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Interview with Spanish chef Ferran Adriá

18 September 2008

A new book, set for English translation, and a running argument with fellow Spanish chef Santi Santamaria - Ferran Adrià has had a busy year. But he has still found time to talk to Caterer first ahead of the launch of his day-in-the-life tome. Joe Warwick interviews a chef who's in the mood for change

Late August on the Costa Brava and I'm driving towards the idyllic cove of Cala Monjol. It's the second time in four months that I've made my way along this snake of a Catalonian coastal road - best undertaken with your wits about you in daylight or, preferably, from the seat of a taxi at sunset having had a gin and tonic or two to set you on your way.

It's El Bulli for me, again, and I'm nervous, and not just because the strip of Tarmac that's passing for a road is perilously narrow in parts. I'm nervous, because the last meal I ate there in May (following my first meal there two years previously, that blew my mind and challenged my palate) was perhaps the finest meal of my life and I don't see how that experience can be bettered.

I'm also nervous because I know I'm extremely lucky to have gotten to eat here at all this year - never mind twice - in a famously oversubscribed season. And finally, I'm nervous because I'm eating on my own - something best done quickly at a tapas bar and not over four hours with 30-plus courses of avant-garde dishes.

Perhaps it was a similar sort of pressure that caused Pascal Henry, a lone diner at El Bulli in June this year, to famously disappear Agatha Christie-style from the dining room without paying his bill. For tonight's performance I'll be sitting on my lonesome at the same table where he ate.

But before all that, I sit down for a chat with Ferran Adrià. I'm here to catch up with him ahead of his worldwide tour in support of his new book, A Day at El Bulli - published in Spanish last year, it appears in English for the first time next month. The British leg of his tour culminates in him taking to the stage at the Royal Festival Hall to give a lecture that - as well as plugging the book - will be an attempt to demystify his work at El Bulli.

Adrià immediately questions my decision to eat alone. "To do that here will be like eating in a museum," he says. "Maybe we should go to Roses and find you a girl?" he suggests in a trademark throaty cackle.

Adrià met his wife, Isabel, in 1987 in the seaside tourist town that's 7km back down that road. It was the same year he took sole charge of the kitchen at El Bulli, having first arrived there on work experience in the summer of 1983 at 21, on a month's leave from his military service in the navy.

At that stage, the still-German-owned restaurant, which since 1961 had morphed from a mini-golf course via a beachside watering hole nicknamed the "German bar" to an increasingly sophisticated dining room, was already one of the best in Spain. It held two Michelin stars - nowhere in Spain had three at the time - and had 20 chefs in the kitchen under the command of French chef Jean-Paul Vinay.

Adrià fell in love with the place and returned after his initial stint in March 1984 to join the kitchen as chef de partie. In August of the same year, Vinay announced he was leaving with half the brigade to open a new restaurant in Barcelona. By October, Adrià had been made joint chef de cuisine with Vinay's former assistant Christian Lutaud, a partnership that lasted three years before Adrià's El Bulli reign began in earnest.

The first newsflash is that the restaurant's famously short season (that beginning in 1987 ran for seven months and was later shortened to six months from 1 April to 30 September) is to shift for the first time in 21 years as of next year. Things have already been altered this year, with more days off within the season and the number of reservations available having dropped to 6,500 from 8,000.

"Usually in the last month of the season we're really tired because we're open all week, but this year we're closed almost every Monday and Tuesday. That has made things a lot more relaxed and, as a result, we're still being creative," he says, sounding for a moment like a football manager trying to get the best out of his team.

When Adrià arrived fresh-faced at El Bulli, it had always closed down for two months from mid-January to mid-March - ironically enough for a restaurant that today gets an estimated 500 requests for every table, originally it was because of a lack of customers at that time of year.

At the time, El Bulli's opening hours apparently caused Michelin such confusion that it lost its listing, and the star they first gained in 1976, in the 1981 guide. When then restaurant manager - now co-owner - Juli Soler travelled to Paris to find out the reason, he was told that they thought the restaurant had closed. The star was restored the following year and a second added the year after that.

The six-month sojourn taken at the restaurant is famously used to explore, to search out new ingredients and develop new techniques, honed at El Bulli's Barcelona workshop, that are then used as the starting point for an evolving set of new dishes the following season. But when El Bulli closes down after its last dinner service on 5 October this year, it won't reopen to the public until dinner on 16 June 2009.

Sat in a secluded section of the restaurant, Adrià is excited by the possibilities offered, both by an extended creative sabbatical, and by shifting the season forward.

Something different

"We decided to take the extra time only about a month ago, but long before that I decided I wanted something different to happen next year. This is not a restaurant because this is not a business. So why have it open?" he asks of an operation that has run at a loss since before the dawn of the new millennium.

El Bulli's creativity is famously subsidised by other businesses that include the lavishly produced series of encyclopaedic volumes aimed at ambitious chefs and other assorted culinary fetishists, printed by his own publishing house, that sell for upwards of £150-a-pop and have sold more than 100,000 copies.

Then there's his range of more affordable and accessible books for home cooks, the El Bulli hotel in Seville, the growing fast-food chain Fast Good, an upmarket utensil range, a clothing and textile range with Spanish fashion label Armand Basi, and various product endorsements, consultancies and deals with everyone from coffee and olive oil companies to hotel chains.

"El Bulli is open because of the pleasure it gives," he says. "It's open because of my passion for cooking. It's open because I'm able to do it and because I don't need to do it for money because I'm already covered… but I want to be happy, and for that I need change and for things to happen and not be trapped by monotony.

"Next year I will have the use of the new seasons. We have opened in April for the past 20 years and always with the same seasonal ingredients - with, for example, asparagus every year. I want change. I want to do things that I don't know how to do. I don't know what it is to arrive here and open in the middle of June or be here in December simply because I haven't done that before."

At the same time Adrià is cutting back on his business commitments. "I'm only going to keep the businesses that I don't have to work directly with and that don't take my time," he says.

As he's talking, a new dish they're working on arrives from the kitchen for his perusal. It's cubes of watermelon lacquered with pistachio - lacquering is a new Nippon-inspired technique they've been working on this season. He studies, swallows and nods his head. I ask what other techniques have emerged this year and if he could try and sum up this season's new developments.

Feels Japanese

"The past two or three years the thing that has happened is that we've discovered the influence of Japan," he explains. "Not the dishes or the products, but the feeling of Japan. With some of the dishes you'd say ‘This is not Japanese' but somehow it feels Japanese. That's the most important fact from this season."

Another dish appears from the kitchen looking like a barren bonsai tree. After a few words from Adrià it is swiftly taken away, only to make a rapid reappearance with pieces of gold leaf draped on its branches.

"We have developed between 15 and 20 new versions, but this year there is no technique that stands out from the others. Not only that, but they are the sort of techniques that are difficult to see in the dish.

"It's funny, because the guests that come every year are lost looking for this year's technique. They can usually distinguish between the spherification one year, liquid nitrogen another year, foams another year. But this time there's a mango croquette made with basil powder. It's impossible for people to know what they are eating, never mind understand the technique involved, but when they eat it they go ‘Oh my God'.

"It's made with a dehydrated basil powder that we've developed. This powder opens up a whole new range of possibilities and costs about €5,000 (£3,980) to produce just 1kg of it. You see the dish that it's being used in and you don't see the technique or the technology involved - but it's still there. The machine we use to dehydrate products is the only one of its type in the world and it's the only new technique we have at the moment that nobody else can copy."

Adrià finds it frustrating trying to sum up a season's work. "I cannot just do an overall evolution of the menu this year because I need to talk about each dish," he says. "Every dish makes up a whole universe that is the menu each year. You've just seen two new techniques - maybe one of them is going to be very important in the future but I can't tell now. To explain each year at El Bulli I need a book of some 600 pages and so that's what I do every year."

What he doesn't do every year is have high-profile rows with fellow chefs. Adrià is respected for his creativity and achievements and, accordingly, on good terms with the majority of his fellow chefs, both in Spain and abroad. The exception is fellow Catalan three-Michelin-star chef Santi Santamaria, whose restaurant, Can Fabes, lies in Sant Celoni, a small town between Barcelona and Girona.

Santamaria has been publicly gunning for Adrià since January 2007 when, on stage at the annual Madrid Fusion culinary congress, he launched a blistering attack on modern Spanish cooking, of which Adrià is the influential leading exponent, accusing it of being practised by "a gang of imposters whose work is to distract snobs".

Adrià let that go, refusing to respond in public until May this year when Santamaria, who was the first Catalan chef to gain three Michelin stars and likes to portray himself as a traditional craftsman irritated by what he sees as culinary pretension, spoke of "a public health risk" in the use of methylcellulose (aka E461) which Adrià, and latterly many leading chefs worldwide, employ as a gelling agent and emulsifier.

Adrià's response to his, arguably green-eyed, rival's comments at the time was to call them "nonsense" and "lies, lies, lies!" The row made headlines worldwide and saw Spanish chef trade bodies and even government ministers come out on Adrià's side, while on a Catalan comedy TV show the pair were lampooned as fighting each other to promote their latest book, crockery and utensil ranges.

Several months later and Adrià is still irked by even the mention of Santamaria's name. "The products that we use are as natural as sugar and to say that they're bad for your health is nonsense and lies."

Cooking styles

But, I ask, isn't the row actually more about a clash of cooking styles? "Chefs are free to do whatever kind of cooking they want to do," he says dismissively. "This is my restaurant, my business, my cooking and I'll do what I want. If he wants to have a serious debate - fine - but everything is manipulated. People say lots of young cooks follow Ferran Adrià and do it really badly - it's part of the basis for criticism of this kind of cooking. But nobody talks about the many young chefs that do it well and that use techniques and elaborations from our books without problems.

"These same people don't talk about the many that cook bad pizzas and paellas around the world. This difference between tradition and the avant-garde does not exist - the debate is about quality.

"If you ask the average person whether they prefer traditional or modern cooking, they will obviously say traditional.But 99.9% of people don't actually know or understand about modern cooking - so how are they going to prefer it? It's manipulation to present things this way."

His hope is always that those that want to know the truth, those that want to understand what El Bulli is really about, will turn to the books that he has been producing to explain his work.

"It's impossible for the whole world to know El Bulli. Half of the people who come here have already been once before. El Bulli is a place that lots of people are going to talk about for many years, but many are never going to have been here, so the books and the audio-visual work are going to help.

"It's very important to show people that it takes years to create a new style, to do different things, and that to arrive at the top you must always go step by step."

Further information

  • A Day at El Bulli is published by Phaidon at the end of October, priced £29.95 www.phaidon.com
  • Ferran Adrià will be giving a talk at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London, at 7.30pm on 24 November, tickets are priced £12. www.southbankcentre.co.uk
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