To call Ferran Adrià a chef is verging on an insult. A scientist, an artist, a philosopher and above all, a creative pioneer working to change the way we consume and think about food, Adrià did with cooking what Edvard Munch did with painting.
In the same way Roger Vergé pioneered the nouvelle cuisine movement, the Catalan chef changed the face of modern gastronomy as we know it, with a complete overhaul of the conventions of cooking.
Call him a kitchen anarchist, a lawless rebel; his calculated disregard for the rules of gastronomy (among other feats, Adrià has attempted to make hot ice-cream and crafted cheese from almonds) saw his now-closed restaurant, elBulli, hold three Michelin stars from 1997 to 2011, receive almost two million reservation requests annually and regularly be dubbed the world’s best restaurant.
“We wanted to give them [an] experience,” says Adrià, finishing lunch at Sydney’s Mr. Wong restaurant.
“It’s important to make them think about life, because you can eat well in lots of places. Here,” he says, gesturing to his surrounds, “we’ve eaten well, but [for the diner] to make an effort and expect something more, it has to be an experience.”
Adrià is in Sydney to mark the release of elBulli 2005-2011 (Phaidon), the seven-volume final catalogue raisonné, a compilation of elBulli’s creations, complete with more than 750 recipes that took Adrià and his team 14 years to compile.
Born in Barcelona 51 years ago, Adrià joined the staff at elBulli in 1984, taking over the reins as head chef only 18 months later. It was here, in this small restaurant on the Spanish coast overlooking the Costa Brava, that Adrià and his team began incorporating scientific techniques into cooking, many of which – spherification, foams, deconstructions, and the use of commercial food additives such as xanthan gum and algin (both of which Adrià manufactured commercially himself) to alter food compositions – are now commonplace in some of the best restaurants in the world.
They have been readily adopted by the Heston Blumenthals of the world to recreate Adrià’s spherical ravioli, caviar and translucent “balloons”.
“It was so new back then,” says Adrià. “Now, if someone serves you a salty ice-cream, it’s ‘normal’, but in 1994 they thought we were nuts.”
On the topic of deconstruction, one of Adrià’s strongest gastronomical legacies, the chef is quick to elucidate. “Deconstruction is just one of elBulli’s styles,” he points out.
“There’s a certain confusion around this – as if it were the only style in the whole history of elBulli. But why was it born? When we decided to come up with our own cuisine, it was something very odd for people. We were changing the font – we changed the type of words – and so we had to come up with a new text that they would also understand.
“It was like a book that the diner had read before, so when you took a known dish, like chicken in curry, as modified as it was, it preserved a certain umbilical cord back to the people. If not, it was all too strange, so it would have been impossible to create dialogue with people.”
Indeed, we’ve seen this technique in abundance in recent years – a liquid gnocchi that dissipates on the tongue, a fish-and-chip flavoured cracker, a dessert soup – evocative in flavour of its namesake but surprising with its play on texture and sensation. But today, Adrià is dedicated to exploring the crux of the matter – what he calls the “creative genome”.
“It’s a way of understanding life, for many people,” he explains. “Everyone is creative. You are creative in doing this interview.” This year, elBulli will re-open as The elBulli Foundation, a creativity hub that will act in part as a research lab where the “most creative chefs in the world” will converge; it will also be home to a museum celebrating the history of elBulli.
“The slogan is ‘feeding creativity’ and it’s based on innovation, not cooking. Cooking is one of the languages, and will most probably be the main language, but not the only one. It’s a matter of working on creativity, innovation, education and everything that has to do with new technologies – above all, the internet.”
Asking the man who has often been named the most innovative chef on the planet how he channels creativity brings an unexpected response.
“We handle creativity from a distance – that is important. We don’t think of it as something divine or anything like that. It’s also important to understand that creativity has no passion; creativity is very bad and she won’t have compassion. It’s not a game, something to have fun with. If it’s a hobby then yes, but when you’re devoted to it professionally – that changes it.”
The Creativity Code
Tackling the topic from a scientific perspective, Adrià is hoping to crack the creativity code, uncertain as to what this may unlock. “If they’ve been able to decode the human genome, imagine what we could do with cooking.” Other projects for the elBulli Foundation include the ambitious Bullipedia: a search-engine-style taxonomy dedicated to the history of cuisines.
“Google was born in 1998, Wikipedia was born in 2005 and now it’s 2014. Are you familiar with anything new as a search engine? Isn’t that odd, considering all of the advancements there have been? That’s what we’re asking ourselves: what comes next?”
The new generation of elBulli is once again a testament to Adrià’s ability to stay ahead of the pack. “For me, elBulli never closed. We said we were going to take a break until 2014 and that it was going to be different. And it is different – it’s not a restaurant. Why? You have to be a step ahead of things. In a more dramatic sense, I always tell people: ‘If you see a tsunami two minutes before it hits, everyone is going to die. If you see it two days before it hits, everyone is going to live.’ It’s the same thing with companies.
“The restaurant format as we know it has only been around for 250 years – we [elBulli] had reached the limit. We needed more freedom, and we needed more time. People who are devoted to innovation are devoted 100 per cent to innovation. And if you are devoted to creativity, you want to be creative year-round.”