elBulli for all
Roses is a faded seaside town on the Costa Brava, its pastel paint peeling a little in the stiff breeze off the Mediterranean; the streets, off season, populated with superannuated bohemians and French families from over the border, there for the weekend markets. Cala Montjoi is a 20-minute ride out of town along increasingly beautiful cliff-top roads, penetrating deeper and deeper into a highly protected National Park. Each passing cove is more gorgeous than the last until finally you reach the perfect one and there, set back a little from the beach, is the most important restaurant in the world.
Any food writer worth his salt – and any food fetishist with sufficient money and luck – has made the pilgrimage from Roses to Cala Montjoi. But unlike every other food writer and food lover, I’ve come too late. I’ve travelled miles to see a restaurant closed up, the windows roughly blocked with brown paper, curtains drawn, the garden filling with leaves and fallen pine needles and a steady flow of inquisitive tourists photographing each other on a terrace where most could never have dreamt of eating.
“Will the elBulli Foundation be in this building?” I ask the local tourist officer who, a little bewildered, has driven me out on this odd quest. “He has plans,” she says. “There is something – but it is in Ferran Adrià’s head.”
Ferran Adrià is almost universally accepted as the most influential living chef. He is credited with inventing an entire movement in gastronomy based around a scientific approach and a rejection of traditional French technique; with moving the global focus of gastronomic excellence from France to Catalonia and with creating elBulli, a restaurant which at its peak opened for only a part of the year and took two million requests each season for 8,000 available seats. Then, at the height of his success, Adrià pulled the plug and closed his restaurant.
Two years later the Taller, or studio, is Adrià’s workspace, in Barcelona. It’s on the piano nobile of an old private house off the Ramblas. The double-height spaces allow room for a level of shelved balconies and through a small door is a disused chapel, now filled with a boardroom table. Adrià himself is compact, casually dressed in black but for brightly coloured trainers.
“We didn’t exactly know why,” Adrià says of the closure in 2011. “We’d become terribly perfect in the restaurant. Not that much in terms of results, more in our way of working. We’d been working for 25 years to improve our artisanal methods, our creative model and we reached a point where we couldn’t improve. It was monotonous. At elBulli we had always been loose … bohemian. But toward the end it was like the US Marines.”
Adrià says there could have been four or five more years spent looking for improvement “but the format didn’t quite match any more. The idea of the restaurant is quite new, maybe 250 years old, and we had to look around and say, what can we do that’s new … that isn’t a restaurant? The elBulli spirit, the soul, was our way of understanding cooking … so what are we going to do with that? A foundation was the only way. A restaurant will close one day but a foundation keeps the spirit alive.”
As we talk, Adrià moves: the photographer Gianfranco and I jump up and down from the table, following him at an urgent pace from room to room as he pulls down drawings, looks at huge schematics the length of the wall and stacks of page-by-page scans of historical cookbooks. “I’ll make you run around,” he grins.
In every room are 2m-high sheets of styrofoam, used as pinboards; lists, spreadsheets, organograms and process maps cover them. At one point Adrià lifts aside two boards which seem to sketch out everything we know about neolithic cooking. Behind them, early drawings for the Foundation building, and beneath it ranks of identical bottles filled with flavourings. High-tech cooking ranges are now covered with printouts and old books. Nothing better represents Adrià’s metamorphosis from chef/alchemist to contemporary multimedia thinker than this messy archaeology of the Taller – this odd culinary cabinet of curiosities.
The Catalan “molt important” peppers his speech. There is an intense desire to get ideas across and recognised. He also has the true geek’s obsession with dates. Changes at elBulli are referred to by their year, times of stable creative operation described like an artist’s “periods”. The desire seems to be to set the historical record straight and to leave a body of knowledge for posterity. He can clearly do neither by pushing increasingly innovative dishes over the pass.
The scope of the elBulli Foundation project is vast, and has been in flux since the restaurant closed. The project is split into three strands. ElBulli 1846 is “a museum that’s not a museum”, an archive of the work of the elBulli team at the restaurant from its inception. Part of this material was used to create an exhibition which ran in Barcelona last year. The collection of photographs, sketches, tiny Plasticine maquettes of dishes and other ephemera from the restaurant drew more than 700,000 visitors and has just moved to Somerset House in London where it will be displayed from July 5.
As we talk Adrià points out significant headlines and magazine covers from the media archive. The cover of The New York Times magazine in August 2003 with the proud headline “The Nueva Nouvelle Cuisine”. The cover of Le Monde magazine from January 2004 headlined “Ferran Adrià, L’alchimiste, est il le plus grand cuisinier du monde?’” “This is significant. Not because I am on the cover but because, for the first time since 1500, the creative monopoly of France is questioned.”
He baulks volubly at labels such as Molecular, Modernist and Avant Garde because clearly this was not the story of a fad but of the culinary world’s final break with France (albeit led by the Catalans). He is, to a degree, comfortable with the self-penned label of “techno-emotional gastronomy” but still wants to correct the record on exactly how huge this change was and the part that elBulli and the Catalan chefs played in it. It would be wrong, though, to think that there is any element of stroppy chef score-settling here. Adrià is self-assured about his influence on gastronomy so far but he’s disarmingly enthusiastic about creating something that will continue to contribute to the future of the craft too.
The second part of the Foundation plan is an online resource called BulliPedia. Adrià spreads his arms wide to try to express its scope: “History, technique, products. It could be about cooking in Egypt, white asparagus or pie.” He pulls up a stool to a terminal and types “white asparagus” into Google, happily pointing to the thousands of unfiltered references it returns. Turning to the prototype BulliPedia, he demonstrates how a curated archive of material improves relevance to the cook. The explosion in food media worries him. “More recipes were published in the year 2000 than had been created in the entire history of food” – almost none of which, he believes, were differentiated in any meaningful way.
The archive of material in BulliPedia is enormous, including scientific information, historical documents, facsimiles of ancient recipe books, archaeological and cultural research. Adrià is effectively writing a taxonomy of ingredients, flavours and techniques from the ground up. The website will also have a physical manifestation in the foundation building, replacing the restaurant at Cala Montjoi. Using an architect’s computer rendering, he walks me through a display covering the entire history of man’s relationship with what he eats and asking what “cooking” really means.
It may sound vauntingly overambitious, but this is what Adrià sees as the physical shape of his ideas. He’s replacing a restaurant as his medium of communication to the few, into an entity designed to communicate to the masses, in perpetuity.
The final strand in the foundation will be elBulliDNA, a physical and online operation which aims to exploit the restaurant’s creativity. “For 25 years we changed elBulli every year. Our techniques for creativity and innovation will work for other disciplines. Business people will come and join this team because they’ll want to see that.”
Adrià is, without doubt, unique. His command of cooking, its philosophy and history is unparalleled and his ability to inspire others is breathtaking. So there is only one question over this massive project. For now, nothing exists outside the studio, or more precisely, the mind of Adrià except for a boarded-up restaurant overlooking a beautiful cove.
Our time has run over, I switch off the recording machine and the photographer packs his bag. “Do you have five minutes?” Adrià asks. “I’ll show you something.”
We follow as he leads out of the Taller, down into the bustling Ramblas. People step aside as he powers through the crowd, intense and gesticulating. Adrià poses questions, utters “provocations” but never really pauses: “They say the food at elBulli was complicated and that something like pa amb tomàquet is simple. But if you grow the wheat, mill it, raise and bake it, if you grow the tomatoes and garlic to spread on it, crush the olives to make the oil, then isn’t it far more complex?” We arrive at a building a couple of blocks away, rising through an echoing stairwell to what looks like the entrance to a flat.
He unlocks the door and we walk into a room half the length of a football pitch filled with archive boxes, shelving, file upon file, books, magazines and newspapers. Standing in front of every accretion of material are the ubiquitous boards, pinned with lists and patterns. Tonnes of material in teetering piles. Adrià ricochets round the maze like a pinball: “The press archive”, “Look, the drawings for the kitchen at elBulli”, “Recipes”, “Academic papers”, “More than 40,000 documents. The incredible thing is that we never threw anything away.”
Suddenly, in the very real space of the room, the awe-inspiring scale of the project has a three-dimensional reality.
The other Adria
In Barcelona, Albert Adrià, Ferran’s brother and creative partner in the business, runs Tickets. It’s a tapas restaurant as imagined by an Adrià.
The 20-course tasting menu I tried was sublime, from burst-in-the mouth “Olives”, reconstituted from their own juice in a process of “reverse spherification”, to a “pizza” on which each ingredient was a freeze-dried powder. Having ploughed through my share of foams, smears and powders, I can count on three fingers the times, like this one, that the flavours transcended the technique. Likewise, razor clams with dashi and lemon foam didn’t seem gimmicky but entirely appropriate in service of balanced flavour, while any cavil at the lack of “terroir” is floored the first time you taste raw tuna with codium and kimchi. It feels that what slappingly fresh tuna has always lacked is the emollient lube of seaweed and the tang of Korean fermented cabbage.
Tickets shows that the brilliance of the Adrià brothers’ invention can be executed at several removes and delivered at a more affordable price (about €70). If the business has plans for international expansion then Tickets proves they are ready for it.
Tickets, Avinguda del Parallel 164, Barcelona, http://es.bcn50.org; marginally easier to book than elBulli, the restaurant also has a few tables for walk-ins if you arrive early
elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food runs July 5 to September 29 at Embankment Galleries West, Somerset House, London, somersethouse.org.uk