I interviewed Ferran Adrià in his workshop in Barcelona in 2002. It was published in The Asian Wall Street Journal. My Spanish was then good enough – it has since gone rapidly down hill. And since then much has change in the el Bulli empire. The restaurant has closed, and the chronological book he mentions that he was working was published in 2008 as A Day at elBulli. And now, he has published a seven volume monster, elBulli:2005-2011 which you can have for a mere $750.If you merely want to know more about the man, his rise to fame and the basis of his cuisine, I thoroughly recommend Reinventing Food Ferran Adrià: the man who changed the way we eat by Colman Andrews. Meanwhile, here is my afternoon with Ferran.
Joel Robuchon pronounced him “the best cook on the planet.” And Paul Bocuse, France’s first superstar chef, believes “he’s doing the most exciting things in our profession.” He’s both admired and derided for inventing a non-dish of non-food, the foam. He’s a Spaniard whose restaurant, el Bulli (The Bulldog) is just up the road from where Salvador Dalí was born and died. His name is Ferran Adrià.
I met Ferran Adrià at the beginning of a gastronomic tour of northern Spain at el Taller (which translates as workshop or studio, he prefers studio), the experimental and business heart of his organisation, just off the Ramblas in Barcelona.
You leave a bustling pedestrian street, push open a giant wooden door and walk into the gloomy and cavernous stone vestibule of an 18th century palace on the first floor of which is the studio. The whole building is under reconstruction and the smell of cement and damp stone follows you up the stairs. But press the buzzer and step into el Taller, and suddenly you’re in one of those Barcelona interiors that looks forward to the future without forgetting the past.
It was while being shown around by one of Adrià’s employees (all young, all chefs, whatever their duties), Eduard Bosc, that I got an inkling of his status in today’s Spain. The office complex includes what would have been the family chapel, which has been converted into a conference room, complete with the original vaulted and decorated ceiling and stained glass window. At one end, where the altar niche would have been, is an oil painting of Adrià, a Dalíesque work in that a plate of food hovers in front of him. The painting leans casually against the wall. Peeking out from behind, over Adrià’s own head, is the top half of a gold halo, part of the mural of a Saint still on the wall.
If the halo fits, he’d probably wear it. Ferran Adrià is the new deity of Spanish cuisine. And Spain, believe it or not, is currently the hottest food spot in Europe. Although I interviewed Adrià, I haven’t eaten his food. There’s a six months waiting list to get into el Bulli, which seats around 40, and is only open six months of the year. But I did eat at enough restaurants in the rest of Northern Spain to convince me there is definitely what the Spanish call a movida, a happening thing, around Spanish cooking – especially Adrià’s ideas – right now.
El Taller is a dazzlingly white lofty ceilinged space with a gallery level, dotted with sleek black leather couches, looking out onto a first floor garden which is also being renovated. The garden is surrounded by the ochre walls and shuttered windows of other ancient buildings of the neighbourhood.
The gallery level holds the extensive library, and the IT section (the home of www.elbulli.com) the office manager, Claudia Esnader and, very importantly, the accounts department. This is one creative endeavour where money definitely counts. Adrià is a Catalan, more, he’s now from that part of Catalonia known as the Ampurdán, where they’re known for combining business acumen, creativity and shrewdness: like Señor Dalí himself.
A two metre high metal sculpture of a kitchen whisk sits outside a large sliding orange panel that hides or reveals the heart of the enterprise, the kitchen. Here, all the chefs who work for Adrià (as well as el Bulli, there’s a catering business, a menu development business and a hotel near Seville) experiment with taste, texture, temperature and flavour.
The day that I visit, Marc Cuspinera, a chef from the catering division is doing some mundane but important work on potatoes, the best methods of cooking various varieties.
The kitchen is no different from a modern commercial kitchen anywhere in the world, except that it’s totally modular, and all benches can easily slide against the wall to create a large open teaching space. But there is one feature that Eduard Bosc reveals which is far from ordinary.
Hidden behind two wooden panels, which drop from the wall to form long benches, is a museum of food, 720 little square glass bottles in purpose built wooden pigeon hole shelves covering just about every non- perishable spice, rice, grain, pasta, tea, coffee on earth. It’s an aide-memoire for the creative cook or simply, as Bosc points out with a shrug, “a system for inventing dishes.” Whatever it is, it betrays an obsessive relationship with food.
We leave the kitchen, and there is Señor Adrià in person. A short stocky man in his late thirties with a high intelligent forehead, curly black hair, an amused expression and the nervous impatient manner of someone juggling a hundred different balls. “How do you like this?” he asks in a hoarse voice after we exchange formalities, indicating his black T shirt with the ghostly bulldog logo emblazoned on it, “our first item of clothing.”
It might be the first foray into fashion, but there is already crockery, stainless steel table furniture, cute little things for holding petits fours, (bonbons, cockles), nine books – including one by his younger brother Alberto, the pastry chef in the family – and a range of infused olive oils developed in conjunction with Borges, the Catalan olive oil giant.
We sit outside in the garden under construction at a long teak table, and talk over excellent coffee (in itself noteworthy, Spanish gastronomy is conquering the world, but it’s still hard to find great coffee), and he talks about el Taller.
“Our work here is with ideas and techniques” Adrià said, “five years ago I realised I didn’t have the time to create in the restaurant. there was too much work, too much pressure. I had to create a place to professionalise our creativity in the kitchen.”
Does he agree with the comparison of el Taller to a laboratory? “No” he says emphatically, “it is not a laboratory, it’s not about physics and chemistry, it’s more about the heart than the head. It’s more like a fashion designer’s workshop”
Ferran Adrià grew up in Barcelona, began studying economics at the age of eighteen, and, while he cooked for himself, “as work, cooking never interested me.” Then, to pay for his studies, he took a job at a restaurant in Barcelona washing dishes. Later, while doing his compulsory military service he cooked for a General. He then applied for a job at el Bulli, a restaurant that had been at Roses in the Ampurdán for fifty years, at the age of twenty one. “Within a year I was chef, and at twenty eight, I became the proprietor with Julio Soler, my associate.”
Although largely self taught, he has spend a considerable amount of time eating and working in some distinguished French kitchens, including that of Georges Blanc, the three star restaurant in Beaujolais, and with Jacques Pic at Des Pins in Valence.
By 1996, El Bulli had gained three Michelin stars, at which point he announced, with characteristic modesty and restraint, “French cooking is dead.”
Which brings us back to Spain, and Spanish cooking today. “There have always been creative movements in Spain” he said, “most recently in art – Picasso, Miró, Dalí – today, that movement is in the kitchen, in cooking. Spanish cooking is the most modern in the world.”
“Why? There is a generation of young people in a young democracy who have created a historic moment. They wanted everything – and they got it. Now they’re in the vanguard of cuisine.”
Adrià says that with his food – and modern Spanish food in general – experimentation is made “firstly with Spanish flavours, although I believe the future is not the cuisine of different countries, but the cuisine of different cooks. But you cook where you find yourself, and I find myself in Spain. If I go to Thailand, for example, and I stay there for a month,
I might think I know the flavours of Thailand. But when I go back to Barcelona, I can only create a version of Thai food. You must have a great respect for Thai culture to cook Thai food. ”
Adrià gave me a copy of his book, Los Secretos de El Bulli which, he said, “will tell you all you need to know about my cooking up to this point.” He is currently working on a very large book (in long hand, in a larger black notebook), Twenty Years at el Bulli.
“The big problem in the history of a chef’s cuisine” he said, “is that there is no historical perspective. For example Tetsuya’s book (they are friends and admire each other), it’s fantastic, but I don’t know which year he created each dish. I don’t know when the revolution started, when he changed his direction, and for what reason. This new book will be a history of the changes in my techniques and ideas over twenty years.”
One of his most well-known techniques was the foam, and perhaps the most celebrated (and silly?) of these is the Espuma de Humo, literally smoke foam. He boils water over burning logs, traps the smoke in the pot, adds gelatine and compresses the smoky liquid in a siphon designed originally for dispensing whipped cream. It’s served with a spot of olive oil. “It’s my pre-Big Bang dish” he says of it, “the dish that would have been made when everything else was just fire and water.”
Some may mutter smoke and mirrors, but nonetheless, it got him talked about – and copied. In the Secrets of el Bulli, he writes “without doubt the most imitated children from the el Bulli kitchen have been the foams, a revolutionary and certainly controversial idea in the field of gastronomy.”
Postscript: Why the bull dog? Simple. The German couple who owned the restaurant before Ferran loved them.