some fact, some fiction”. But a more fitting version of “El Bulli: The Movie” would surely be a cross between vintage Peter Greenaway (Adrià resembles Richard Bohringer, who played the cook in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, a film he refers to more than once), and a sort of Zoolander for foodies. When, in Cooking in Progress, Adrià clangingly intones, “Don’t bring me anything that’s not good,” or a critic writes that “Ferran Adrià did not feed us, he deflowered us,” it’s hard to keep a straight face. The latter quote is from 2010’s Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, the 300-page biography/hagiography by Colman Andrews, that, by the end of its first two chapters, has already compared Adrià to Picasso, Le Corbusier, Walker Evans, Miles Davis and Tiger Woods. Adrià himself eschews those comparisons, but only in favour of Steve Jobs and Norman Foster:
“Because they changed the world.”
Despite the bombast, Adrià himself seems fairly modest in his beige T-shirt and black jeans. He was born in the Barcelona suburb of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat in 1962, the son of a plasterer and a beauty salon worker. He excelled at football in school, and considered making a career of it, but after a stint in the navy, he became a line chef at El Bulli, which was then owned by an expatriate German couple, Hans and Marketta Schilling (and named for Marketta’s cherished French bulldogs), and whose French chef, Jean-Paul Vinay, had earned two Michelin stars for his nouvelle cuisine. Adrià was 22, and entirely self-taught. Yet, three years later, he became sole chef de cuisine, and later bought the restaurant with his business partner Juli Soler.
His “eureka” moment came courtesy of French chef Jacques Maximin, who, when asked his thoughts on innovation (his dishes included duck mousse inside turnip-petal ravioli), replied: “Creativity means not copying.” Adrià took this to heart, combining nouvelle cuisine with Catalan brio (Adrià’s version of one notable national dish, the mar i muntanya, combines squid, lobster, rabbit, meatballs, and chocolate).
Once the whipped-cream siphon was deployed to create the first foam, Pandora’s pharmacological box opened and El Bulli won its third Michelin star. “I wanted to take nouvelle cuisine further,” says Adrià emphatically, “to the point where we were breaking down the essence of taste and sensation, reconfiguring food as a series of really intense hits on the tongue.” Needless to say, it wasn’t all a breeze.
“It’s very hard to be an innovator at the highest level in any discipline. For some chefs it’s merely about combining ingredients, but that’s something you can do with your eyes closed.” He looks disdainful. “Precisely,” he responds delightedly. “In the last 100 years there have been only two culinary movements, nouvelle cuisine and techno-emotional. Only two!” Adrià declares that he wanted to take his diners on “a journey”, and that there might be some less rhapsodic detours along the way. In Cooking in Progress, he calls for “more dissonance”, perhaps a reference to the likes of his “Sea Anemone 2008” – sea anemone, raw rabbit brains and oysters in lukewarm dill broth – which even Colman Andrews found “utterly unpleasant”.
“Yes, we wanted to inspire positive and negative reactions, and humour, things that had never existed in cuisine before, si si si si si,” exclaims Adrià. “It had to be thought-provoking, even violent at times, so you would reflect upon life in all its aspects.” He was in Noma the other day, he continues – Rene Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant which took over from El Bulli as the world’s best – and was given live ants to eat. “If anyone had done this 10 years ago in a high-end restaurant, they would have been jailed,” he says. “Now, it’s not remarkable. Without aiming to, we changed the way people thought about food.” And now Adrià and his team have moved on – but to what? While enthusing that the whole team is “re-energised” by the prospect of the Foundation – “we are like children again” – Adrià makes it sound like a cross between a TED canteen and a Scientology AGM:
“It will be a centre for experimentation, where we will study ways of auditing creativity using cuisine and cooking, but creating a dialogue with other disciplines, and communicating the findings through the internet,” he declares.
He’s also due in London in October to launch “BulliPedia”, an online search engine for every dish he’s ever created. Is there one he’d like to be remembered for? “I think the vegetable panache,” he says – a psychedelic array of vividly re-coloured, re-textured legumes – “because a lot of people have identified it as being an iconic example of techno-emotional cuisine.”
Adrià doesn’t seem at all interested in fame for its own sake — he lives very modestly, has no car, and has been married to his wife, Isabel, for a decade (they have no children). What about those chefs who’ve ridden to fame on his emulsified coat-tails? Wait, he admonishes; Heston Blumenthal is a dear friend, mi amigo. “I love The Fat Duck. But when he started out, he had the Bulli as a reference point. When we started, we had no reference at all. There’s a fever for fame that young chefs seem to aspire to now. “It’s OK, it makes them ambitious, but it has its downsides; if they’re not on every TV show, or on every cover, swearing their head off, they feel they’ve failed.” He pauses, and smiles; I’m not sure if he’s seeing the same vision of a Certain Foul-Mouthed Scottish Celebrity Chef that I am.
“You can get lost in that and lose sight of what it’s all about,”
he continues. “What we do is important, but I’m not important.” However, he acknowledges that if the El Bulli Foundation is to stand any chance of success, he needs to be its figurehead: “I think we’ve got 20 years to make it work. But if it doesn’t work, I’ll close it.” Or reopen El Bulli? He shakes his head; that chapter is closed. But the first thing that Ferran Adrià does when it’s time to take the photo? He slips off his T-shirt and pulls on his chef’s whites. He may not be cooking right now, but there’s sure plenty of frozen foie gras dust in his Pacojet yet.
Adria’s dishes look simple but hide a stunning array of secret twists and turns.
Aire helado de parmesano con muesli
Diners opened a Styrofoam box to find a frozen bubble of parmesan-infused “air”, and muesli to sprinkle.
Muelle de aceite de oliva virgen
Adrià’s olive oil coil (presented in a jewellery box) was made by emulsifying olive oil, then twisting it using a power drill.
A delicate pink starfish made from dark chocolate coated with sour raspberry powder. Customers who tried to eat the base it rested upon found themselves biting into a rock.
Lombarda con lentejas de jamón ibérico
A gel of Iberian ham was syringed into an iced water bath to spherify. The result: small ham “lentils”.
One of Adrià’s many jokes on his customers was savoury Orio cookies, made using black olive dough.
“The day on which Chinese cuisine is known openly to the world will mark a true revolution. What can I say about Peking Duck? It is a wonderful recipe where a very high level of technique is required to provide an exciting result. I simply love it. I also remember a dish of vegetables that I ate at a small and humble restaurant in Chiang Mai that had a great impact upon me. The plate of vegetables appeared to be the living expression of the famous “Garguillou” of Michael Bras [a famous creation that consists of 40 to 50 vegetable ingredients]. I was pleasantly surprised to see that sensitivity exists in the least expected places.”
“[If I had to create a Chinese dish] I don’t know where I would start. I have given myself an objective to try to know and understand Chinese cuisine, because that in itself is a culinary treasure, to find historical recipes that could be vey current today in the west. There are many examples. In 2009 Peking Duck inspired us and we started to make a small crispy crepe stuffed with fried pork rind (emulating the crispy duck skin), cucumber and Hoisin sauce. It was called, as it could not be otherwise, “crepe Beijing”. The Sichuan Pepper is one of the most used Chinese products in our kitchen, and we are inspired by various technique and concepts, such as the wonton.
With typical Chinese dishes such as the Shark’s fin, for example, we have recreated it several times by removing the main ingredient and simulating the shape and texture of the fin with pumpkin or parmesan cheese, for example. More stories like this are available in Quintessentially Asia.