Ferran Adrià: New Culinary Think Tank

Ferran Adrià: “I’ve been called everything in my lifetime, nice things and not so nice things, including the greatest impostor… all that matters is the influence elBulli might have in 100 years’ time.” 

With the restaurant elBulli now, unfortunately, a thing of history, chef Ferran Adrià is still filtering its immense influence into an outsized book and his elBulli Foundation, which looks set to become a major creative hub for all things culinary.

Speaking at 10 to the dozen, most often while checking his phone and doodling on a napkin one might expect Ferran Adrià not to do things by half. Indeed, a new Phaidon tome from the ground-breaking Spanish chef, elBulli 2005–2011, is suitably outsized: seven volumes and 750 recipes documenting the restaurant’s most-celebrated period, it’s more of an encyclopedia, which, at a cover price of £425 one might want it to be.

“Well, yes, if I’m devoting myself to creativity then everything I want to do has to be new,” Adrià says. “We are [and whether this is a royal we or the elBulli team is unclear] not obsessed with the new but we love to do new things.” It is reminiscent of moments in the El Bulli: Cooking in Progressdocumentary of 2011, in which Adrià stopped short his number one Oriol Castro to ask him: “Haven’t we done this before?” Or when Castro noted that no new concept they pursue can involve a foam: Adrià has banned it. Too old hat.

The story of elBulli, tucked in a quiet corner near Roses, in Catalonia, Spain, is well known: Adrià joins it in 1984; becomes head chef; pioneers multiple culinary techniques and a new restaurant business structure (open only half the year and closed the rest, while new dishes are devised in a cooking lab for an entirely new menu the following season); wins three Michelin stars; sees elBulli booked out forever, its 75 staff serving 50 people a night; is named Chef of the Decade; and decides to shut up shop in 2011. Just like that. 

“You want an experience, maybe an intellectual take on food,” says Adrià. “And that’s what we did at elBulli: the people who worked there, who made it. I don’t think we just changed cooking but people’s lives, their conception of food…”

He was once preposterously dubbed ‘the best chef of the last 100 years’. Adrià says: “Well, I’ve been called everything in my lifetime, nice things and not so nice things, including the greatest impostor… all that matters is the influence elBulli might have in 100 years’ time.” Adrià is now building his elBulli Foundation. Set to launch in spring 2016 in the Cap de Creus Natural Park, on the site of what was elBulli, with €7.5m in the bank, supported in partnership by Telefónica and with Adrià pouring everything he earns into it, it’s going to be part-academy, part-culinary think tank, part-creative hub, part-chefs’ retreat and entirely open source. 

One example of its work is the Bullipedia: a gigantic project to create a system of codification that can be applied to the history of cuisine, for which putting together the new book proved an important step. For example, the foundation will track the evolution of the use of a single ingredient — asparagus, say — identifying key ingredients and dish presentations that altered the way the ingredient or the means of cooking it was handled by the culinary community. 

This is, in other words, Watson and Crick in chef’s whites. It’s also the natural conclusion of the cooking congresses Adrià organised from 1998 to 2005, which he looks back on as “wonderful years of people coming together to share ideas, before money came into it and changed everything”. The foundation is, of course, a new idea for the world of hospitality.

“If I had any children I’d probably not establish the foundation. I’m not a multi-millionaire so I wouldn’t be able to,” Adrià explains. “But I have a mission now: to help people, to share ideas, because if you don’t do that you’re dead. I also had to have a new challenge that exceeded that of elBulli. What else could I do? Go to the Maldives to retire? Set up another restaurant?”

Well, yes, please. But don’t hold your breath, even if brother Albert Adrià continues the family tradition with his Peruvian/Japanese culinary blending back in Barcelona. It is as if the only kind of restaurant Ferran Adrià would be interested in would be elBulli — and he’s done that. “There are some restaurants you have to make an effort to go to and you don’t just go to eat well, which you can do now in thousands of places. You want an experience, maybe an intellectual take on food,” he explains. “And that’s what we did at elBulli: the people who worked there, who made it. I don’t think we just changed cooking but people’s lives, their conception of food, perhaps also of risk in making a restaurant work for 15 years in such an out-of-the-way place.”

And yet, despite that, Adrià hints that there is a sense that the legacy of elBulli is an uncertain one. Yes, it became a proving ground for many of today’s world-class chefs (from René Redzepi to Grant Achatz and Andoni Luis Aduriz) “and it influences thousands of other cooks too, for better, for worse, but by creating a way of understanding cooking that didn’t exist before,” says Adrià. “But plenty of chefs from the past have been voted ‘best in the world’ and nobody remembers them now. And who knows if, in 20 years, elBulli will be remembered?”

A foundation, on the other hand (always growing, always exploring new ideas and, what’s more, not being secretive or commercially minded about them), would be a potentially profound legacy, especially for a man who, as an armchair psychologist might note, is childless. It would, in a sense, be what elBulli was without the hassle of having to serve 8,000 diners every season. “A foundation,” says Adrià, “will be much harder to forget.”

Not that its creation is proving easy, albeit that Adrià says it is fun: “When you have so many problems, you no longer have any problems. When you have just one problem, then it appears huge,” he says, giving what is not an old Catalan proverb, but which ought to be. “Like everything in life when something is exceptional it only makes sense when it’s exceptional and when it’s not it’s a disaster. We have to go further and further to be original now and we suffer for that. We’ve been making things since Neolithic times and there’s less and less to be invented. And it’s very difficult to invent something that’s disruptive, that creates a whole new set of tools, [such as] the Internet. There are so few disruptive moments like that.”

ElBulli certainly had (and how painful it can be for anyone who never made it there to speak of it in the past tense) its disruptive qualities. Adrià cites one of its most important impacts as being the cultural change it forced, in shifting cooking’s attention away from France and towards Spain, which, in turn, has given eating a new global perspective: “If five years ago anyone had proposed that Denmark or Mexico or Peru or Thailand would be important countries in gastronomy people would have said it was a joke; and who knows where the best 10 cooks of the future will come from?” he asks. 

But the elBulli Foundation? That, he hints, is going to change gastronomy in ways even he isn’t entirely sure of just yet. “The rules of play are changing,” he says, looking up from his doodling for emphasis. It sounds like a threat. But it’s a promise.

For more on information on elBulli 2005–2011, click here.