Nine years ago, Ferran Adrià of elBulli, the most féted chef on the planet, came to London to demonstrate his extraordinary techniques to an invited audience of some 200 chefs and food writers — mostly British but with a fair sprinkling of Europeans and Americans. However, the mood in the hall was somber. It was March 11, 2004, the same morning that the Atocha railway station in Madrid had been blown up by terrorist bombers as commuters arrived for work.
The demonstration theater — a large underground bunker beneath a luxury hotel just up the road from the Houses of Parliament where Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plotters were deflected from a similar purpose a few hundred years earlier — had been converted into a gleaming space laboratory. When our instructor began to speak, it was to request a minute’s silence in memory of the 180 people already reported dead; the final toll was 191. Such moments are hard to forget.
Fortunately for me, as a Spanish speaker, Adrià addressed his audience in Spanish rather than Catalan, with translation into English provided over earphones. Simultaneous translators don’t always deliver the full picture, so I kept my own notes as a reminder of what he said. What follows is an edited version of his thoughts that day.
Ferran Adrià discusses why and how we eat
“Never forget, ladies and gentlemen, that the primary purpose of serving good food in pleasant surroundings is to give pleasure. We are not revolutionaries in the usual sense of the word. We have only one aim in what we do: to be happy ourselves and to make others happy. This is a useful service in a world where unhappiness is not unusual, as today’s terrible events have shown.
“Catalans are, as you must know, an independent people who have only recently been free to speak their own language. We do, however, recognize ourselves as part of the Spanish nation. Our aim is to make Spanish cooking contemporary, starting with Catalonia and moving through the regions applying our new techniques.
“We are inventing these techniques in order to express ourselves. We are not following fashion and we have no wish to repeat ourselves. Which is why I find it extraordinary that gastronomy is the only science in which innovation is not invested in or even encouraged, which is the reason we decided to continue our investigations alone.
“What is essential as a cook is to enjoy eating; if you don’t like eating, how can you enjoy cooking? When you’re at table, you don’t need to know the process by which the food arrives in front of you. But you do need to know how to read a plate. Pan con tomate in Catalonia is the most normal thing, but if you put it in front of someone who can’t read the plate, they won’t know what to do with it.
The first process is sight: This explains what we are about to eat. Joël Robuchon, for instance, explains exactly how to eat by the arrangement on the plate. Next comes smell: We have stopped smelling our food; it’s considered bad manners to put your nose to the plate and collect the odors. Then comes temperature: The contrast of temperature — frozen ice cream to boiling broth — does astonishing things to the palate. Now comes texture: froth, gelatin, asparagus, the mouth responds differently to each.
“At last we come to taste: Dulce, amargo, salado, acido — sweet, bitter, salty, acid — these are the four tastes. Grilled chicken with nothing but salt has neither acidity nor bitterness, but an oyster is salty, bitter and sweet. One person will detect saltiness and another won’t. The Japanese have a low threshold for salt, but among Spaniards it’s very developed because of the salt-cured ham and salty anchovies we eat from childhood.
“It’s all in the mind. There’s no real difference between eating a lamb and a puppy. And when I tell you that I know for sure my mother’s tortillas are the best in the world, it’s the heart that tells me it’s true. As a cook you must be honest. We must use what we know, which is why I share my expertise.
“At elBulli, we are 40 chefs serving 70 covers, evening only. We are not providing home-cooking. No one is going to drive 200 kilometers for a plate of bread and butter. When someone pays 300 euros for a meal, he wants something different.
“We started our experimentation with cocktails and discovered that a frozen margarita in a syringe sprayed with a little salt on the tongue is far more powerful than a whole margarita in a glass. The experience is of two temperatures — hot beneath, cold above. You can produce the same effect for children with frozen orange juice, like a homemade Fanta, though they won’t like it if they’re used to commercial Fanta.
“In 1988 we experimented with caramelizing. If you take a strawberry and dip it into caramel, you have caramelized strawberry. But if you paint it with gelatin and caramelize the sugar with a gas gun, the eating experience is far more thrilling. We made olive-oil caramelos and foie gras and mango caramelos. If you put things that don’t taste good together, the result won’t taste good either.
Adrià discovers delectable air
“In 1994 we started frothing. We made hot chocolate mousse with Campari and served it with an even more bitter sorbet; we served eggy bread with a vanilla foam. In 1995 we began to use air. Air is the flavor captured as a perfume, that’s all it is. When you use a vacuum, the air will raise a liquid. We found that carrot juice has an element which will hold air, so we prepared air with wasabi, air with melon and passionfruit. We were experimenting with texture at the time. So we fried fish bones — salmonete (red mullet) — till crisp and we served them with foam. Next we used a candy floss machine to cover the bones in candy floss. …
“In 1999, we began to experiment with hot gelatin. We discovered that agar-agar, seaweed gelatin, doesn’t actually melt till it reaches 90 degrees (Celsius). So we made a hot jelly with parmesan and squirted it into cold water so that it set into spaghetti strings. The same thing can be done by using agar-agar to set mangoor melon juice: If you shake it into limed water, it sets into little balls like caviar.
“Is it cooking or is it chemistry? It doesn’t matter. It’s no different from what happens when you bake a cookie for the first time. It’s the transformation that makes the magic.”
On July 30, 2010, Adrià’s restaurant on the outskirts of the village of Rosas closed to its paying punters (customers) and is due to reopen in 2014 as a center for creation and innovation. Which, of course, is how it all began.
Top illustration: A group of chefs at work in Barcelona. Credit: Elisabeth Luard