ElBulli’s Ferran Adria takes Vancouver
One of the two events is sold out at $1,000 a ticket, so revered is the Spanish culinary supernova.
BY MIA STAINSBY, VANCOUVER SUN
MARCH 5, 2014
“In my early days," says Ferran Adria, "I copied the great French chefs, like most chefs do. Copying is not bad. Copying and not recognizing that you are copying is bad. For me, when I go to a restaurant and am served a dish influenced by something we created at elBulli, if it’s well done, it makes me extremely happy.
Cezanne once said to the critics who dissed his radical new way of painting, “With an apple, I will astonish Paris!” Eventually, the critics and the world came to heel and revere his works.
Ferran Adria, the rocking-est star of world chefs, doesn’t astonish with just an apple, he astonishes with nearly every ingredient he touches and that is why his restaurant elBulli, near Barcelona, became an international sensation.
Call him an idiot-savant of cooking who cannot abide the rules of gastronomy; he is lawless when it comes to culinary traditions and has revolutionized cooking like Cezanne and Picasso did with painting. Not many dispute that Adria is a culinary revolutionary although he’s had detractors claiming his food is unhealthy, pretentious, too challenging to eat (yes, the dishes sometimes come with instructions on how to eat — one bite, two bites, first this, then that….) or encourages Ferran Frankensteins, unskilled in conducting a symphony of an elBulli meal.
But many of the restaurants at the top of the game internationally and at the forefront of coveted “Top 50” awards each year are run by elBulli alumni — restaurants such as Noma (Denmark), Mugaritz (Spain), Alinea (U.S.) and Fat Duck (England).
The normally too-cool-to-gush Anthony Bourdain, gushes: “When I ate the food, I felt fear, delight, confusion, real joy. The world changed. For a chef, it was like Eric Clapton coming out of hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time.”
And for Wolfgang Puck, elBulli food conjured Rip Van Winkle: “I think it was as if you hadn’t seen New York City for 200 years and then you saw it today. It was different from anything I could imagine.”
When the world finally recognized the amazing feats of cookery going on at elBulli, Adria became a culinary supernova. Diners, journalists, cooks and chefs begged to work for free and beat a path to his door (not an easy traverse along a narrow, dangerous road to the Costa Brava coast).
By the time he decided to close elBulli in 2011 (to gasps and grief), well, the numbers said it all: Two million people sought reservations for 8,000 seats during the six months each year the restaurant was open. (During the other six months, staff were in a mad-scientist huddle in a Barcelona atelier, developing new ideas for dishes.) Guests travelled an average of seven to 20,000 kilometres to have dinner at elBulli. The tasting menu, with more than 30 items, was different every day and cost about $380 a person. Adria spent a quarter of his time doing interviews — 1,000-plus in a year along with countless appearances at world culinary events.
Adria has written other volumes of books documenting his recipes with photographs and their stories. The latest is elBulli, 2005 to 2011, a seven-volume magnum opus weighing 40 pounds, covering 2,720 pages which was released March 3. The cost: $625.
And that is the reason for his visit to Vancouver Saturday on the first stop of his North American book tour. Organizer Barbara-jo McIntosh, of Books To Cooks, says in the 17 years she has been bringing in chefs, including many three-Michelin-star gods of the kitchen, he is the most revered.
“There are a lot of accomplished people I admire but nobody has taken their craft to the level of science and art that he has. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to meet someone like this. There aren’t a lot who would not find it exciting.”
Adria, 52, will be in Vancouver for two events at The Vancouver Club, a lecture and cava reception at 2 p.m. ($700, including the new seven-volume publication; for tickets, go to bookstocooks.com/events) and the Afterparty with Ferran Adria at 4 p.m., with seven local chefs cooking for the event ($1,000). The latter was sold out at press time. One chef, McIntosh says, felt it was worth $1,000 to have his photo taken with Adria.
In an email interview with The Vancouver Sun, Adria spoke openly about himself and his food. Since elBulli closed, he’s been working on the elBulli Foundation, “conceptualizing and shaping” projects which will be like a creative think-tank and educational arena for avant garde cuisine for chefs and other culinary professionals.
“What I am most proud of, is that today, I see that the values and spirit of what grew in the kitchen at elBulli are present in so many kitchens and places around the world today.” Some of the techniques that have been adopted in other modern kitchens are spherification (you might have seen this as “pearls” or “caviar” on menus), foams, airs, deconstructions, ice powders, liquid nitrogen to freeze items on a plate, and commercial food additives like xantham gum, agar and calcium alginate to manipulate food.
The spherification process came out of a visit to a canning factory. He noticed the effect of calcium alginate on a tomato sauce, creating a glossy little pearl which formed into a solid gel. He refined and tweaked the “pearl” until it became more like a tiny egg yolk with a thin membrane holding a gush of flavourful liquid inside.
The dishes that flowed from the elBulli kitchen included: popcorn cloud, melon caviar, a dry martini to spray into the mouth from a Comme des Garcons-like perfume bottle, a “golden egg” in which a raw quail’s egg is wrapped in a thin coating of crisp caramel (blowtorched onto the yolk).
The dish he was most proud of was the “stew in textures (menestra en textures).” The ingredients, separated out, were a mix of textures and temperatures.
“Deconstruction became a style that has subsequently identified us (although we never used it to excess) and has had a major impact in the culinary world, a very creative method used by other professionals.” Check. It’s used a lot and, might I add, a lot don’t have the skill to create a seamless harmony between elements.
“elBulli,” he says, “was not a restaurant but a place where the goal was to excite diners using culinary creativity. The main rule for any dish was to be creative.”
He’s inspired by travel and he considers Japan and Peru as the most fertile cooking cultures for his imagination.
“In both countries, the kitchen is revered. It’s a cultural fact that there is a passionate love (for food and cooking) in these countries,” he says.
Asked why he’s so willing to share his discoveries, inventions and methods (the recent volumes as well as a previous publications covering earlier years record his recipes, ideas, organizational systems and philosophy), he says it’s his duty.
“Like all disciplines where information is shared and work contributes to their advancement, cuisine should be no different,” he emailed. “The kitchen is our life, and we are available to share. We want to share our work so that future generations can cook and create a more efficient, easy and unquestionable quality.
“In my early days, I copied the great French chefs, like most chefs do. Copying is not bad. Copying and not recognizing that you are copying is bad. For me, when I go to a restaurant and am served a dish influenced by something we created at elBulli, if it’s well done, it makes me extremely happy.”
His life goal, he says, is to be happy.
“I use the kitchen as a pathway to achieve this happiness. My motivation is to keep learning and try to be better both professionally every day.” He appears immune to materialism and stays in modest hotels and has no desire for fancy cars.
elBulli, for all its fame and glory (and free labour from cooks and chefs lucky enough to get a stage, or practicum, in the kitchen) did not make money.
“elBulli as a restaurant was the R & D of elBulli as a company and like all R & D, the income was in the negative,” Adria says. But it was a springboard for other business ventures and products. “We were developing creativity and we existed as a restaurant to enable that. But now the other businesses have given us sufficient funds to move on to the enterprise level,” he says. “I never interpreted creativity as a way of doing business but as my lifestyle and my passion.” (That revenue stream includes books, supermarket products, kitchenware, endorsements and food outlets.)
As a youngster, he says, he wanted to be a soccer star.
“My idol was Johann Cruyff (a Dutch soccer player) and I wanted to be like him. But when I realized that I would never be, I decided to do something else. I met the kitchen by chance and quickly became completely enamoured by it.”
Asked about his drive and the motivation behind his success, he says: “I think my virtue was I never thought ‘This is impossible.’ I have always tried to achieve my dreams no matter how difficult it seemed. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not but the desire to excel, honesty and self-criticism are vital if you want to get important things in life. I never interpreted creativity as a way of doing business but as my lifestyle and my passion. I enjoy creating.”
Putting his creations into perspective, he says: “The avant-garde has always existed throughout the history of mankind. The good things from the avant-garde last and eventually, after many years, become tradition and people forget they were ever part of the avant-garde. The kitchen is a living discipline, always evolving, and there will always be cutting edge things that over the years, ends up being part of tradition.”
As for molecular gastronomy, the label persistently slapped on his style of cooking, he seems weary.
“What we do is talk to science to learn from it and find solutions to problems and knowing the why behind things. But those who cook are cooks, not scientists,” he says. But he agrees that his food requires some mental effort to appreciate.
“Yes, our kitchen is a kitchen that makes food designed to be tasted with the five senses and it requires concentration to appreciate all that we want to express.”
And speaking of his five senses, I ask whether he does indeed have an extra large tongue and whether that affects his speech and provides him with super taste buds, as has been reported.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that,” he responds good-naturedly. “Honestly, I think I have a small tongue. But it is true that I talk a lot because many times I need to express a lot in a short time.”
At home, he says, he eats simply.
“Lots of fruit, short cooking times and so on. But when I go to a fine dining restaurant, I’m excited and I do expect to find proposals to wake my senses.” The most memorable meal ever, in a restaurant, he says, was in a village in China, dining with his wife.
“We entered a very humble restaurant with no pretensions and there I got one of the best vegetable dishes I have ever had in my life. There I realized that sensitivity can be found in the most unexpected places.”
He has visited Canada before and thinks it a fantastic country with wonderful cuisine.
“It has a great culture, great products and an incredible professional talent. The present and the future of Canadian cuisine is more than assured.”
When he visits Vancouver on Saturday, he will, as always, keep an open mind.
“I wait to be surprised and I normally am,” he says. He will be talking about his new volume of books and about the progress of the elBulli Foundation, which will be his next great adventure.
“It is a complex project that must be explained well so that people can get a real idea of its importance.
“Life,” he says, “has given me much more than I could dream of. I do no ask anything more, just now, than to try to give back to society.”
*This article was published in the March 5, 2014 issue of the Vancouver Sun and can be found online here.
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