What Ferran Adria is cooking up after El Bulli

March 28, 2010

Ferran Adria’s scientific approach to cuisine has made El Bulli the top destination for gastronomes worldwide. Now the revolutionary Spanish chef is preparing to turn his restaurant into a culinary think-tank 

By Christine Toomey

Stripped naked to the waist, Ferran Adria leads me to a far corner of his high-tech test kitchen-cum-science lab and, struggling his stocky frame into a white chef’s tunic, gestures towards some items on the wall. “This isn’t what you’d expect to see, is it?” he asks in quick-fire Spanish, challenging me to disagree.

Next to a sketch by the American cartoonist Matt Groening depicting Ferran as a character from The Simpsons is a poster from a German contemporary-art exhibition that Ferran was invited to participate in, to the consternation of critics who argued that cooking is not art. Above this is a letter from Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences inviting Ferran to give a lecture series on cooking and science. Not the usual trophies you’d expect to find in the domain of a master chef — but then Ferran is a revolutionary. Part crazy artist, part mad scientist, he cooks up extravagant dishes such as “frozen chocolate air”, “gold-tinted caramel of quails’ eggs”, “apple caviar” and “foie-gras noodles” frozen with liquid nitrogen.

In January he stunned the culinary world by announcing that in 2012 he will close his restaurant El Bulli, located on a remote Catalonian cove about 100 miles northeast of Barcelona, for two years of reflection, before reopening it in a new format. “There are certain moments in life when it comes time to stop and reflect, recharge the batteries, come up with a new direction,” says Ferran. “I don’t know why anyone should be surprised at this. It takes a lot more these days, in every walk of life, not just cooking, to be fresh and creative. The world is much more complex now.”

The decision appeared quixotic. El Bulli fields more than 2m requests a year for 8,000 sittings. Would-be diners bombard the restaurant with emails within minutes of the year’s booking list being opened. It takes eight staff weeks to answer all these messages, and tables are allotted by a form of lottery. The restaurant is already fully booked from the day it opens on June 15 to the end of this year.

Spanish comedy shows often depict Ferran as a balding madman conjuring up dishes out of pieces of string or old shoes. But he has earned a grudging respect for his adventurous culinary creations. One Barcelonan tells me: “Before Ferran we had potatoes, tortilla and paella. He has made us think about food.”

Among hardened gastronomes he has a godlike status. “Ferran is the Picasso of the modern kitchen,” enthuses Rafael Anson, president of the International Academy of Gastronomy. “Just as Picasso revolutionised art with cubism, Ferran has changed the history of cooking. He has changed all the rules — just like challenging the social norm that says you should have sex at night with the lights off. He has brought an incredible creativity and liberty to the kitchen.”

Little wonder then that the culinary world whipped itself into a great soufflé of speculation about what the master chef is really planning. El Bulli has never been a commercial restaurant in the strictest sense. For a start it’s only open for six months a year — this year, from June to December — and even then it only serves supper. This is a degustation menu of around 40 small dishes, often accompanied with instructions on how they should be savoured, such as: “This is a childhood memory. Take in one bite.”

Ferran dedicates the rest of the year to cooking up dozens of new trompe l’oeil creations in the inner sanctum of his culinary empire — his taller, or workshop. This is where I have come to meet him. The master chef leads me into a small chapel in an 18th-century villa on a narrow street off Barcelona’s Ramblas — now part of the duplex that houses his workshop.

The method Ferran employs to concoct his dishes has been dubbed “molecular gastronomy”, though it’s a term he hates. “What does that mean?” he bridles. “Can you explain it to me?” He prefers his style to be called “deconstructivist”, by which he means breaking a basic food item down to understand why it has the texture and flavour it does and then reconstructing it in a way that challenges preconceptions about how something should look and taste.

The New York Times once called the 47-year-old Catalan “the Elvis of the culinary world” and El Bulli “its Graceland”. If that’s the case then Ferran’s taller is its chief recording studio — although some of the machinery and surgical-looking implements on display make it look more like a DIY shed or DNA lab. Laid out in one rack is a selection of giant plastic syringes. Alongside this is a Bosch screwdriver that, according to a small note attached, is used for making sweets. In another cabinet are rows and rows of spoons of every shape and size, some with tiny holes in them, marked variously for “writing” or “straining”, and pincers that look more like gynaecological tools.

With such instruments he has concocted extraordinary tastes and technical results never before achieved in the kitchen. One of his earliest trademarks, for instance, was to use a type of soda siphon to compress food, extract flavour and make “foams” with everything from broccoli to blueberries.

He decided to temporarily close the restaurant, Ferran explains, when he realised both he and El Bulli will be 50 years old in 2012. His intention is not to spend the two-year hiatus “sitting on a beach”. He plans to travel the world looking for ideas and new inspiration, he says, throwing his arms in the air and slumping into a leather chair at the head of a dining table that runs the length of the chapel.

Ferran’s utterances can sound pompous, but his manner is not. He is intense and obsessive, like most creative talents. In a filing cabinet he has drawers of dog-eared notebooks in which he jots down ideas. He has the air of a genuine free thinker, and speaks rapidly as if his thoughts are running away with him. He urgently wants to be understood, leaning forward in his chair and fixing me with a stare to emphasise a point. But he is not overbearing. His young chefs defer to him like students to a professor: he is not a tyrant.

“Perhaps it’s my fault I am misunderstood,” he continues. “You need to understand the entire history of El Bulli to appreciate what we do and what direction I might take in future.”

The restaurant had an inauspicious start. Originally it was little more than a beach cafe attached to a mini-golf attraction built by a German homeopathic doctor. Called Hacienda El Bulli after its owners’ pet bulldogs, for years it was simply known as “the German bar” by scuba-diving customers who pitched up on the secluded Cala Montjoi bay near the small town of Roses where it sits. It took more than 20 years for the place to evolve into a stylish restaurant serving nouvelle cuisine that, by the time Ferran arrived there as a young cook in 1984, had already been awarded a Michelin star.

On his own admission Ferran only fell into cooking by chance. The son of a Barcelona house painter, his first stint in the kitchen, washing dishes, was a means of paying his way to Ibiza where he wanted to party and meet girls. Later, during his military service, he worked in army kitchens serving basic meals to conscripts before taking a position as a young chef to an admiral in the port town of Cartagena, where he was once called on to cook a meal for the king of Spain. The die was cast.

After his military service he took an internship at El Bulli, where he was soon made chef de cuisine by the then manager Juli Soler, now a partner in the restaurant. While Ferran began by cooking classic French recipes, he and his younger brother Albert, also a chef, soon started experimenting with traditional dishes, pulling them apart and turning them into something entirely new.

He was inspired to move into the unknown by the French chef Jacques Maximin’s comment that “creativity is not copying”. “From that moment on, everything changed,” says Ferran.

“I understood something I had never understood before. I passed from being a technician to a creator.” He insists that the ethos of his restaurant is “to be an icon of creativity”. Such statements provide rich fodder to those who criticise him for being pretentious. One food writer once described his style of cooking as “Harry Potter food” — designed to show off to other chefs.

Joe Warwick, the former editor of Restaurant magazine, which has given El Bulli first place in its world’s top 50 restaurants awards for the past four years, likens Ferran’s influence on everyday cooking to that of haute couture on prêt-à-porter. “People may think his sort of cooking is bollocks, pretentious and elitist, but it’s like the latest collection from a great fashion designer; you’re not meant to wear it walking down the high street. Influences from it trickle down.”

“When El Bulli reopens in 2014, it won’t be in the guidebooks,” Ferran declares. It will therefore lose its coveted three Michelin stars and its top ranking among the world’s best restaurants, but he professes not to care. “I’m tired of awards and rankings. My plan is that El Bulli will have a much more flexible format.”

There was a frenzy of speculation that El Bulli would be closing for good at the end of 2011 owing to annual losses of over half a million euros, but Ferran issued a denial; the fact that the restaurant runs at a loss and is supported by having its name stamped on lucrative spin-offs has been well known for years.

“It’s not true that we are closing El Bulli permanently. We will continue to serve meals in 2014,” the chef insisted. What he plans is for El Bulli to operate as a “gastronomic think-tank”, a private nonprofit foundation for “avant-garde gastronomy lovers, chefs, sommeliers and front-of-house professionals”.

He intends to offer annual scholarships for 20 to 25 young people from all over the world to come and learn, not just about cooking, but also design and other artistic pursuits. A rough model for this is the so-called “applied creativity laboratory” known as Fabrica set up by the Benetton clothing giant in Treviso, Italy. It is a research centre that encourages young talent across a wide spectrum of design. “In future El Bulli will be a breeding ground for new ideas and new talents, a place where we will teach people to think,” he adds grandly.

In the long term there are also plans for an “exhaustive and detailed” encyclopedia of contemporary cuisine. Ferran insists that food will still be served to a select circle of diners. “Maybe one week we will do just breakfasts. The next, we might be closed. The following, we might serve just one extraordinary supper.” From 2014 bookings might be sold at auction with the proceeds going to charity.

Despite its popularity, El Bulli runs at a loss not only because it is so rarely open, but because Ferran’s exacting standards mean it can sometimes have more trained chefs in the kitchen than the 50 diners it accommodates of an evening. Also, the cost of its menu — around ¤250 a head without wine — while not cheap, is less than some other restaurants lower down in the world ranking.

With such demand for his food, Ferran points out he could charge a great deal more. Or, as many have suggested, open 10 El Bullis around the world. But he has refused, he says, on ethical grounds. “It has nothing to do with being elitist. If I could open 50 El Bullis, I would. It’s frustrating being so exclusive. But it’s all about quality. For me, being ethical is the most important thing. People have a right to expect me in the kitchen and I can only be in one place at a time.”

Unlike most high-end restaurants that change their menus seasonally with a limited number of dishes, Ferran and his team come up with hundreds of new recipes each year. Much of what is done is about spectacle, Ferran admits, likening eating at El Bulli to “a night out at the theatre”.

Will this taste for drama mean El Bulli will incorporate some kind of performance art when it reopens in 2014? “I believe in future Ferran will fundamentally challenge our idea of what a gastronomic space is all about,” ventures Rafael Anson, a fellow Spaniard. “It need no longer be just a place where you are served a series of dishes, but could incorporate a series of spectacles, a kind of culinary Cirque du Soleil.”

What drives Ferran is not money but ideas, he claims. “I am not a materialistic person.” His lifestyle bears this out. He does not own a car and lives in a modest apartment in the centre of Barcelona with his wife during the months he dedicates to researching dishes at his workshop. “I’m not interested in owning expensive watches or sports cars. If I need to get somewhere I take a taxi. I’ll travel thousands of miles for good food. But apart from that, my life is simple,” he says. “All that remains is for me to be happy.”

No doubt the income he enjoys from the many spin-offs from El Bulli helps bolster a sense of contentment. First there are the lectures and consultancies, including one with the Spanish hotel chain NH Hotels. Then there are the books — one, A Day at elBulli, runs to over 600 pages — and a range of kitchenware designed to set off the sort of dishes he conjures up, and his name on a range of brands from olive oil to cutlery.

Ferran has faced accusations that his style of cooking is bad for the health, from the Spanish chef Santi Santamaria and the German author Jörg Zipprick, who said that meals at El Bulli should carry health warnings. “These colourants, gelling agents, emulsifiers, acidifiers and taste enhancers that Adria has introduced massively into his dishes to obtain extraordinary textures, tastes and sensations do not have a neutral impact on health,” wrote Zipprick, who singled out the use of seaweed-derived polysaccharides as being linked to intestinal cancer.

But as the British food writer Paul Levy, who co-chairs the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, points out: “Who eats such food every day? Have you ever met anyone who ingests enough of it for the effects to be measurable?” What Ferran is doing has more in common with the entertainment ancient Romans sought from their food than with the more recent strictures of French cuisine, argues Levy. “Wonderful though Ferran is, a meal at El Bulli is never lunch or dinner, but an entertainment, a new kind of experience, a hybrid of eating out and a demonstration at the Royal Society.”

Speculation is rife as to where the culinary trophies will pass once El Bulli is out of the running. In the short term other shrines of “molecular gastronomy” including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Berkshire, Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in California are leading contenders. In the long term, few doubt the most exciting cuisine of the future is likely to come from the Far East. Following the Michelin guide’s recent move to rate restaurants in Japan, Tokyo already boasts more three-star restaurants than Paris.

Ferran agrees that Japan and China are the countries to watch. But, he says, “The best restaurant in the world does not exist. It’s stupid to talk of El Bulli as the best. It’s not something you can measure. It’s not like winning a 100-metre race. You can only talk about the most creative, the most influential.” In this respect Ferran has certainly hogged the spotlight in recent years.

So, after discussing the merits of the most creative food in the world with him, I am looking forward to tasting some of his latest creations.

All the time we have been speaking I have caught glimpses of handsome young chefs emerging from the hub of his laboratory, one wall of which looks more like an art gallery than a kitchen. Along its length are hundreds of specimen jars containing samples of everything from “coal oil” to “lemon peel”. Set apart from these, in a bank of glass, is a small pot of salt. “That’s to remind us that salt is the most important ingredient in the world. The only one that can entirely change a dish,” declares Ferran. When I ask what dishes are being prepared that day, however, he looks frustrated, as if faced with a slow learner. “This is where we work on concepts, not finished dishes,” he explains, wafting his nose over a tiny skillet where three slivers of what appear to be mushrooms are being stirred with a look of intense concentration by one of his assistants.

Hunched over a hob close by, another assistant swizzles small sections of mushy artichoke in an equally minute pan as if the kitchen belongs to hobbits. He explains he’s investigating whether the mush can be used to replace traditional flour and water to make pasta shapes. None of it looks very appetising. Catching sight of me looking crestfallen, Ferran decides to indulge me. He holds the slimmest of wafers towards my lips, as if offering me a communion host. The wafer is made of potato starch, he explains, and comes from Japan, where pharmacists use them as paper twists in which to dispense herbal concoctions. Perched on top of the wafer are a few globules of juice from what I am told is an Australian finger-lime. As I slip the wafer into my mouth I am expecting a moment of revelation, an almost religious, out-of-body experience. I close my eyes and wait for an extraordinary burst of flavour that will change my entire perspective on food. What I feel is a glutinous goo slither across my tongue leaving a slight citrus edge. Nothing else.

When I open my eyes, disappointed, Ferran laughs, claps his hands and announces it’s time for him to go. “Call me in July and I’ll see if I can fit you in at El Bulli,” he tantalises. With that he’s gone. All that’s left is for the photographer and me to pop around the corner for a ham sandwich.