Mr Ferran Adrià

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Mr Ferran Adrià

Words by Mr Tom M Ford | Photography by Ms Amber Rowlands

13 May 2015

The gastronomic genius behind elBulli tells us how he intends to decode cooking and reveals when his last extraordinary meal was.

Mr Ferran Adrià is sitting in the lobby of an east London hotel drawing a pyramid to illustrate levels of creativity. Near the top is “combinational creativity” – “which 99% of people do,” he says. “And then we have people who are up here.” He points to the slither of space at the triangle’s peak. “They are disruptive. Someone who changes paradigms.”

He is in town to host an evening to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the FT’s How To Spend It magazine. The dinner will combine a presentation about his latest project with a menu prepared by Mr Jason Atherton (one of many who, after working under Mr Adrià at elBulli, have gone on to gain Michelin stars). Mr Adrià has been working on the elBulli Foundation since he closed his ground-breaking restaurant on the Catalan coast in 2011 – and as we soon discover, it is not the type of spin-off project that can be summed up in a press release. Nor, we suspect, over the course of an evening. “Like any good foundation it has the purpose of helping society first and foremost,” he says. “It would take me the whole day to explain it.”

A pioneer of deconstructivist cooking, Mr Adrià’s creations – he invented culinary foam back in 1994, for example – have made him and elBulli world-famous. It garnered five World’s Best Restaurant accolades from Restaurant magazine and, before it shut its doors, would attract around one million table requests a year. For the final service, Mr Adrià concocted 49 courses of his Willy Wonka-esque alchemy, including gorgonzola balloons, icy quinoa of duck foie gras and clam meringues. So it is unsurprising that Mr Adrià’s ideas aren’t always easy to translate into reality. And the foundation’s development has not been totally smooth.

To fulfil his ambition – which, broadly, seems to be to analyse forensically the creative process and apply this research to gastronomy – he intends to extend the old elBulli site to incorporate an 8,000sqm headquarters on Catalonia’s Costa Brava. Progress has stalled, perhaps because Mr Adrià admits his project is “a work in progress that has been mutating”, but also because of the Cap de Creus National Park land where it is located. But with Mr Santi Vila Vicente – the area’s minister for territory and sustainability – recently comparing Mr Adrià’s influence in Spain with Barcelona FC, any environmental issues ought to be resolved promptly.

The HQ will be named elBulli 1846 – after the amount of dishes he created at his famous restaurant, all of which are obsessively chronicled in Phaidon’s recently released elBulli 2005-2011. Set to open late next year, it will be a creative hub to experiment with the different ways we can experience cooking – housing everything from exhibitions to lectures. In Mr Adrià’s words, it will be “a wonderful facility to do everything we can imagine around gastronomy that is not a restaurant”. Sounds ambitious? Welcome to Mr Adrià’s world.

Another arm of the foundation, elBulliLab – currently based in Barcelona – is a research centre. “We work on knowledge and we work on innovation for two different fields: education and entrepreneurship,” he says. “It’s about understanding a discipline and carrying out a creative analysis of the history of that discipline. How is it created? Where was it created? How is it reproduced? How has it lived? With a methodology we could ‘decode’ and chronologically understand the history of anything.”

Up to 70 people are working to “decode the genome of cooking”. History’s recipes and cooking techniques are being pored over, and there is research going into “Bullipedia” – an exhaustive taxonomy of the history of Western cooking. “How did cooking begin? If I understand this I will see it differently.” Mr Adrià says we’ve never had time to conduct any meaningful research into gastronomy, so the results might propel our understanding to a place not even he can imagine.

"It’s about understanding a discipline and carrying out a creative analysis of the history of that discipline. How is it created? Where was it created? How is it reproduced?"

An innocuous question on this side of his foundation elicits a short history lesson on war – from Neolithic agricultural disputes to the pasteurisation process in the Napoleonic wars and the nuclear bomb. “Do you know the history of the world?” Mr Adrià asks. “I didn’t understand or know it either. If you can understand the key moments that have existed in the history of mankind, you can understand the evolution of things. I contextualise it into gastronomy.” It may not be possible to simplify his goal – but I guess we could say Mr Adrià wants to look backwards to move forwards. In his own inimitable way, of course.

If understanding food without eating or entering a restaurant seems strange, or even pretentious, Mr Adrià would argue he’s been doing this all along. When asked whether he’ll be doing any cooking, he laughs. “It’s not about whether I cook. There are many ways to cook without ever lighting a fire. At elBulli people thought they were eating food. But that wasn’t true. Food was an accessory. You came to dine on creativity. We created a language that I think changed the way gastronomy is understood. And I was no longer satisfied speaking this language.”

"At elBulli people thought they were eating food. But that wasn’t true. Food was an accessory. You came to dine on creativity"

Some thought that elBulli closed because of financial problems, with spreadsheets suffocating innovation. But its creator suggests that the restaurant was becoming an obstacle to the very goal he wanted to achieve: for him to learn and teach about food, and to put gastronomy on the intellectual level it deserves. Recent elBulli exhibitions in Madrid and London have provided an opportunity, he argues, for people to experience food more thoroughly than they ever did at his restaurant. “Restaurants have only been around for 200 years,” he says. “The great cooks of history never did their craft in restaurants. Once you understand that, then you see the world in a different way.” Once again – history is his path to the future.

Mr Adrià’s desire for progress might be linked to the fact that he hasn’t experienced “extraordinary” cooking for 25 years. Friends often recommend to him a “creative” restaurant, but he ends up eating things he tasted 15 years ago. In 1990, French legends Messrs Michel Bras and Pierre Gagnaire were, he says, prime examples of the disrupters in his pyramid. Those who blaze a trail, and whose creations trickle down to be copied by others. One such example of this would be his famous foams. “They called us every name in the book. But do you know how many thousands of cooks all over the world use foams now?” Is he a disrupter, then? Maybe even a genius? Mr Adrià dismisses this. “We can’t be objective about ourselves… In 50 years’ time we’ll see what’s being said about everything.”

So if he can’t find the extraordinary, what food does he enjoy? “People think gastronomy is a bunch of three-Michelin-star restaurants,” he says. “It is an attitude.” As such, guides and lists bore him, and the notion of a “best” restaurant seems absurd. At home, cooking takes him half an hour, perhaps preparing some simple grilled fish and vegetables. However, he is most interested in the creativity coming out of contemporary Peruvian and Mexican cuisine.

And what about the future of food? Since he seems to be trying to write it, he’s as good a person to ask as any. What will we be doing in 10 years’ time? He mentions the importance of Peruvian cooking again. He thinks diet will be better, and there will be more pragmatism to how we eat, too. “Just like people who have to take a test to drive, there will be a course to take to cook.” And he envisions increased informality – invoking a man who might make it into the top section of his pyramid to make his point. “This is a formal place we are in, but when you see Mark Zuckerberg, you see what the future restaurants are going to look like. People in jeans.”

But right now, he says, “my struggle is against myself. Whether I’m capable of decoding what cooking is… That is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

It feels as if Mr Adrià could talk about food and creativity for the rest of the day. He has been scribbling notes throughout the conversation – our discussion sparking new ideas for his project. If anyone can pull off something as audacious as this – whatever it turns out to be – it would have to be someone as passionate as him. And maybe in a few years he will be happy to be labelled a true disrupter.