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When Ferran Adrià, who has been labelled the world’s greatest chef, announced the closure of his elBulli restaurant, he triggered not only a prolonged period of mourning among foodies, but a mad dash for reservations.
The small 50-cover restaurant near the town of Roses in Catalonia was already accustomed to receiving more than two million reservation requests annually, and so the already near-impossible job of swinging a table became the culinary equivalent of a trip to the moon.
Before the three Michelin starred restaurant served its final meal last July, the Catalan chef said he intended to replace elBulli with a non-profit food think-tank, or foundation. This, he said, would allow him and his team to continue with the relentless invention of cooking techniques that saw elBulli voted the best restaurant in the world for four consecutive years by Restaurant magazine.
For Mr Adrià’s expectant public, few other details were forthcoming. How the engaging and occasionally manic 49-year-old chef planned either to fund or to structure the foundation, due to open in 2014, was shrouded in mystery.
In search of a solution, Mr Adrià decided to bring in outside help. But rather than drafting in a brigade of management consultants, he turned instead to students and in the process has devised arguably one of the most intriguing contests in business school history.
To flesh out of the details of the elBulli foundation Mr Adrià has enlisted the brains of teams of students from business schools in Europe and the US to take part in a competition to devise their own proposals for the foundation.
With his “global ideas challenge”, Mr Adrià, alongside his sponsor Telefonica, the eurozone’s largest telecoms group, has invited teams from five business schools – Barcelona’s Esade, London Business School, Harvard Business School, Columbia Business School and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business – to participate.
“This is a unique opportunity for students,” says Alfons Sauquet Rovira, dean of Esade. “Adrià is not just saying you can study my case, but you can help make it and I will trust your judgment. Students have the chance to frame a case study from scratch.”
In teams of three, with a professor or mentor acting as supervisor, the students must come up with an entire organisational structure for the foundation, ranging from marketing to how it will attract the talent to develop new ideas.
Their business plans will eventually be judged by the chef and a panel including Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist. The winning idea will form the basis of how the elBulli foundation will be organised, marketed and funded.
Students must also devise a strategy that enables the foundation to release its ideas to a global audience, adding a new media element to an already challenging menu of considerations.
If this sounds rather open-ended, that is because it is. Few additional details for the competition are provided, meaning that students will be working with a set of guiding principles rather than rules. Prof Sauquet says that it is these loose parameters that make the challenge so attractive. The students, he says, have a rare opportunity to devise almost any idea that takes their fancy.
“The problem is still to be framed, and that is very exciting,” he says. “When someone with a record like his [Mr Adrià] comes to you and asks for ideas, it is a privilege.
“There is not a large amount of information that states what they are expected to do, meaning they can think as openly as possible. But at the same time this is not an exercise in pure creativity, but applied creativity.”
But how does the chef think that the students will be able to instil an idea as shapeless as “creativity” into the new institution by design?
It is when he is discussing this that Mr Adrià is at his most animated. A significant part of his success as a chef has come from his ability to appeal to worlds away from cooking, allowing him to promote his ideas as general principles applicable to everything from artists to multinational corporations.
“How do you achieve this? Well, creativity is passion, it is not work,” he says, drinking a coffee backstage at the launch event for the competition in the Telefónica headquarters in Madrid.
“You must have small teams working on projects, even if you are a big company. Thirty people for me is perfect. You ask, what is your name? Juan, Pepe, Antonio etc ... but more than 30 you don’t remember and then there is not the human element. And if there is not the human element then you cannot have creativity.”
For Mr Adrià, the crux of a successful proposal will involve devising a structure that allows the creativity and collaboration found at elBulli to continue uninterrupted and unadulterated.
As a project that focuses on achieving results through ideas, rather than simply spending, Mr Adrià argues that the challenge takes on a greater importance during a period when much of the developed world is being forced to learn how to live with less.
“To exit this crisis we are going to need a lot of creativity,” he says. “We have less resources than before. But people often think of creativity as something extraordinary and extravagant, but it is something also within day-to-day life, normal life. It does not have to be complex or expensive.”
Mr Adrià, who saw elBulli become the subject of business school studies by both Esade and Harvard Business School, has never been a chef to mould his work around commercial considerations – something that he says will not change when it comes to funding the foundation.
Long before he decided to close elBulli at the height of its fame, he had become world-renowned for his constantly updated menus developed during the restaurant’s annual six-month closure – a structure that placed financial strain on his operation.
His refusal to follow other global superstar chefs into opening chains of restaurants, or lend his name to endless branded supermarket products, meant that Mr Adrià mostly funded the restaurant through his cook books and other personal promotions.
His style, eventually popularised as “molecular gastronomy” by some critics, although normally referred to as “avant-garde cuisine” by the chef himself, saw him pioneer many dishes, including those based around types of “foam” mousse and savoury ice creams that are now common in less revered establishments.
However, despite the immense scramble to experience the beach-side restaurant, elBulli’s single location and insistence on relentless reinvention of its menus had meant that it was running at a loss. As such, any bright young MBA candidate who thinks the elBulli foundation can be sustained by simply cashing in on the chef’s reputation will be unlikely to win the €10,000 top prize.
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Mr Adrià, who was named by Time magazine several years ago as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, fiercely believes that the strictures of running a non-profit foundation will not force him to compromise the philosophy that helped him to build up elBulli.
“It is about the team, about the spirit,” he says. “In the end everything is an attitude, not money; elBulli is a place that helped create the vanguard in 20 years in the world, and it started very small. With €300,000 a year we created one of the leading places for food in the world. We did not need €20m to do that.”
And Mr Adrià’s creativity in devising a way to access the ideas of five of the world’s top business schools to solve his problem at minimal cost will also not have been lost on the participants, even if many of them will find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
“The winning answer is certainly not going to be a simple finance case needing a return on capital,” says Prof Sauquet.
“Adrià’s work has always been like this, he has always been a bit beyond what has been considered normal.”