Every year, at the end of the season, a team of chefs from el Bulli would leave their kitchen in the hills above the bay at Cala Montjoi in Catalonia and repair to Barcelona for six months of intensive research and development at el Bulli Taller, the restaurant’s state-of-the-art ‘laboratory’. Since Spain entered lockdown in March, the Taller, located in an old townhouse off La Rambla, has been the temporary home of chef Ferran Adrià and his wife Isabel who have moved in for the confinement.
“I wake up at 4.30 every day and work straight through until nine at night,” says Adrià via Skype. “I’ve been working through my foundation [elBullifoundation] to find ways to help our sector and I have also been studying economics. Now more than ever, the restaurant industry is about economics, more so than any debate about the cuisine itself. In one year’s time we can go back to debating whether you prefer traditional or more modern, formal or more informal dining, but today it’s only about economics.”
Adrià – artist, maverick, mad scientist – recast as number-cruncher, might surprise those who know the chef only from height of el Bulli-mania between 2003 and 2011, when the €350 a head, three Michelin star restaurant topped the World’s 50 Best list five times in total.
Adrià’s ‘molecular gastronomy’ – or ‘techno-emotional cuisine’ as he would have it – brought us foams, spherification, savoury ice creams, deconstructed tortillas and thirty-course tasting menus. It brought him global fame, even an appearance on The Simpsons, but the restaurant itself famously operated at a loss (revenue coming from book sales, lecture fees, partnerships). Adrià called time on el Bulli as a restaurant in 2011. “I had reached my limit,” he said at the time.
“When we closed the restaurant, the first thing I wanted to ask myself was who am I in professional terms?” he recalls. “I am a cook, devoted to innovative cooking. To be able to innovate, you have to know about management. If you don’t know about management, you will fail. So I began to pull on that thread so to speak.”
The el Bulli name is now carried by the el Bulli Foundation, a far-reaching multi-platform organisation built with the aim of promoting industry-wide creativity and innovation and preserving the el Bulli legacy. One component of it, el Bulli 1846, an exhibition lab and think tank (‘1846’ refers to the number of dishes Adrià invented and is, coincidentally, the year of Escoffier’s birth) opens in the former restaurant space in Cala Montjoi this summer.
Speaking about the industry, the economy, Adrià is clear, forthright, direct. It’s when our conversation turns to the subject of cooking that he gets animated, his eyes widening with intensity, his hands gesticulating to fill my computer screen.
Even after four decades, his fervour is undiminished. He’s still asking questions, chief among them, ‘What is Cooking?’, the answer(s) to which he explores in granular detail across 464 pages in his latest book, a heavyweight £100 tome published this week by Phaidon. Why ‘What is Cooking?’, I wonder, and why now? The very question provokes an impassioned discourse that takes in everything from gastronomy in 18th century Paris, to the origins of the tomato, nouvelle cuisine in the 1600s and the recipe as an algorithm.
“It surprises me when people are surprised that cooks want to understand what cooking is,” he proclaims. “The most incredible thing of all is that there was no book anywhere in the world that answered this question that I was aware of. Are you aware of any? And the most incredible thing is that cooking schools don’t have this sort of reference work. I had no books about the theory of cooking to read. The first book about the creative process in a restaurant was written by us in 1997 [Los Secretos de El Bulli].”
“Let me ask you. What section of the newspaper will this interview be published in?” Telegraph Luxury, I tell him. “But not culture? As you know there is an ongoing debate about whether or not cooking is culture.” For Adrià, it’s the “first culture”. “Humankind began two and a half million years ago because homo habilis took a stone and turned it into a knife with which to cut flesh. The only activity that we’ve been doing in an ongoing way for the past two and a half million years aside from basic things like breathing and walking is cooking. So how can it not be included in culture?”
‘What is Cooking?’, illustrated with Adrià’s own notes and diagrams, situates cooking within culture, exploring its origins, its evolution, the work of the kitchen, the business of restaurants and the history of fine-dining. “There are no opinions in this book,” he insists. “Just information.”
I’ve prepared questions for the interview; I should have prepared answers. Adrià fires a barrage of questions, some rhetorical, some trick, some I don’t know. “Is a tomato in the refrigerator still alive?” “Is wine a beverage?” “Is cooking art?” (Answers: yes, sometimes, it’s complicated. On wine: “Wine can be a beverage. Wine is a use that we make of an elaboration made of grapes. Twenty per cent of wine produced is not for drinking, it’s for cooking or vinegar or to make grappa.”).
“If we don’t believe that knowledge like this is important then frankly I don’t understand a thing.”
Interrogating the act of cooking itself, he asks: “When we open an oyster does that qualify as cooking? Arranging the very best strawberries in a lovely arrangement in a bowl of ice at a 500 euro per person kaiseki restaurant, is that cooking? If you take a precooked pizza and put it in the oven, is that cooking?”
“To make a dry martini, would that you say that’s cooking?” No. “What if Ferran Adrià makes the dry martini?” Still no. He raises an eyebrow. “But I’m a chef aren’t I? I cook. It is cooking. It’s what we call a specialisation.”
“A caipirinha drunk at eight in the morning, would that be a cocktail? If you had it for breakfast?” Yes? “No. Because what defines a cocktail is when you drink it, the time schedule.” I can’t get anything right.
“Please no offence at these questions. I just want you to understand the importance of the book,” he insists. And I think I do. He’s just asking us to pay closer attention. When he tells me that fried eggs “fried the Spanish way with good olive oil, one of the greatest things there are to eat” are “liquid raviolis” I laugh. But having fried eggs since, I’m not sure the comparison’s so very far-fetched.
“I have always questioned things. I’ve always questioned the status quo,” he says. His book urges us to do the same. “Now is the time to train, now is the time to acquire knowledge.”
Drawing him back to the subject of the times, I ask Adrià how he sees the future of fine-dining. “I am hopeful but it will be very tough, he says. “Above all, no one knows the future. We can analyse the past. The so-called Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, the First World War, the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War, crises at the same level as the one we are living through now or worse. The restaurant industry always reactivated. Look at the Roaring Twenties for example. That was a very fast response to World War One and the flu epidemic of 1918.”
Does he think, hypothetically, there would be space for a cutting-edge, creative restaurant such as el Bulli in a world transformed by Covid-19? “Of course. The world evolves through innovation. It’s mandatory. It’s an obligation that we have places that innovate. It’s an obligation that we have places that take risks, that blaze new trails, but there can only be maybe five places like el Bulli in the entire world, no more. For them, it’s not a business but a way of life.”
What is Cooking by Ferran Adrià and the elBullifoundation is published by Phaidon
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