While his celebrity-chef peers slap their names on frozen pizza and Las Vegas chow halls, Ferran Adrià is taking the high road—to Harvard
When Ferran Adrià—who has been called the world's greatest chef by enough people that it might be true—appears at a gastronomic conference at Harvard University on Sept. 8, it will be as a "brand ambassador" for his native Spain. The Spanish government earmarked €9 million in 2009 (then about $13 million) to promote gastronomic tourism and indigenous food products internationally, and the Spanish tourist office, Turespaña, estimates that more than 10 percent of the 52 million tourists who visited Spain last year were drawn by its food and wine. Thus it's sending Adrià—whose legendary El Bulli restaurant in Cala Montjoi, not quite 100 miles north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava, is open only six months a year, costs about $340 per person, not including wine, and is all but impossible to get into—around the world promoting a simple message: If you like to eat and drink, come to Spain.
The night before the conference, Adrià, 48, will take part in a program called "Science and Cooking: A Dialogue," held in conjunction with Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. This is the first in a semester-long series of seminars and classroom demonstrations in which top contemporary Spanish and American chefs and assorted academics, mostly from the fields of chemistry and physics, will come together at Harvard to discuss and illuminate topics ranging from "Olive Oil & Viscosity" to "Heat, Temperature & Chocolate." The point is to combine the rigor of science with the unfettered creativity of contemporary cuisine—theoretically to the benefit of both disciplines.
The series is part of a much larger, multifaceted Harvard-based collaboration, conceived and directed by Adrià, who, though he has no scientific training of any kind, has revolutionized modern cooking through the development of widely copied "scientific" techniques like spherification (which encloses food essences inside bubbles made of themselves, like a pea ravioli in which both filling and "pasta" are made of nothing but peas) and the production of culinary foams and airs. Most of his innovations came about through trial and error. (In an early foam attempt, he blew pressurized oxygen directly into a ripe tomato and ended up splattering the walls.) Now he seeks to understand the physical and chemical principles on which his art is based, and to share that understanding with his colleagues.
It's unconventional territory for a chef, though not for Adrià, who has spent much of the past decade redefining what the title means. In 2003 he co-founded the Alícia Foundation, a food-related research and educational institution jointly sponsored by the Catalan government and Caixa Manresa, a large regional savings bank. He helps run it along with Catalan-born cardiologist Valentín Fuster, ex-president of the American Heart Assn. and now director of Mount Sinai Heart in New York. Adrià won the 2006 Raymond Loewy Foundation's Lucky Strike Designer Award, which typically goes to design-world luminaries such as Philippe Starck and Karl Lagerfeld, and participated as a conceptual artist in the 2007 edition of Documenta, a large international art show held every five years in Kassel, Germany. And early this year he announced he will soon become a chef without a restaurant: El Bulli will close at the end of the 2011 season, reopening two years later as a "think tank" (he uses the term in English, a language he doesn't really speak) which he says will be "open to...all avant-garde gastronomy lovers: chefs, sommeliers, front-of-the-house professionals, gourmets, creative thinkers, or solely enthusiasts of our dream."
Like many chefs who have become world famous in recent years—Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, Alice Waters, and Gordon Ramsay, to name a few—Adrià doesn't merely prepare food. He's an author, endorser, consultant for major corporations, and, though less than most, a TV talking head. More than any of his peers, though, Adrià has invested the proceeds of his celebrity in the creation of new ideas about food. The Harvard collaboration is not a new direction—it's the continuation of a career spent in rigorous pursuit of innovation. A good deal of the work goes on not in the kitchen at El Bulli but in a Barcelona workshop, where the art and science of Ferran Adrià undergo constant reinvention.
In the late 1980s, when entire evenings would pass without a single diner walking into El Bulli, a friend of Adrià's asked him why he stayed in such a remote spot. "Because I have an idea," the chef replied. "And it's a good idea."
A decade later, with the dining room packed every night, Adrià put resources behind his idea. He purchased an entire floor of an 18th century townhouse on the Carrer de la Portaferrissa, a clamorous pedestrian shopping street linking Barcelona's medieval Gothic Quarter with its famous Las Ramblas in the city's heart. The process of designing, renovating, and equipping it took more than a year, and the elBulli Taller opened in January 2000. (The word, pronounced "tal-YEH," is Catalan for "studio" or "workshop," like atelier in French.) Together, El Bulli and the workshop lose more than half a million euros a year, a deficit made up by Adrià's other ventures.
Throughout 2009, I spent a number of mornings and afternoons at the Taller, asking questions, watching the chefs work, and snooping around (with Adrià's permission). On my second or third visit it dawned on me that, for a real chef, working at the Taller is a dream job: Adrià's deputies come in every day to play with food. Everything is fair game, every culture, every ingredient, every technology.
It's not all play, of course. Chefs are required to keep extensive and detailed records of everything they do, the failures as well as the successes—on paper and with digital cameras. They also take careful notes when they're out and about, traveling abroad or just roaming around Barcelona or the Catalan countryside. Back at the Taller, all the notes are transferred to a large master notebook and used as a nondigital database of ideas. Another notebook catalogues the results of extensive testing for dishes are being seriously considered. Each one gets its own page, with name and principal product, date of testing, valoración (positive or negative), description/elaboration, field (new product, technique, technique applied to product), and ideas for usage (as dessert, as cocktail, integrated into a dish).
The Taller functions when El Bulli is closed, traditionally from October to April, with a team of about a dozen chefs working in morning and afternoon shifts; Ferran once estimated that about 5,000 experiments might be conducted here annually. Out of that, perhaps 100 or so new dishes would make it into the restaurant. In the mid-2000s, an independent marketing study estimated that running the Taller costs about €250,000 a year. More recently Adrià has said that the Taller and the restaurant run an annual deficit of €500,000 annually, adding that "without the Taller, El Bulli as it is today would not be possible." He adds, "What's important is that we do this every day, every day."
One afternoon at the Taller, after Adrià left me free to poke around, I leafed through some of the notebooks stacked and scattered on a high table. One contained a list of new products—or products that the kitchen had thus far used very little—for possible future use. These include (parenthetical notes are mine):
Olluco (a potato-like Andean tuber, Ullucos tuberosus Caldas, sometimes used instead of potatoes for chuño, the ancient freeze-dried staple of Peru and Bolivia)
Crosnes (also called Chinese artichokes)
Boniato (sweet potato)
Carambola (a.k.a. star fruit)
Carissa (a tart berry, Carissa macrocarpa, sometimes called Natal plum)
Toasted soy flour
Japanese fruit and rice vinegar
Ham shoulder fat
Fresh hare from the Vall d'Aran
Espardenya (sea slug) skin, whole espardenyes
Giant razor clams
Bottarga Trikalinos (Trikalinos is a company producing gray mullet; bottarga is dried, cured roe sacs)
Umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums)
Katsubuchi (Japanese dried fish flakes)
Nori fried with sesame
Later that day, after Adrià returned, I noticed that on a big calendar pinned to a bulletin board he has blocked out certain days for (his favorite word) "creativity."
How can you plan to be creatively inspired on a certain day? I ask. Don't ideas come when they want to come?
He shakes his head. "No, no, no, no."
Says Adrià: "You have to actively look for inspiration. On this level, you don't just sit and wait for the bulb to go off. The work of creativity is very, very difficult. It's very complicated. Ideas aren't creativity. You look for them and you make notes. After the ideas, with the notes you start to make cuisine. I'm interested in speaking of the synthesis of creativity. It's a very animal thing, the capacity for synthesis. During the creative process, I think only of creative cuisine. It's like hibernation, as if I'm in a monastery."
Most of the time at the Taller, I sit on a wide, low-back red leather chair at a glass-top metal table, actually two pushed together, at the terrace end of the kitchen, just observing. Oriol Castro, Ferran's right hand, is there most days, as is Mateu Casañas, present-day head of the "sweet world," and two other key members of the El Bulli creative team, Eduard Xatruch and Eugeni de Diego. Now and then one of the crew disappears to walk a block to the Boqueria, Barcelona's extraordinary main covered market—in effect the Taller's walk-in refrigerator and storeroom, stocking most of the foodstuffs the chefs need.
One day somebody brings in a burlap bag full of snarled, dirty asparagus roots. Castro peels a piece, cuts it into bits, and passes them around. It has a faint licorice flavor but makes the back of my throat tighten. Will the roots end up on the El Bulli menu in some form? I ask. "We don't know yet," says Castro. This is the religion of the Taller: approach every ingredient, every combination, every technique with an open mind and discover the possibilities.
Castro explains that he's been working with the concept of the "twist"—as in the twist of lime or lemon garnishing a cocktail. "The aroma of a twist of orange....," he begins. "If you put the twist with something like sautéed shrimp, you wouldn't remember the orange because the shrimp flavor would predominate. But if you did it with a bite of simply cooked potato, you would have the 'flavor' in your nose instead of in your mouth." He likes the idea of foods "tasted" by aroma. "You must respond emotionally to food," he says. "When I smell mushrooms, I smell the country, the cellar of my grandparents. It's memory-emotion."
Another day, Castro is stirring different thickeners into iced consommé to see which one yields the best texture—traditional sheet gelatin, agar-agar, two kinds of carrageen. "We started with the idea of something Ferran saw in Japan," he explains. "It was a sheet of nori with toro inside, but it evolved into a kind of wonton. We had the idea to put cream whipped with curry powder inside a wonton wrapper made with transparent gelatin." Later, he and one of the other chefs pour gelatin into indentations made in white silicone blocks by different foods—mussels, shrimp, mushrooms, even rabbit brains, one of Ferran's favorite ingredients.
You're working with gelatins today, I say as Adrià walks by.
"No," he replies, "we're working with molds. First the concept, then the flavor."
The most important job of the Taller, he explains, isn't to create new dishes but to develop new ways of making dishes.
Castro later shows me a new version of cabell d'àngel, literally angel's hair, a traditional Catalan confection of candied winter squash used to fill pastries. This one is made not with squash but with gelatin and agar-agar flavored with honey. Adrià brings over a bowl of broth with what appear to be the short Catalan noodles, called fideus; they're actually made out of cheese, he tells me, through a process similar to spherification.
The next day work continues with the silicone molds, this time with forms of peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and chestnuts. "First comes the concept," says Castro, echoing Ferran, "like the chassis on a car. Then we build on it."
Ferran comes into the kitchen. "The chefs here are an independent team," he tells me. "This year I'm not here very much. I just come in and taste." His younger brother, Albert, was in charge of the Taller, Ferran says, "but he has pulled away. He has said before that he is leaving to spend more time with his family [he and his live-in girlfriend of 18 years have a 3-year-old son], but he has absolutely quit this time.... " He pauses. "But little by little he is coming back."
Later in the morning Albert comes in. There had been rumors that he'd had some kind of rift with Adrià, though every time I'd seen them together they were engaged—physically close to each other, talking with passion, throwing out ideas, gesturing, smiling. Today, though, he and Adrià start arguing heatedly. Then I realize what they're arguing about is soccer.
"Do you ever think about closing El Bulli?" I ask Adrià one afternoon in mid-2009 as we sit outside in the small garden behind the Taller. "Every day," he replies almost before I've finished the question.
As early as 2004, Adrià told an interviewer that he was considering a one-year sabbatical. In 2006 a story in Nation's Restaurant News stated unequivocally: "This past season was Adrià's last in the kitchen—at least until 2008, when he will decide what to do next." In 2007, Adrià announced that "at the end of 2008, I am leaving my diary empty."
Yet he kept coming back to both the Taller and El Bulli as involved as ever. "The years from 2003 to 2009," he said in 2010, "were just fantastic!"
He also told me, in 2009, that he was taking things year by year. "I want to continue as long as I have the dream and the passion," he said, "but I want to reinvent myself. The 160 or so days that we keep the restaurant open are very hard. There are those who think we're privileged because we open for only six months a year, but when you make creative cuisine, the pressure is very strong. If we didn't do it this way, I could sit on the beach in peace all day and just go to the restaurant every afternoon at six, no problem." At the time, he dropped some hints as to what the future might hold. "The structure of the restaurant continues to change," he said. "It's possible that next year we will be open only three months, but seven days a week. Or maybe we need 10 months of creativity and just two months of restaurant. For me it would be the same. We could also have just one, two, three tables only, and take no reservations at all. We would select the people who would come, gastronomes who appreciate our cooking. It would be only a way to show how we are evolving. This is all just something I'm thinking about. In any case, El Bulli exactly as it is today will not continue for more than two or three more years. We have to always raise the level. There are 50 possibilities."
Adrià added, "Maybe I'll take a sabbatical not just from El Bulli but from everything. El Bulli and I will both be 50, more or less, in 2012. It opened as a minigolf in 1961, but the chiringuito was built and they started serving food in 1962, the year I was born. That would be a good date for me to close the restaurant, but not permanently. I'd like to be able to travel, not for work, maybe to spend six months in Japan and six months in China with my wife. Of course, that's just what I think today. And then sometimes I think 2012 will be the end, period."
Early this year, Adrià made it official: El Bulli would close in May 2011.
That he is shutting down his legendary establishment isn't really a surprise. Ferran himself had admitted frequently that his creative pace was lagging. "Every time, it takes more to innovate," he remarked one day. "Today to create new things takes four times as long as it did 10 years ago." Maybe the rise of El Bulli will turn out to have been like the uncovering of some vast new oil reserves; they'd keep our internal combustion engines going for a few more decades, but ultimately, they were a nonrenewable resource.
Excerpt from Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food by Colman Andrews. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2010 by Colman Andrews. Gotham Books will publish in October.