What do you do when your restaurant has been awarded the “World’s Best Restaurant” five times in a row? Announce its closure, if it were elBulli – gastronome’s once-before-you-die Mecca near Barcelona, Spain. Most people know Ferran Adrià as food’s pre-eminent futurist, the godfather of foam and other gastronomic advances, a mad Catalonian cook who spent half the time cosseted in his cooking lab and the other half, making culinary history at elBulli. It’s not merely the three Michelin stars that he was awarded; the tribute from other cooks have been dazzling. He is ‘’the best cook on the planet,’’the quintessentially French Joël Robuchon, who garnered similar reviews himself, once said. An adventurous mind that influenced a generation of younger avant-garde chefs, Anthony Bourdain said of the elBulli recipes book- “[It] will make other chefs all over the world, gape in fear, and awe, and wonder. I feel for them; like Eric Clapton seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time, one imagines they will ask themselves ‘What do I do now?”
Adrià has not rested on his laurels since the restaurant closed in 2011, turning elBulli into an elite culinary and dining experience development workshop, hosting not only chefs but architects, philosophers and designers. The academy not only allows them to “share successes, but also to share mistakes or processes with the world as it’s happening” by providing a forum to explore such concepts as “do we need a dining room?
In an interview with us, Ferran Adrià ‘deconstructs’ his cooking philosophy while he constructs the future of food…
Aesthetics has always been a field dominated mostly by the senses of vision and hearing, with little philosophical inquiry into gustatory or aesthetics related to taste. But you have taken food aesthetics to a completely new level – where it could be perceived more as art – rather than something to satisfy your hunger. What inspired you?
It is necessary to distinguish between the act of eating and Haute cuisine.We, in elBulli, didn’t seek to feed, but to move. The aim of Haute cuisine restaurants is to offer a complete experience based upon all of what is involved in the act of eating but the main point is not focused on satisfying the food needs of people. With the aim of exploring the limits of Haute cuisine, elBulli went for developing a technicconceptual creativity, establishing a bond between the guest and us through emotions.
You have described your cuisine as ‘deconstructivist’, where you break down each ingredient of a dish and transform it radically – although, still preserving its essence – why did you take such an approach to food?
Deconstruction is a creative method which had its peak at elBulli in the late 90’s and which had an extraordinary repercussion. Nevertheless we cannot define the cuisine of elBulli as exclusively “deconstructivist”. In elBulli we put into practice almost all the creative methods which can be used to create in the kitchen. The inspiration in nature, adaptation, association…What is clear is that any cook needs to have a deep knowledge of all the products and where they come from in order to bring out the best of each ingredient, highlighting its properties.
Could you describe for us, one such dish – which you created, which showcases this ‘deconstructivist’ approach, so our readers could get a better idea of what it’s all about?
We could say that the iconic dish of the deconstruction was the “vegetable stew” which is a dish based on the vegetable stew of Spanish traditional cuisine. What we have done is taken each of the vegetables separately and provided them different “textures” through the use of different techniques.
For example, we made a sautéed tomato coulis, a cauliflower mousse, a salty almond sherbet, a peach slush, a basil gelatin… the dish as a whole had the ingredients of a “vegetable stew” but the presentation, textures and temperatures didn’t look like the “vegetable stew” that everyone has in mind.
Despite its reputation of being the ‘best restaurant in the world’– why did elBulli make such huge losses?
This is not true. We have explained many times that elBulli as an independent restaurant was not a good business because all that it earned was invested back into generating new creations. Thanks to this investment, we were able to generate other businesses which were profitable and which allowed us to finance ourselves and to continue developing the creativity and generating new contents. The reason to convert elBulli Restaurant into the elBulli Foundation was not financial, trust me. The restaurant could have continued for many years, being completely profitable but we needed a change and we needed to transform ourselves in order to continue creating. Now with the elBulli Foundation we will have the perfect venue to develop this creativity in ideal surroundings and conditions.
Tell us about La Bullipedia
The Bullipedia is a project for classifying all the culinary information of elBulli Restaurant. When we started planning out the structure, we realised that it would be a wonderful tool if it was applied to Western Haute cuisine in general. The aim of Bullipedia is to become a tool where all the factors involved in the act of cooking are taken into account and catalogued in a very clear and systematic way, following grounded and accurate criteria. This way, all the information will be available in a clear and friendly way for both students and cooks.
You have compared a meal in your restaurant to a “night out” in the theatre. Could you elaborate that further?…Maybe describe for us, an elaborate meal – the kind of dishes that you served, the number of courses etc.
In elBulli, a meal lasted between 4 or 5 hours and more than 45 different dishes were served in the same tasting menu. Each of the dishes on the menu was conceived to form a harmonious and meaningful piece as a whole. We could say that each dish was a note and the menu was the song. Besides the food, there were other aspects – like the place, the service, the care, the courtesy – which produced a harmonic set. Another key aspect was the fact that each dish had a technic-conceptual approach; for the guests it was an uncharted experience each time they had a new dish.
With so many chefs experimenting with the newest techniques in creating haute cuisine – where do you think is the future of food? Will it start to look radically different from what it does now?
In the last 20 years Haute cuisine has gone through critical changes. New techniques and new dishes have appeared. There are more techniques and new dishes in the last 20 years than in the last 4 centuries. At present, we are in a moment where the cuisine is free, each cook can express himself or herself in their own way and all trends are accepted. Until recent years Haute cuisine had strict rules. Now these rules have been broken and each cook interprets the cuisine in their own way. Cuisine, as human evolution, is advancing and evolving. Nevertheless, I doubt that in the years to come we’ll see a revolution like the one in the previous years. Education. It is important to know the reason behind everything. It is the only way we can understand why we eat the way we do, and only on that basis, we can structurethe future. What is clear is that we are what we eat. Food is a vital need of people. If we eat properly we will feel ok and the inverse is also true. It is important to be realistic and differentiate feeding from gastronomy.
Your own dishes were criticised by a fellow cook as being full of un-healthy additives. Then there is this problem of sourcing out of season produce from cold storage etc… Do you think these are some real issues?
That was a controversy which has been shown to lack any argument. Everything is relative and it is necessary to see the context of the times. Potatoes, 500 years ago in Europe, were not considered edible for people, and were eaten only by pigs. Now they have become an important product in our cuisine. Just like when humans started eating salt, someone said,”Look what a strange product he is eating” …I mean, everything needs a process of assimilation; time goes by and then it is accepted by society.
How do you justify the idea of eating for pleasure – in a world fighting hunger on the one hand and obesity on the other?
As I said before, it is necessary to differentiate between food and gastronomy. It is clear that the most important challenge in society nowadays is to reduce the hunger in the world, but we cannot be demagogues about that. Many children don’t have clothes and yet luxurious haute couture exists; instead of going by train, car or plane, we could all go walking; and there can be many other examples like that. Life sometimes is unfair and unequal but we must also think that, often, thanks to the advancements in different fields, solutions to problems may be found.