Ferran Adrià Interview
El Bulli Restaurant may be no more, but its guiding genius, Ferran Adrià, remains a busy man. As his first cookbook launches, we went to meet the world's greatest chefFeatured November 11 Words by Duncan Rhodes
"I'M GOING TO ASK YOU A QUESTION," says Ferran Adrià, in prickly response to a question that I've just asked. "Can you explain to me the difference between molecular cuisine and molecular gastronomy?"
After a lengthy silence, the chef-cum-philosopher, who is widely regarded as the finest cook of his generation, finally puts me out of my misery: "The problem is, one exists, the other doesn't. The other is just a name people have given. This revolution, which you call molecular cuisine, was born in 1994. It's a very local movement. It started in el Bulli."
The question I'd asked had felt innocent enough to me - "What is your reaction to the word 'molecular'?" - but to Adrià it was like a red rag to a bull. It's probably because he's been hearing it - or a variation thereof - for quite some time.
El Bulli was Adrià's triple-Michelin-starred restaurant located near the sleepy resort of Roses on the Costa Brava, a couple of hours' drive north of Barcelona. The winner of the S Pelligrino World's Best Restaurant Award in 2002, and four more times from 2006 to 2009, the restaurant was famed for its highly experimental cuisine - referred to as molecular gastronomy by the media (though not Adrià).
And what an experience it was... At least for the 8,000 people who managed to get a table (out of the two million who applied each season). For these lucky few, el Bulli's 75 staff would conduct a gastronomic symphony over 40 courses in what Adrià refers to as "performances" or "concerts", rather than meals. Diners would be presented with such improbable dishes as tender almond turnover with Szechuan button and cucumber balls in liquorice and yuzu; lychee soup with spherical capsules and a spoonful of frozen tarragon powder with, perhaps, eucalyptus water-ice for dessert. In a restaurant that knew no creative limits, ordinary foodstuffs were transmogrified into new shapes and textures, and bullied into balls, foams, airs and capsules, with some dishes evaporating before diners' eyes or disappearing into their mouths, only to reappear as clouds of nitrogen through their nostrils.
The restaurant closed its doors for the last time earlier this year, but it's there that we're sitting - in the nerve centre of the very operation. It's a place that few, barring Adrià's own staff, have seen: the kitchen of el Bulli. Is it some kind of space-age lab manned by silver-suited technicians wielding hand-me-down lasers from NASA? Well, no, actually. It's a surprisingly small space, occupied by four or five ordinary-looking work surfaces and densely populated by men and women in plain white shirts and black aprons (the same apparel favoured by Adrià, incidentally), most of whom are armed with nothing more mysterious than pots, pans and wooden spoons.
Though Adrià is credited with kicking off molecular cooking (he calls it "avant garde cuisine"), using scientific theory to complement traditional kitchen techniques, to him it's a meaningless tag. "It makes no sense," he says. "If using modern technology makes me a molecular chef, then you are a molecular journalist." He points at my digital recorder to illustrate his point. "The technology we are using is not that advanced. The microwave oven, which dates back to the 1980s, is more advanced than most of the equipment we have."
Hailing from L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, a rough, working-class district on the outskirts of Barcelona, it's fair to say that Adrià's culinary background is somewhat at odds with his achievements. After leaving school in 1980, he got a job as a dishwasher at a hotel. A year later, he was drafted into military service, where he worked as a cook. Following that, he found work at el Bulli by chance (then a one-star Michelin restaurant). But the then head chef clearly liked what he saw. In 1984, after just 18 months in the kitchen and aged 22, Adrià was promoted to head chef.
Back then, the food at el Bulli was far more conventional. It was only in the mid-1990s that Adrià began to develop the style that he's now known for. "There was one specific year, 1994, when we started our very personal concept of cuisine," he says. "From that moment, we changed our attitude and it was about giving the diners a gastronomical experience."
Since then the restaurant has never looked back, but the reason I'm here today is to experience a more down-to-earth fare that was served daily at el Bulli. Namely, the "family meal", a long-standing and fairly widespread restaurant tradition: before service each evening, waiting staff and chefs come together to eat. Not only is it a way for staff to bond, but it ensures the team is well fuelled before a long shift. Every restaurant has its own way of doing things, but at el Bulli, the family meal was just as meticulously planned as that night's "performance". It had to be, as preparing and eating this three-course supper had to be juggled with the arduous daily task of providing the 40-plus avant garde courses.
After solving all manner of timing and budgeting restraints in order to feed his troops, Adrià realised the sum of this know-how was well worth sandwiching in a book cover, as an aid to both fellow restaurateurs and home cooks alike. "The basic idea [for the book] was born out in looking for recipes for our crew that were bueno, bonito y barato (healthy, tasty and cheap) and easy to make. We found it wasn't that easy." However, after much experimentation, which included sending el Bulli staff to the supermarket to buy for two, four and six people, Adrià's team compiled a cookbook of 31 three-course menus. And, while few of the book's individual recipes are the groundbreaking fare that el Bulli is famous for (you can find many of them on the internet), according to Adrià, one of the main aims of the The Family Meal is to lead budding home economists step-by-step through the entire preparation process of each menu.
"If you have a menu, where do you start? Take what we're eating today. You have the spaghetti with sauce, the fish and the dessert. Most people would not know where to begin. The first thing to do would be the mousse. You need time for it to sit and if you cook something else first, that dish will get cold."
As it's a stomach-rumbling five o'clock by the time we sit down to eat lunch, I'm happy to discover that the aforementioned starter, served with a simple tomato sauce and fresh basil, is of main-course proportions; and true to the family-meal philosophy, it's healthy, tasty and cheap - but it isn't mind-blowing. So it's not a surprise when Adrià stipulates that the three courses should cost less than €3.50 per head - the equivalent of a street-side hamburger - and take no more than an hour to prepare. The next dish, however, is as delicious as anything you'd expect from an upscale restaurant. And, as it's served on shared platters on the kitchen worktops, I'm able to slyly help myself to a second helping of succulent fish with olive oil and garlic chips.
My favourite dish of the day, though, turns out to be the dessert: a caramel mousse served straight from a siphon - the meal's one slight allusion to the world of molecular gastronomy. Adrià demonstrates his mischievous side by insisting I serve my own portion. After first holding the flask-like container the wrong way round (you're supposed to invert it), I proceed to furnish the tabletop with a bigger portion than my plate as I misjudge the pressure. If Adrià found this funny, I'm at least equally amused at having the world's greatest chef hand me a squeezy plastic bottle of the kind you'd expect to see on a cheap hot-dog stand, and encourage me to squirt a liberal helping of chocolate sauce over my dessert. I feel like a child being indulged by a good-humoured dinner lady.
Sitting with members of staff in a plastic chair that is too low for the kitchen's elevated work surfaces, the celebrated chef seems more relaxed than during any other part of the day. And, by the time you read this, he will have closed el Bulli the restaurant and embarked on a three-year working holiday before launching the el Bulli Foundation on the same premises. Is he sad to close this chapter of culinary history?
"I'm happier than ever!" he says. "I am going to do what everybody hopes to do: almost three years to travel, to learn, to meet incredible people and to start this project [the el Bulli Foundation] which is a dream come true."
While foodies will bemoan the lost opportunity to dine at the world's best table, the gastronomic world as a whole stands to benefit. No longer held back by the burden of performing 145 "concerts" a year (el Bulli was only open six months in 12), Adrià explains that his work emphasis will switch from "90% production and 10% creativity to 90% creativity and 10% production", focusing on inventing new recipes with the results put on the internet daily for all to see.
"It will still be el Bulli - it will always be el Bulli," he says. "No one will say El Bulli restaurant any longer. The scenario will change slightly, but the el Bulli soul will remain."
The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià, published by Phaidon, £19.95 (€23); phaidon.com