FOOD & DRINK

Ferran Adria's search for knowledge

Celebrated chef Ferran Adria of elBulli Foundation watches as Jack Chen and David Gunawan of Farmer's Apprentice and Quang Dang and Alex Hon of West prepare brunch at Books to Cooks in Vancouver on March 9. — Image Credit: Martha Perkins

Celebrated chef Ferran Adria of elBulli Foundation watches as Jack Chen and David Gunawan of Farmer's Apprentice and Quang Dang and Alex Hon of West prepare brunch at Books to Cooks in Vancouver on March 9.

— Image Credit: Martha Perkins

 

Leave it to Ferran Adria to ask a very simple question that is very difficult to answer: “The taste of Vancouver — what is it?”

In France, you’d say “butter.” In Italy and Spain you might say “olive oil.” What is the one taste that defines Vancouver cuisine? (And, no, “seafood” doesn’t cut it. Is it salmon in a butter sauce, sushi, halibut with creamed spinach, fresh oysters?)

For the past decade and a half, the man whose restaurant, elBulli, was called one of the top 50 in the world, has been challenging himself to drill down through time and place to come to a core understanding of food. In his quest to “decode the genome of gastronomy,” Adria has transformed himself into the Darwin of the kitchen, trying to come up with his culinary version of the Origin of Species.

Adria has mastered cooking techniques in ways few others have but, just as it’s said there are only six plots in all the millions of books that have been written, he knows there’s very little true originality in cuisine. He wants to discover food’s equivalent of the six plots.

“If you want to understand food, you need to study it,” he told a group of chefs and food writers at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks on March 9, the morning after Barbara-Jo McIntosh hosted a special event with Adria at the Vancouver Club.

To study something, you need to categorize it, and that’s where things get tricky. Take honey. Do you categorize it as a sweet? It’s made by bees from the nectar of plants. Does that make it vegetal or animal?

What was food like before humans had the tools to cook it, before there was a pot in which to boil pasta or a knife with which to cut meat? What happened to food when we became able to cook it, not only eat it? Why do we eat a tomato, which is the fruit of a plant, but not its roots, like we do with carrots?

He’s come up with the “Map of Gastronomic Process: Reproduction”, which, in 2016, will become the foundation of an eight-month study at the elBulli Foundation. Students from around the world will experience a monk-like existence as they do for food what generations of scholars have done for literature and art.

“Thousands of people are doing a PhD on Picasso. Who studied Escoffier? Really studied him? Nobody,” Adria said through a Spanish interpreter.

“The classifications of food are a disaster,” he said. “Meat. What is it?”

Many books — as McIntosh’s store celebrates — have been written about the science of cooking but Adria’s goal is to take it to the Big Bang level. The goal isn’t science; it’s understanding. And to understand each other, we need a shared vocabulary.

One word he has come up with is “elaboration.” Honey is an elaboration that animals make for us. Then there are elaborated products; flour, for instance.

“We think that to understand cooking and the taxonomy of products, this is the best way to do it,” he said.

By October, Adria thinks he’ll be ready to present his approach on the internet, with a book to follow. In 2015, he’ll start accepting applications for the foundation, with studies to follow in 2016. Scholarships will be available so money is not a barrier. “We don’t want anyone to be excluded because they can’t afford it.”

 

*The original link to this article, published in WEVancouver can be found here.