‘If this is retirement, I would hate to be working’

Ferran Adrià does not dance like a man facing retirement. Just after 2am on the morning of July 31, he leapt into a group of thrashing bodies, his hips shaking, his hands shimmying in the night air. Three hours earlier, he had served the last course on the last night of his restaurant elBulli’s 27-year history. But as he pulled his fellow revellers into an impromptu conga line, he betrayed no sign of sadness or even nostalgia. “Just the opposite,” the 49-year-old chef exclaimed. “This is freedom!”

Ever since Adrià, considered by many to be the most influential chef of our time, announced in January 2010 that he would be closing elBulli, the food world has been in something akin to a prolonged wake. It hardly mattered that the announcement made clear that only the restaurant would be closing; the true work of elBulli, as a staging ground for culinary invention and expression, would continue in the form of the elBulli Foundation, slated to open in 2014. Instead, Adrià’s efforts to explain the move have often been eclipsed by lamentations for the passing of elBulli or, alternatively, fervid speculation on who his successor at the helm of global cuisine would be. But it takes only a quick glance at his schedule to realise that Adrià, the chef who changed the language of cuisine with his wildly inventive cooking, isn’t going anywhere.

“Right after the closing, I spent five days in Alicante at the beach, for a bit of holiday,” he says by phone from Lima, where he is heading a meeting of the advisory board of the Basque Culinary Center and giving a keynote speech at Mistura, South America’s most important chefs’ conference and food festival. “Then three days in Germany for the presentation of an elBulli documentary. Twelve days in China giving talks. Two days in Geneva to receive an award. Now Peru. If this is retirement, I would hate to be working.”

It’s true that until the Foundation opens in 2014, Adrià’s labours will not take place over a stovetop. In March 2010, he became the face of a campaign for TurEspaña, Spain’s national tourism bureau, and a few months after that, an “ambassador” for telecommunications giant Telefónica. This autumn, for the second year, he will be lecturing about the science of cooking on a Harvard University course. And just to keep things interesting, he also has a new book coming out in October, called The Family Meal.

Eating on the job: Adrià believed in feeding staff well at the daily elBulli 'family meal'

The book is based on the recipes that elBulli developed to feed its own crew (in restaurant jargon, staff dinner is referred to as “family meal”) once Adrià came to the realisation several years ago, “that we couldn’t feed our diners well if we didn’t feed our staff well too”. (Former apprentice Massimo Bottura – today chef of the acclaimed Osteria Francescana in Italy – recalls one unfortunate meal of “overcooked rice and undercooked pig’s feet”.) Deliciously hearty, the recipes in The Family Meal have nothing to do with the avant-garde fare for which elBulli is known, and the amply illustrated book explains them in an accessible, storyboard form.

“This is more than a cookbook,” Adrià says. “It’s really a reflection on what it means to cook at home.” That’s a reflection, he says, that professional chefs often forget to make. He tells the story of how, while working out in a hotel gym recently, a cooking show came on television, and the chef proceeded to make mayonnaise from scratch. “How many home cooks are going to do that?” Adrià asks. “I think our responsibility as professionals is to explain how to cook at home in a way that is efficient, cost-sensitive and, above all, makes sense to the lives of those actually doing the cooking.”

Nevertheless, his main work these days is planning the elBulli Foundation. Work on the new campus, which will be located in Cala Montjoi and will include the restaurant in its current form, begins in January 2012. Designed by Catalan architect Enric Ruiz-Geli, it promises to be a remarkable site, populated with zero-emission buildings in vaguely organic shapes. At the restaurant’s closing in July, blueprints on display showed a so-called Ideatorium with open chambers dedicated to esoteric things such as the “empathic tree experience”. These rooms will be at the heart of the Foundation’s new creative labours. There are also new administrative offices, a screening room and an archive. Or at least that was the plan until a few weeks ago when, as they have so many times in elBulli’s history, things changed.

The Foundation recently reached an agreement with Roses, the coastal city put on the world culinary map by elBulli, to open a museum there. It will have interactive displays for children, and exhibits of menus, recipes, tasting notes and photographs that elBulli has collected over the years. Hence the change in the Foundation blueprint. “One of the structures was designed as an archive,” says Adrià. “But now that all that material will be going to the museum in Roses, we’ve got some extra space to figure out.”

From the beginning, Adrià has imagined the Foundation as a sort of think-tank dedicated to gastronomic creativity. But his early attempts to define exactly what that would mean, especially with the breath of the food-obsessed media blowing down his neck, were vague. In truth, it’s still very much a work in progress. “Step by step, we’ve been constructing a vision of what we want it to be,” says Adrià. “But it’s step by step.”

Still, they’re getting close. On October 5, Adrià will release the details of what has been confirmed to date. They include an advisory board comprised of experts, including Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and a fellowship programme that will bring 20 or so young cooks and researchers from around the world to work in elBulli’s experimental kitchen. Selection will be highly competitive – the foundation is in consultation with Harvard and MIT about how best to choose its fellows – and, unlike the apprentices who filled the restaurant’s kitchen, they will earn a stipend.

Once there, some of the fellows’ work will be similar to what has always gone on in the taller, the Barcelona workshop where Adrià and a core staff spent the off-season developing the following year’s recipes. But there will also be projects exploring, for example, the nexus between gastronomy and art. And thanks to Telefónica’s technological support, the results will be uploaded daily on to the internet. For all of this, Adrià plans to raise a starting fund of €10m for the privately financed foundation.

Of course, the thing most people want to know is “will there be anything to eat?” The good news, for those who balked at the price tag of dinner at elBulli (in 2011 it was €260, plus wine), is that the answer is yes, and the meal will be free. The bad news is that there will no regular meals, and no reservations. “It will all be by invitation,” says Adrià. “Maybe we’ll invite a group of journalists one night, and some high school students the next. We could have a special dinner just for the world of art, and another for Foundation sponsors.” The meals will mostly serve the purpose of providing feedback for the Foundation’s latest work, and Adrià expects to hold 30 or 35 a year. “But listen,” he warns. “These are going to be much more experimental than elBulli ever was. Before, we were pushing the limits, but still working within the boundaries of a restaurant. We don’t have those barriers anymore.”

It’s hard to imagine what a meal more experimental than one served at elBulli might be like, but as he travels and plans, Adrià is actively reflecting on the future of food. “I go to China or Peru and the cuisines are so developed and important that I realise that the world of gastronomy has to change. The idea that Europe dominates in cuisine can’t be sustained. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as the teachers and them as the students.”

Within a day of arriving in Lima, for example, he had encountered 30 fruits he had never seen before. Asked whether all that produce didn’t give him the urge to get back in the kitchen, he responded with a chuckle, and a reference to the tapas bar he and his brother Albert inaugurated in Barcelona earlier this year. “Why do you think we opened Tickets?” he says. “It lets us still create new dishes, but at a more relaxed pace than elBulli ever did.”

And then, before darting off to his next speaking engagement with Peruvian celebrity chef Gastón Acurio, he added a closing thought. “The consequences are different,” said the busiest retired man in food. “But it’s the same creative ambition as before. After all, I’m still a cook.”

Lisa Abend is author of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, A Season at El Bulli: Behind the Scenes at the World’s Most Famous Restaurant’ (Simon & Schuster)

FT Reader event

Book now to see Ferran Adrià speak at Vinopolis, London on Monday September 26 to launch his new book The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià (Phaidon, RRP £19.95) and reveal what’s next for elBulli.

Tickets are £16 or £32 including a copy of the book.To book call 020 7851 2419 and quote “FT Reader” (lines open Monday-Friday 9am-5pm; Saturday 9am-2pm) or email events@piccadilly.waterstones.co.uk.

This event is organised by Waterstone’s in partnership with Phaidon Press and The Financial Times.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.