Words by: Jane Ryan
Ferran Adrià is one of the world's most famous chefs. Known for his ground-breaking restaurant elBulli, his avant-garde cuisine and above all his brilliant and often bizarre creativity he is an icon to the world of gastronomy. In London for his exhibition, elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food at Somerset House, he spoke to diffordsguide about what's next in food and drink.
Inside the exhibition a film is on constant replay. It shows the 1846th dish being served at elBulli, the 1846th but also the very last at Ferran's restaurant in Spain. As he carries it out Ferran is surrounded by an exuberant crowd. No tears, no farewell speeches, but a line of chefs doing the conga behind their mentor. Because they knew, Ferran says on the film, they knew it was not the end.
Scores of famous chefs have passed through elBulli and for five years it was given the prestigious title of best restaurant in the world. Then in a surprising move he shut it down just as it reached its peak.
The new elBulli is set to open soon but before it can Ferran feels the need to explain to people what his concept was, and still is. Hence the exhibition, which had been on display in Barcelona for a year before journeying to London.
Ferran has been the subject of profiles since he stepped into the limelight during the late 1980s. He's been hailed as the world's greatest chef, the most exciting and experimental. He is also incredibly intimidating, with his all-black dress, salt-and-pepper hair, disapproving eyebrows and expressive hands, he manages to fill the space far more than his slim physique should allow.
"Everyone talks about elBulli but no one knows what we do," he says in his native Catalan. "This is the first exhibition about a restaurant so it's very important. We're opening people's minds to avant-garde cooking."
Avant-garde is a term Ferran will happily use when discussing his work, but he doesn't take kindly, using the mildest of terms, to it being called molecular cuisine, or people focusing on his deconstructed foods.
"Being known for deconstructing is over simplify everything," he scowles, sounding put-out. "One important thing in the exhibition is a timeline and it shows that deconstructing food was just one part, albeit an important part, of our history."
So what was elBulli then, if not molecular? It was food to think about, not simply to taste. It was the first haute cuisine to serve just bread and butter as a main meal. It was one of the only fine-dining restaurants to throw out the cheese trolley, after all, reasons Ferran, why bother serving something the customer can buy at the delicatessen or the cheese counter in the supermarket.
"I love cheese and I eat cheese and after a meal with several courses I will ask for the cheese trolley," admits Ferran, "and when I have tapas I will ask for ham and tomato but when it's about avant-garde cuisine it isn't about what tastes good. If you do avant-garde then it's about pushing the boundaries. I own Tickets in Barcelona, which has been a great success, but we don't do that type of thing, we do content, we do happy, we do food you don't have to think too much."
Tradition is another word, like molecular, that Ferran, if not rejects, then dislikes. "Some people say we need to preserve traditional cuisine but there is no such thing as traditional. This world has been evolving for thousands of years."
Instead the fusion of cultures and cuisines is something he not only appreciates but expects to accelerate. "Flavour is a universal thing, it develops with the merging of different cultures and this fusion has always happened, but the internet and improved transport links has meant this is more widespread.
"What doesn't change is feeling," he continues, miming jazz-hands and then pauses, shaking his head. "That's not technically true, but before people didn't travel. So my feeling is Catalan and if I go to Japan, Japan enters me. If I come to a cosmopolitan city like London it enters me, I feel Catalan through these experiences. Obviously if someone doesn't travel they aren't accustomed to this. Whether or not people being affected so is good or bad depends. This is maybe the most interesting thing in cuisine."
elBulli may be closed but Ferran still has both experimental and what he calls 'comfortable' restaurants. Then there is the new elBulli, something he is still currently working on. Rest assured, he says, this will be as exciting as the previous one but it's designed to be long term. Called the elBulli Foundation it splits the concept of the restaurant from its physical home.
The restaurant, closed for nearly three years now, is to become an interactive museum, visitor's center and source of inspiration rolled into one. "Everything is learning," Ferran says, "but if you think of it as a school or a university then you are wrong. It's a place of thinking."
Then there's the concept: elBulli, which is to become Bullipedia, an online resource for the intricacies of food, cooking and inspiration. Compiled with the help of universities and colleges around the world it has recipes, ingredients and suggestions. Think Wikipedia only more accurate.
Food will always be Ferran's true calling but he has taken a few decisive steps into the world of drinks recently, starting with his partnership with Spanish beer brand Estrella Damm.
When first asked about the relationship between food and drink Ferran doesn't seem that passionate, but when pushed a wealth of enthusiasm and knowledge tumbles out. The problem is he doesn't have the answer. Yet.
"My restaurant in Barcelona, 41°, is working on just that. Wine and beer is obvious, what will go with each dish, tea as well but what else can we have with our cuisine? Cocktails, well it depends what you mean by cocktails, a Caipirinha is too sweet and big. So what we need is something conceptually similar to a cocktail but different. This is the most exciting thing in the gastronomy world. 41° thinks things through, things that were impossible before. What else can we drink?"
Estrella Damm has been at the forefront of the tapas movement, something Ferran feels passionate about. So his sommeliers from elBulli worked with the brand to create Estrella Damm Inedit, a beer to accompany haute cuisine.
But why create a beer for fine dining? "I went to a restaurant, I shan't name which one, in London," says Ferran, "and it was a lovely fine dining establishment. I was very happy with everything but then someone asked for a beer. We were drinking very nice sparkling wine and they had the nice bottle with flute glasses and the beer bottle they brought him was something out of a supermarket. This is normal but it should be at least served in a nice glass. The contrast between the beer and the bubbly was ridiculous."
There is one part of the exhibition, art by Richard Hamilton, a 60s pop artist, which Ferran says is a crucial point in the experience. It represents the move in cuisine to be more than food tasting 'nice', to be intellectual about cuisine.
When asking chefs if the creation of the food or the customer is more important, their answer is fairly predictable. It's always the customer. But not Ferran, or at least not for his nouvelle-cuisine. "elBulli was based on thinking and about creating and using cooking as a language. The point was creativity."
Ferran Adrià is a sharp man, throughout the interview his responses can seem scathing and gentle all at once. But when questioned about wanting to work with any other chefs, a collaboration for example, the idea is simply preposterous.
"It makes no sense to collaborate with other chefs. Instead with other disciplines, such as art or design, people that force you to ask questions and sometimes are the answers themselves."
The new elBulli is nearly ready, despite being at least a year and half away from opening, with 90% of the conception work done. "There is only one problem," he says, "it takes such a long time to explain three different products, Tickets, 41°, Bullipedia. If I was to explain to you a restaurant which was just for children you would understand but I can't explain so quickly the others."
Then he breaks off, grabs a bit of paper and jots down his unexpected idea - a restaurant only for children. That would be marvellous he says. A jest perhaps, although with someone like Ferran it's impossible to know. If it happens, you heard it here first.
To see a video on Bullipedia Click here.