I felt bad, I didn’t know who he was at first. The announcement that we would meet the top chef in the world came on the first day of a blog trip to the Costa Brava region of Spain and while everyone else erupted in shouts of surprise, I smiled politely. I didn’t know who they were talking about. Then it hit all at once. elBulli, the top restaurant in the world, yes I’d heard of that. Oh, that was his restaurant. Oh, oh! THAT guy, the one who invented nearly every modern culinary technique? Ferran Adria? That’s who we were lucky enough to meet in person for a private tour of his new exhibition? Yeah, that was the guy.
It was a public holiday and the exhibition at the Palau Robert building was closed for the day, but they gladly opened the doors for our small group as we knocked at the door. We stood there nervously, awaiting THE man, Ferran Adria. I still didn’t fully understand where we were or what we were doing, but as soon as the legend himself marched through the door with an air of confidence, it all settled into place.
Ferran Adria exists in a different way than the rest of us. You can tell that, just as a chess master, he is always several moves ahead, planning something, solving puzzles, existing in several places at one time. It is this ability to think unlike most other people that propelled Ferran and his legendary restaurant into a place of culinary myth. That’s why most people were so confused when in 2010 he announced that elBulli would close its doors forever and in its place a new concept would be realized.
That’s how the exhibition starts, at the end of the story instead of the beginning. Ferran explained that unlike most biographies, he wanted to show the future first, to start the tour on a more positive, forward looking note. Having spent time with Ferran, that decision matches his own personality all too well.
So what is the future? It is the elaborate brainchild of Mr. Adria, the elBullifoundation. (spelling intentional)
Simply said, the foundation will play host to a center for creativity. Ferran wants the new site to be one of the stellar knowledge spaces in the world and to shift forever how cooking and creativity is approached. The space will be integrative and interdisciplinary because the creative processes of arts and science are key for the continued development of cooking. Adria believes that cooking is the ideal point of encounter for rethinking the phenomenon of creativity and its relationship with talent, innovation and freedom. The center will be an organic architectural complex that will strive to blend into the landscape of Cala Montjol, a bay on Catalonia’s Costa Brava. I don’t fully understand the concept, but I don’t think we’re meant to just yet. But whatever it will be, it’s clear it’s going to change the world, not just the culinary world, forever. But this is nothing new for Ferran.
Ferran didn’t start elBulli, it existed long before he first entered the doors of the quiet restaurant. The establishment began life humbly and went through many iterations, including a miniature golf facility at one time. But in the 1960s, the owners began to serve food and through the 1970s the restaurant evolved into a well-regarded establishment. Even before Ferran arrived on the scene in 1984, the restaurant already had two Michelin stars. But Ferran didn’t just add a star to the restaurant, he would change everything forever.
According to Ferran, he wasn’t supposed to be a chef – he wanted to be a football, soccer, star. He gave up on school and tried to pursue his original passion working odd jobs in restaurants. Then during his military service he worked in the kitchens and made friends with another soldier, one who worked at a little restaurant called elBulli.
As Ferran talked about the early years he was lighthearted but also a little nostalgic. It was clear just thinking about the beginning made him excited, and with his excitement I found myself eager to learn more about his unlikely history.
His brother Albert joined him at elBulli and at the age of 25 Ferran was already head chef at the restaurant. A chance encounter with a famous chef though provided Ferran with advice he’d follow for the rest of his life: Stop copying and start creating. Simple words, but if acted upon they can change the world.
Ferran talked about his desire to represent the food he loved, the food of Spain and specifically Catalonia. His ability to take classic dishes, like tapas, and elevate them to new levels catapulted Spanish cuisine to the highest of culinary ranks. But then in the 1990s Ferran decided to change everything again.
During the off-season when elBulli was closed, he spent the time creating, perfecting and sharing. He long detested the attitude of some chefs that their recipes must remain secret. Ferran instead believes that everyone benefits by sharing and collaborating and has lived by those values since the very beginning.
Ferran wanted us to clearly understand that what he and his team did was to create a new language from scratch. They had to reexamine old methods and old styles, decide how they wanted to reinterpret them and create processes to do it. Before Ferran none of what we consider to be modern gastronomy existed, he created it all and to do so he had to build this new culinary language.
More than just intensely creative meals, Ferran wanted elBulli to be an experience; he wanted his diners to live something unique and always surprising. As he began to revolutionize cuisine, the world took note and in 1997 elBulli garnered its third Michelin star. Ferran continued to hold workshops, sharing his secrets and publishing vast tomes of his yearly recipes. He also further developed his philosophy that art, creativity and cooking are all one and the same and it was this interdisciplinary approach that eventually led to his idea of a new foundation.
Ferran was incredibly generous with his time and as we approached the end of the exhibition, we all prepared to say thank you and good-bye. That’s why we were so surprised when the great master said, “Ok, now we walk through again and this time talk about the food.”
I wish I understood his language of cooking a little bit better so that I might have learned more than I did, but I still walked away impressed and amazed. You probably don’t realize it, but here is a brief list of some of the innovations pioneered by Ferran Adria at elBulli:
- Rethinking how to serve food – The spoon as a vessel for small bites as an example
- Liquefying just about anything for more robust flavors
- Use of frozen nitrogen
- Any cool, new molecular gastronomy technique (don’t use that term around Ferran though) had its start at elBulli
The list of accomplishments is certainly impressive, but so is the fact it all came from the same source. As we finished our second tour of the exhibition with Ferran, we said our good byes for real this time as he patiently signed autographs and sat for photos. I reflected on his life and mine and one phrase he shared stuck with me and I’m fairly certain will always be with me. He said that it’s not always important to be the first; there were plenty of great chefs when he started, but it is important to be the most innovative. It’s the next iteration of the advice that started his own career and it’s something that not only led to his success, but will lead to anyone’s success should they be willing to live by that value. More than the food or the experience, it is this message of hope and change that is Ferran’s true legacy.