Chef Adria Worried by Economy, Hails Cheap Meals After El Bulli

Ferran Adria, the Spanish chef who turned an isolated seaside restaurant into a destination for gourmets the world over, studies a bowl of Paxo.

“What is it?” he asks. The supermarket sage-and-onion stuffing is made by mixing it with water and can be popped in a microwave. Adria, 49, is known for complex creations that combine culinary and artistic vision with immense technical skill, such as exploding olives. (What looks like the skin is really a gel that collapses when you bite.) If the dish were a painting, it might be called, “This is not an olive.”

So how come the chef from El Bulli -- named the world’s best restaurant a record five times -- is enjoying lunch at the Gilbert Scott, an unfussy British brasserie in London? The answer is that after closing El Bulli on July 30, he’s traveling the world promoting the simple pleasures of family meals.

“Most people don’t earn more than 1,000 euros ($1,362) to 1,200 euros a month, so each day they can only spend a few euros on a meal,” Adria says over his meal of oysters and grouse. “And if they get home at 7 p.m., they can’t spend hours cooking a pizza from scratch. They’d be asleep before it is ready.

“Why are people not cooking at home? There are more and more food blogs and TV shows and hundreds of magazines and books about food. What are we doing wrong? We haven’t been honest enough: We have to give normal people normal food.”

Normal food from the man who served a 48-course menu of crazy concoctions to mark the end of El Bulli, which will reopen as a culinary foundation focused on creativity? That sounds like the Charlie Sheen guide to celibacy and abstinence.

Simple Cooking

But hold on: Adria is about to publish “The Family Meal: Home Cooking With Ferran Adria,” featuring recipes for three-course dinners that ordinary people can prepare without spending too much time or money. The book is strictly practical, with a lot of details on elements such as measurements, and even photographs of the equipment you need.

The book is based on recipes for staff meals at El Bulli, and each repast should only cost a few euros a person. Adria identifies his own favorite as Meal 31: Waldorf salad, noodle soup with mussels; melon & mint soup with pink grapefruit.

Adria says the slowdown in the economy should help everyone focus on spending wisely and eating as well as they can.

“I have many friends who work in the economic field and nobody is able to tell what is going on,” he says. “It’s total madness. When it comes to Spain, it’s even crazier. Four years ago, we were an economic model and now we’re a disaster.”

Fast Talker

Adria is engaging company. He speaks rapidly (through an interpreter) and has so much to say that lunch is over far too quickly. He sits back in his chair, dressed casually in black, his chin spiked with stubble, and describes the life he is leading while taking a few months away from the kitchen.

“I’ve just been to China,” he says. “The food is the most important cuisine in the world. There are 80,000 different dishes. China, in that sense, is going to be a boulder. It’s just going to roll over everything.

“Then I was in Peru and that’s probably going to be the next most important revolution in culinary history. They’re using gastronomy as an instrument for social and economic development. And how about the Arab world? The first country to use gastronomy as a vehicle for communication with the Western world will have an extraordinary experience. India’s another interesting country, and then there’s Southeast Asia.”

Adria takes time to enjoy his lunch, dipping his spoon into my mulligatawny soup (an Anglo-Indian dish), wanting to know what it is. He pronounces the food very good, though he’s not having any more Paxo -- a fond childhood memory for many Britons. He also leaves the Yorkshire puddings.

He signs my copy of his book with a flourish: “Good Food Feeds the Soul.” I feel better already.

“The Family Meal: Home Cooking With Ferran Adria” is published by Phaidon on Oct. 3 at $29.95, 19.95 pounds and 24.95 euros. To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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