What happens when contemporary art and avant-garde deconstructionist food collide? Cutting-edge Spanish chef Ferran Adrià is gastronomy's answer to cold fusion. His influence can't be exaggerated — he totally changed the game. Although Adrià's "best-in-the-world," three-Michelin-star restaurant, elBulli, shuttered in July 2011, he's still considered the most influential chef on the planet. He's part Babe Ruth, part Elvis, part Einstein and the rest culinary supernova.
Adrià is not the severe individual he appears to be in many publicity shots (like the one above); he’s really more of a vaudevillian or silent clown. Delight shoots out of his eyes, his smile widens as his hands dance a pas de deux in front of his face. You can see the gears turning in his brain, his speech barely able to keep up with the speed of his thought.
The chef's approach has been called “molecular gastronomy,” but the field generally now prefers “modernist cuisine.” His arsenal involves custom dishware, liquid nitrogen vessels, a Pacojet (deep-freezing then puréeing food into ultra-smooth mousses), siphons, and a dehydrator. The delicious results are a breathtaking surrealist romp.
I struggled with the proper metaphor for Adrià’s influence until, finally, I realized: he’s Yoda.
I’ve been obsessed with Adrià and the modernist cuisine movement for more than 20 years. When I pulled out my New York Times Magazine cover from 2003 for him to sign, he suddenly got emotional. He said he'd only signed a copy once before — for his late partner at elBulli, Juli Soler, who was like his brother. I shared that I'd lost my own brother just three weeks before, and we shared a brief moment when the memory of loss produces a rush of emotion. With that single look, Yoda granted me “the force.”
[Editor’s Note: Jon met with Adrià over two days while he was in town for the Dalí exhibit's opening. Their conversation has been edited from simultaneous translation, with Adrià’s answers transposed into first person.]
JPC: What's it like to cross over from the kitchen to the museum?
FA: Since 2012 in the first exhibit in Barcelona, it’s been very interesting. Each curator tries to find the best way to show the creative process as it goes on in the kitchen. Before it was not about the creativity. It was only about the product or the history.
I know examining creativity is extremely important to you. You are working with winemaker Richard Geoffrey on Dom Pérignon Decoding. What’s happening?
It’s going very well because this is all related to the work I’m doing for the foundation. It’s all about being able to understand first and then to create. We’re using Dom Pérignon to to help us develop this because creating Dom Pérignon is a very sophisticated process. And creation is not just in the product, it can also be in marketing and how you present. There are many steps that contribute to creation.
What I really love about your whole approach is represented by elBullipedia: You share everything.
If you come to Barcelona, I’ll be happy to show you. Cooking and gastronomy were not something previously studied in college or university. It didn’t happen. What we’re doing with elBullipedia is beginning to figure out a method for how we’re going to do this. We thought it would be easy, but it’s not. It was not really a secret; it was just messy. You can find books about cooking from the 1400s, but there is not really a logical sequence of events. If you want to learn about the culinary process, it’s going to be very hard for you to find a book.
Well, Harold McGee [author of the widely acclaimed On Food and Cooking]...
No. Harold is a friend of mine. He writes about the science of the kitchen, but not about the creative process.
Not the artistic element?
Even Harold’s work is very new. A hundred years ago there was nothing. We’re at the beginning. If you’re coming to Barcelona, you’ll see.
So I can meet Albert [Ferran’s brother and creative partner at elBulli] and go to Tickets [their casual modernist cuisine tapas bar and heir to elBulli, which is No. 29 on Restaurant magazine's 2016 World's 50 Best Restaurants list]?
[Much laughter.] I’ve got very limited time, but you are more than welcome to visit.
You’re so grounded. How do you deal with the acclaim of being called “the world’s greatest chef?”
I’m normal. As a person, I’m like everybody else — like you. But if you’re talking Ferran Adrià the chef, I know what I have done. I’m not humble.
So if you were back in the kitchen you’d be difficult?
When I started cooking in the ’80s, cooking was not a social activity. To be on the cover of the New York Times Magazine was not possible. Maybe once every three years they write about a chef. To have a museum show like this was unthinkable. All this came to me like a gift. But the new generation of chefs, they are looking for this.
And so many of them are arrogant about it, but you’re not.
With the advent of social media, everything changed. However, chefs who get too arrogant don’t last… In that kind of society you have to be really strong to stay. I can come here knowing everything I have done. So many of the new chefs have done so little, so their arrogance is too much for what they have accomplished. But it’s not so much a fault of the young generation as it is of the way we live now.
Do you have a guilty pleasure? A food that might surprise us as a favorite? I know Rafa’s [fresh seafood] in Roses, Spain, is special to you.
I try to enjoy everything, to live in the moment. [Laughter.] For instance, standing here for one and a half hours, I enjoy it. I don’t want to limit this experience to one question only. I’m at The Vinoy [downtown St. Pete’s historic hotel] — fantastico. This morning I thought, “I’m in this beautiful place.” I just want to enjoy everything. I don’t need to find out if the coffee or croissants are better here or there. I live the easy way and enjoy the place in the moment. To do this, I need to disconnect from who I am professionally. This morning when I arrived, if I were mega arrogant I would say we need to prepare coffee [indicating] “This way, this way,” because the normal thing for me since I’m a chef would be to have the perfect coffee — to see, to smell and be able to taste. But that would be crazy for me always to do that.
Say tonight we go to a restaurant and you are a food critic and I don’t know where we’re going. Because now with the internet if I choose, I always know I’m going to eat well. If I go with you, but I don’t know where you’re taking me, I can’t be sure. Let’s say we go to eat crab, but the crab is just OK. I have a problem. If I say nothing, then you think, “Ferran is no good because he’s not telling me that the crab is just OK.” But my problem is, I don’t know if you know about crab. It happened to me. I’ve been with one of the best chefs in the world and had shrimp that was just OK, but I ate it. And I look at him and say to myself, “How can this be? I’m with one of the best chefs in the world.” I don’t need to live with this kind of paranoid schizophrenia.
Ah, you know the show Master Chef? Gordon Ramsay, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck and Christina Tosi all disagreed.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I understand. What happens if I go to a notable restaurant and eat a disappointing pizza? Is it that the cook doesn’t know? Or he just doesn’t care? If you eat at elBulli, you have no reference point — you like it or not. But if you eat a piece of fish with some vegetables, everybody should do it right.
Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing? Wine Spectator recently wrote that Emeril loves barbecue shrimp with Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. For Thomas Keller [French Laundry], it’s lamb and Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello. And Daniel Humm [Eleven Madison Park], John Dory, citrus and Chablis.
Champagne, foie gras and oysters — altogether.
How was it to be teaching Science and Cooking at Harvard, especially with your good friend and protégé José Andrés [minibar, Bazaar]? That must’ve been an amazing experience.
It’s fascinating that the university reached out to chefs. It’s something unique that I’ve never seen before.
You pioneered so many techniques [foam, hot gelatin, spherification, etc.]. Do you have a favorite? Or is there one that you think will be the most long-lasting?
The important thing about the legacy of elBulli is that it makes people think. We weren’t there to have people try to copy us. We want chefs to think and dream for themselves. It’s not a technique. Before, you only had to cook the way that you were taught [classic French haute cuisine].
Do you think that’s why Santi Santamaria [late acclaimed Catalan slow food chef critical of elBulli] didn’t get your food? He was sort of your nemesis. Do you believe it was jealousy?
It’s complicated because he’s not here anymore, so we’re not talking about him, but the concept. Most criticism [of elBulli] comes from lack of knowledge, and the knowledge that people have is manipulated. Everyone says you must only use natural products and that nothing is natural here. Ibérico ham is better than fresh pork. Good sherry is better than the grapes. Transformation is natural. I know how to make an omelet; I want to discover things that I don’t know how to do.
So it’s politics.
What we’re trying to do with the foundation is make people understand that there’s a minimum amount of knowledge that you have to have in order not to be manipulated.
What’s the story of the foundation's construction? I know you had some earlier problems with the environmental lobby? What’s the status of building your current dream?
Everything is resolved, and we’re in construction now. We’ll be in by July of next year.
And you’re now calling that elBulli 1846?
Yes, and little by little we’ll bring in everything from the restaurant.
Finally, do you have any secrets to getting a table at Noma [former world's No. 1 restaurant in Copenhagen run by his protégé René Redzepi] next May?
[Huge smile and extended uproarious laughter.] Ahhh. One of the reasons I closed elBulli. It’s a nightmare having to deal with that.
Yes, exactly. I can't imagine 2 million requests for only 8,000 seats each season. Crazy. Muchas gracias.