By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, June 28th, 2015.
It’s a relatively chilly day in April and chef Ferran Adria is walking a group of journalists around the elBulliFoundation buildings in Barcelona. It’s not what you’d expect as the latest expression of creativity from a man who is debatably the world’s greatest chef.
For a start, there is no food to be had and not a stainless steel kitchen surface in sight. Instead, the unassuming second storey industrial space is stuffed with trestle tables and earnest looking young people with fashionable clothes and thick rimmed glasses, tapping away on Apple laptops.
Thick white foam boards divide up the open plan space and are pin-cushioned with cuttings from magazines, books and print-outs from the web. Stick-it notes abound and the atmosphere is more like that of a university than a commercial kitchen. In fact, it feels more like a tech start-up than a culinary institute.
But then what Adria is attempting to do has more in common in terms of ambition with Google or Facebook than it does with his beloved elBulli restaurant – he wants to write the definitive work on food. All food, everywhere and at every point in history. Can it be done? He seems to think it can and if anyone can do it, it’s probably him.
Few people have had as big an impact on their chosen profession as Ferran Adria. Microsoft’s Bill Gates perhaps? Or Apple’s Steve Jobs. But in the world of high end gastronomy, there are few who would begrudge Adria the oft overused title of genius.
This is the man who powdered olive oil, who spherified sauces and who turned food into foam. Most importantly, this is the man who did it first, applying the kind of creativity to food previously reserved for music, painting, literature and art.
While he prefers to call his style of food deconstructionist in nature, he’s most closely associated with the style of cooking known as molecular gastronomy, and it’s difficult to overestimate just how influential it and he have been. Many of the current generation of top chefs spent time under Adria’s tutelage, including Noma’s René Redzepi, Mugaritz’s Andoni Luis Aduriz and Alinea’s Grant Achatz. His influence has travelled past those he’s personally trained as well.
Together with Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the UK, Adria is considered the father of modernist cuisine and perhaps the most influential chef alive. His globally famous restaurant, elBulli, held three Michelin stars and regularly either topped San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list or hovered in the top three until abruptly closing its doors in July 2011.
The critics were perplexed – elBulli was only open to the public for six months each year, with the remaining six months dedicated to the research and development of new dishes, but a table here was amongst the most sought after reservations in the culinary world. If you’ve eaten in a high end restaurant in the last five years, the odds are you’ve been served deconstructed dishes created using techniques pioneered by Adria at elBulli.
From meats and fish cooked sous-vide in a vacuum sealed plastic bag to plates garnished with foams, freeze-dried powders, edible flowers or spherified liquids, the Spanish chef’s influence has been far reaching. The techniques he’s credited with popularising, if not outright inventing have changed the face of performance cooking.
Adria is probably best known for two particular techniques — creating edible foams by mixing flavour bases with a stabilising gelling agent such as lecithin that are then forced out of a nitrous oxide syphon to create a stable foam, and the technique of spherification, in which flavoured liquids are mixed with sodium alginate and then dropped into a bath of calcium chloride to create spheres of flavoured liquid resembling caviar. Both techniques are now found in restaurants all over the world.
However, he’s also credited with popularising the use of fluid gels using different gelling agents to create edible gels that are stable either cold or hot, as well as researching new thickening and emulsification agents that change the texture of food without affecting its flavour for use in professional kitchens.
In 2010, Ferran Adria and his brother Albert taught a culinary physics course entitled ‘Science and Cooking’ at Harvard University in the USA. A meal at elBulli was a dinner to boast about. Bookings were taken on one day each year for the following year, with only 8,000 seats available at an average price of €250 per diner.
The restaurant reportedly received more than two million requests for reservations each year, generating a respectable €2 million in revenue. Why close such a wildly successful restaurant at the peak of its success and influence?
According to Adria, the restaurant itself apparently ran at a considerable loss – it employed over 40 chefs and while the business behind it made a profit, this mostly came from elBulli related books, catering products and personal appearances and lectures given by Adria, who the New York Times reported gets around €80,000 for an hour long lecture on creativity.
Aged just 53, the entire gastronomic world asked themselves the question ‘what will Adria do now?’ While he surely has little left to prove behind a stove, the answer has still taken many observers by surprise. His latest venture is the elBulliFoundation, a kind of umbrella vehicle for a few distinctly different projects.
The first is the reinvention of the former elBulli restaurant. Currently being remodelled and scheduled for a 2017 reopening, it is to be rebranded elBulli 1846—named for the number of original dishes created at the elBulli restaurant — and will function, we are told, as a cultural and educational centre rather than a restaurant.
The second and potentially most interesting is Bullipedia, a vehicle Adria has created to bridge the worlds of academia, science and knowledge acquisition with cooking and the art to be found in high end kitchens. The end goal is to create a repository of information on food and creativity and to refine and codify a new way of researching and categorising knowledge that Adria calls ‘sapiens’.
And as a proof of concept, the first subject matter to be tackled using the sapiens methodology is food. Right now, his team is mostly concerned with writing a series of books on food, producing work, he says, at the rate of one whole book’s worth a day.
Adria champions the creativity that is often attributed to cooking but which actually is rarely there. The majority of chefs are craftsmen rather than artists – their skills lie in reproducing things that other people have created. True creativity is something different, he believes:
“Although I could create a new dish with this tomato, it isn’t possible to create a new tomato.”
When the project is complete, the sum total of the group’s research and methodologies will all be published online for free, available as a resource forever but it will also be sold as an old fashioned set of books, a kind of Encyclopedia Britannica for the world of food.
In one corner of the Barcelona offices, staff members are cataloguing different styles of place settings, while an extensive library of cook books stands as testament to the internationality of the project. Books are organised by country – the only Irish entry on display is Colman Andrew’s Country Cooking of Ireland – and in a side area an impressive selection of Dom Perignon vintage bottles and labels are being studied.
“There is no definitive reference on champagne production and no catering college teaches this. There is nobody to teach it, because those that know it are busy working for the top champagne houses. So we are gathering their knowledge to make it available in catering schools around the world,” says Adria.
If the elBulliFoundation sounds difficult to understand, that’s because it is. Right now it’s impossible to assess just how significant its projects will prove to be, but what isn’t in doubt is that significant resources are being used to create it.
Adria has signed deals with a number of large corporate backers, in return for lending them his personal credibility and making himself available for commercial endorsements. He is a brand ambassador for Telefonica and has also worked with brewing company Estrella to bring his elBulli-created beer Inedit to a wider audience. It was recently launched in Ireland, retailing at around €8 for a 75cl bottle.
And then there are those lectures on creativity. On the day we meet in Barcelona, he spends the morning giving such a lecture, starting by addressing the room while holding a tomato and asking us the seemingly rhetorical question “what is this? Is it a natural product?”
Someone in the assembled crowd replies “only if it’s organic.” The answer seems self-evident, but only if you don’t think like Adria.
“Most people would say a fresh tomato is natural,” he says. “But the tomato has been domesticated by man, it’s the least natural thing in the world. A natural tomato does exist in the Andes but it’s inedible, it’s disgusting. Your preconceptions about what is natural are false.”
He continues. “What about a jar of tomato sauce from the supermarket? Would you use that at home? If you consider yourself a cook probably not. But you will use olive oil and dried pasta? What’s the difference?”
It’s this kind of thinking that has informed Adria’s entire career. What other people took for granted, he questioned. Just because something has always been done one way, doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way, or at the very least another and potentially more interesting way of doing it.
But if you never ask, you never know.
From dishwasher to top chef
Born in Barcelona in May 1962, Ferran Adria started his career in cooking like many before him and since — up to his elbows in hot soapy water.
A summer job washing dishes in a French restaurant in the Hotel Playafels in Castelldefels, Spain, quickly led to a job as an apprentice chef, and it was here that he first had his imagination fired by just how good the local cuisine of Barcelona and its surroundings could be.
He worked and travelled from Spain to Ibiza before being obliged to do military service with the Spanish navy, working as a cook. When he returned to civilian life at the age of 22, he applied to do a stage (unpaid trial) at a small but well regarded restaurant called El Bulli, in the remote coastal town of Roses around two hours north of Barcelona.
El Bulli was opened in 1964 by German Dr Hans Schilling and his Czech wife Marketa, and named after their pet bulldogs. It achieved success as a French restaurant long before Adria set foot there, albeit with a reputation for a different kind of cuisine. It was awarded a Michelin star in 1976, and when Adria joined in 1983 he was very much a junior. He managed to turn his stage into a full time job as a chef de partie, or junior line chef, and it wasn’t long until his talent and unique acumen shone through.
He was encouraged to travel and broaden his culinary palate see what was happening elsewhere in Europe, and he spent a significant period working with renowned chefs in France before returning to be made head chef in 1987. It was around this time,that he started to experiment with the chemistry of food, re-examining dogmatic ideas about cooking techniques and applying a degree of scientific rigour to the chemical changes that the organic compounds in food undergo when cooked.
While he wasn’t the first to do this – Harold McGee’s seminal work on this subject ‘On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen’ was first published in 1984 – Adria applied a degree of flair and creativity to his cooking that won acclaim all around the world. El Bulli’s second Michelin star arrived in 1990 with a third coming in 1997, and it was first voted to the top of Restaurant Magazine’s World’s 50 Best List in 2002. It held that position on five separate occasions.
Panel out – Dining out in Barcelona today
ElBulli might be closed but it’s still possible to sample some of the magic that went on there. Ferran Adria’s brother – and culinary star in his own right – Albert Adria operates five restaurants in Barcelona. He was the pastry chef at elBulli until 2006 , and the rigourous discipline and attention to detail required to fill that position now finds its expression in his efforts to turn a small area of Barcelona into what he terms “a culinary theme park”.
All of the restaurants can be found within walking distance of the Plaça d’Espanya end of Barcelona’s main arterial road Gran Via. The most celebrated is the contemporary tapas restaurant Tickets, opened in 2010 and awarded its first Michelin star in 2014.
The food here is highly creative, served in a space reminiscent of a Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The dessert room in particular is kitted out with oversized cartoon strawberries hanging from the ceiling. Dessert here is a particular treat – Albert Adria was declared the world’s best pastry chef in the recently announced World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s awards.
Bodega 1900 is an old fashioned tapas restaurant, with only a few nods towards the techniques used to build the Adria name – it features hanging hams, nautical interior décor and perfect execution of Catalonian classics like snow crab on toast, tomato salad, salted prawns and Iberico ham croquettes.
Pakta is a fusion restaurant serving a hybrid cuisine bringing together Japanese and Peruvian cooking, served in a small restaurant kitted out to perfectly mesh Japanese aesthetics with South American flair. It describes its food as ‘nikkei’ in style, referring to the name Japanese people use for emigrants of Japanese descent who have settled elsewhere. Pakta holds a Michelin star.
Hoja Santa is a Mexican haute cuisine restaurant, the big brother of the groups less formal Nino Viejo restaurant, specialising in tacos and botanas, a kind of Mexican snack or appetiser.
Albert Adria will be a speaker at the upcoming Food on the Edge symposium to be held in Galway on October 19 and 20 this year. For more information, visit http://www.foodontheedge.ie