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Ferran Adria Interview

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By Malcolm Jolley

Every year 2,000,000 people request a reservation at elBulli in Roses, Spain. Only 8,000 people ever get a seat and a chance to eat the cuisine of the most influential chef alive, Ferran Adria. The 50 or so lucky diners (at this point it seems redundant to point out that elBulli is consistently ranked the best restaurant in the world by the European and American media) will be served avant-garde cuisine, that is rooted in Mediterranean tradition but is cooked, or deconstructed, with things like liquid nitrogen.

Chef Ferran Adria, his Maitre D’ Juli Solter and brother/pastry chef Albert Adria have concentrated their creation into a book: A Day at elBulli, which is offered as a documentation of what happens in Roses for the 1,992,000 of us who won’t be there for its seaside season of May to October. Before heading to his laboratory/atelier in Barcelona to work on next year’s menu, Adria has embarked on a quick book tour. I caught up with him in Toronto, worried that I’d have little to say, since I’m not a chef. In fact, once we got over the difficulties of being translated, we talked more about culture and the creative process than anything else. More proof that great artists are broad in their scope.

Gremolata: I wondered if A Day at elBulli was written for your diners, instead of other chefs?

Ferran Adria: No, no. The point is that it’s really important that a publishing house like Phaidon, which makes books about art would do one on cooking. It’s rather exceptional, and a great honor. It’s a book for people who get excited about these things. No one buys books about architecture because they want to build houses.

Gremolata: True!

Ferran Adria: And not all books about food have to be about making food, or be for making food.

Gremolata: So did you have a camera follow you around for a whole day?

Ferran Adria: No, no, no , no. It took them two years! This is not a real one day. And there are no references to this concept. We did make a film about elBulli, and that took them a day.

Gremolata: That makes more sense.

Ferran Adria: The concept of the day had not been done before at any other restaurant, which is incredible. And if the digital camera hadn’t been invented this book would have been impossible. There were something like 40,000 pictures taken. So the digital camera has not been around for that long…

Gremolata: Were there lots of cameras around all the time, then?

Ferran Adria: No. Just one person, but on different days. You know we had to think very carefully about what we wanted to show people. But then we have that many photos because things happen. At first they took six months [i.e. a season at the restaurant]. But then after the first six months, they realised there was much more they wanted to show. For instance what we do with our rubbish. People don’t think about these things. Most people don’t know how a restaurant works. It’s incredible. We all go to restaurants every day. But as a diner you are cut off from that experience. We want to show this. This is the interesting thing about this book.

Gremolata: It seems to me your restaurant works like this too. You greet diners as they arrive in your kitchen.

Ferran Adria: Yes. And things change year to year, so we show what we are doing. Also you have to have a table in your kitchen. How else are you going to know if people like your food?

Gremolata: There are 70 people working in that kitchen and in the dining room. All the pictures of all your cooks made me think of an army. Is there a sense that each year at elBulli is like a military campaign?

Ferran Adria: One thing is composition. And another thing is interpretation. This book has two aspects. The text refers more to the composition and the creative art. The photos are more about the interpretation. They are two very different worlds. This is one of the schizophrenias of the restaurant. When Phillip Starck creates a design, he does not go to the factory to check it every single day. Frank Ghery is not at his building sites every day. Armani does not watch every single stitching. But chefs do. They have to be there.

Gremolata: And if you’re one of the 8,000 from 2,000,000 who get a reservation at elBulli, you expect Chef to be there!

Ferran Adria: This keeps us respecting what we do a lot. But at the same time it’s a huge amount of pressure. We realise that people go to great efforts to eat at elBulli. IT’s one of the reasons I try to be there for dinner all the time.

Gremolata: So there are no plans for an elBulli in New York, London, or Hong Kong?

Ferran Adria: No, no, no, no. No. It’s impossible. We hardly even know how too keep one elBulli going. It’s very complicated. Everything changes every year. When we start we don’t even know what we have to do and how we have to do it. There are new methods and new techniques… It wouldn’t make sense for me to replicate. But I do have a great respect for chefs who do. These chefs are often criticised for this: how can you have so many restaurants? But a [Joel] Robuchon restaurant in a hotel is better than a regular hotel restaurant.

Gremolata: I was thinking about chefs and what you do. Of all the top chefs in the world, there are very few who practice your kind of deconstructivist cuisine. Blumenthal, Achatz, Dufresne. I can’t think of others. Why is that? There aren’t very many pushing the limits.

Ferran Adria: Well for one, you need to be able to do it, which means time and money. Much more time to prepare the food, and very few cooks have time. Then, you need a really good, compact team. And this can be a problem because most chefs want to have their own restaurant, so they leave. One of the advantages we have at elBulli is that we have kept the creative team more or less stable for quite a few years. Of course, even then it’s a very difficult task [to be avant-guarde]. So many new things have come about through the years in cuisine. And then, the other thing is that there’s a schizophrenia to that as well. People say that elBulli has created a new language for haute cuisine, so then are we to expect our young chefs to create new languages? It’s all impossible to say when a new language will arise again. Whether in fashion or architecture or design, no one’s demanding that creative people invent new languages.

Gremolata: So, in 1984, when you started at elBulli, did you envision what’s in this book?

Ferran Adria: No, not at all. That’s why it’s so amazingly beautiful that a Spanish chef should end up in Toronto presenting a book in a university theatre. Impossible to envision.

Gremolata: Do you fell pressure to be the standard bearer for Spanish cuisine?

Ferran Adria: A great respect. Not just Spain. We want to represent all chefs, especially young chefs. That’s why we are very careful about what we say. Sometimes we are not aware that we are harming people.

Gremolata: And you have been attacked in the press too.

Ferran Adria: Ah well, [laughs] that sort of thing has been happening for years. That’s how you know you are on the avant-garde. It doesn’t worry me at all.

Gremolata: Other than this book tour. What will you do between now and May, when the restaurant re-opens?

Ferran Adria: Things around cooking that will motivate me. And creating things for elBulli. Another thing, for example we’re working on an audio-visual for a few years on the history of elBulli. We’ve got it edited down to ten hours. It’s something that I nearly dropped four times, because it was so much work. But I realised that we must have something, information that people can use to judge and understand what happens. It’s like heaven: a lot of people talk about it, but no one’s ever been. A lot of people will not be able to come to elBulli, so this for them to see what we do. We must have as much information as we can, so people do not manipulate it.

Another thing, no one ever talks about the early days of elBulli.

Gremolata: Yes! I wanted to ask you about that. How did all of this happen?

Ferran Adria: Well I have a series of books that are like a general catalogue of all we have done.

Gremolata: And I’ve seen those, but I mean how did you get inspired.

Ferran Adria: Well, I was going to say read all the books, and then we’ll talk. But then you say I was crazy. That’s why we’re doing the audio-visual: to condense it. But anyway, very few people know that at that time [the late 1980s], along with [Alain] Ducasse, we were the first to take Mediterranean food to a high end restaurant.

Gremolata: Now it seems natural.

Ferran Adria: In 1987,88 and 89 it was revolutionary. We used olive oil!

Gremolata: Did you get resistance? Did people send back their plates.

Ferran Adria: Not in Spain, where it was normal, but yes on a wider scale people said we were being ‘simple’. We sent out a dish that was just very lightly grilled vegetables with a little bit of olive oil. They said, who do you think you are!?!

Cuisine is not something that is studied very much. Maybe now that is changing, but there are still many more books about Roman cuisine than there are about the recent history of cuisine. It’s incredible. There’s no book or reference for a young chef that would, for example, take you from Escoffier to now. This is dangerous. People with bad intention will manipulate the information if we don’t know the history. They’ll invent things, or confuse traditional and avant-garde cuisines. In fact that’s what’s going on right now.

I am still a positive guy though. I think we will see amazing things in the next 20 years. I was asked a question I couldn’t answer: how many young people are studying cuisine now in the world? There must be a huge amount. And how many chefs are there in the world? Just think of China. I was told they had 6,000,000 cooks. Anyway, you would think there would be a popular book that explained the history and evolution of Western cooking. So this something I am more and more interested in.

The influence that haute cuisine is having in the world right now is amazing. It’s entering people’s houses in many aspects. But we still need education.

Gremolata: I think especially in this part of the world, where we don’t have strong traditions.

Ferran Adria: No, no, no, no! Just the opposite. It’s Europeans that have the problem because we think we know everything. It’s much easier to do what I do here than it is in Europe.

Gremolata: Here we know we don’t know anything!

Ferran Adria: Well I think, with the exception of possibly Finland, there are no school courses on food and nutrition. We learn about Visigoth kings who conquered Spain, but we don’t get taught how to eat. And, you know that’s important. But I’m positive, I think we’ll get there.


Thanks for sharing the interview with us. Great insights into Ferran and elbulli.
Post Reply By John in MISSISSAUGA on 10/13/2008 1:45:05 PM

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