El Bulli Adrià Ferran

"The restaurant became a monster, impossible to tame"
Inventing Food Adrià Ferran El Bulli
Once a mini-golf course, surfer’s snack bar and shower facility located in the middle of nowhere [a Costa Brava cove called Cala Montjoi] and run by a fanatical German foodie couple [Dr Schilling and wife Marketta] who made a restaurant of it in 1961 which they managed for 30 years, El Bulli and Ferran Adrià - the world’s most famous restaurant which closes next year and its equally saluted chef – is a tale of surreal and unlikely survival: a cast of revolving staff and chefs [co- owner Juli Soler arrives in 1981, Adrià in 1984] distracted too much by sauce and skirt than pots and pans, a beaten- up caravan out back that functions as kitchen staff “casino”, sporadic customer visits - often two or three days apart - as staff forget to open the gates at the bottom of the track. There is no telephone, so would-be diners write and reserve a table or just show up; and there’s a guy called Ali, “whose surname nobody recalls”. The mayhem is backboned by Dr Schilling’s conviction that one day his eatery will conquer the world. The evolution of El Bulli reads like a three-decade-long episode of Fawlty Towers on the Costa Brava with multiple Manuels.

That story is incredible enough and so is Ferran Adrià, but American food writer Colman Andrews doesn’t serve them well. “No chef in history has been interviewed, written about and analysed more than Ferran Adrià,” he writes in the introduction – which makes us wonder why he’s adding to the pile – before listing the compendium of books, catalogues and audio-visual materials that have been or are being produced directly involving Adrià. Andrews tells us his story’s different because we’ll get the “oft-told tale” from “a non-canonical point of view”. Unfortunately, it isn’t. In fact, quite the opposite; the superlatives fly around so rich they’re spherical, just as the cooking technique Adrià introduced – spherification - with foam-based foods, ultra-low-temperature freezing and liquefaction.

Claiming the Catalan chef has reinvented food and changed the way we eat as the book’s title attests is bombastic truffle. Avant-garde cuisine is a minority-participation sport. For elite vanguard epicureans and writers who report such fare, Adrià has changed the way they eat, but not the masses. His influence is more inside the kitchen than out of it; he has changed the way chefs think about what they prepare. John Roca, chef of Michelin three-star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona did a work experience placement at El Bulli in 1989 and gives the best analysis of any in the book: “Ferran taught us that there were many ways to change. His greatest influence isn’t in recipes or techniques but in giving us the idea that anything is possible. He opened the door and gave us freedom.”
El Bulli Adrià Ferran
El Bulli Adrià Ferran

We are caught up
in a madness
for the new
it’s because of me

El Bulli Adrià Ferran
El Bulli Adrià Ferran
El Bulli Adrià Ferran
Adrià and freedom seem inseparable bedfellows and the announcement that El Bulli will close next year and resume in 2014 as some sort of utopian culinary foundation may have much to do with the erosion of that freedom. After four years of being ordained the world’s best chef, the Bulli beast has got the better of Adrià. “[El Bulli] has become a monster, impossible to tame,” he tells Andrews. Adrià has been trapped by liberation: “we are caught up in a madness for the new and it’s because of me. You know, it’s much more difficult to be creative today than it was 10 years ago. For a chef to make something new, after centuries of cuisine, that is incredible.” Like any innovator or pioneer – Andrews likens Adrià to Picasso and Le Corbusier in terms of influence – life can be lonely at the top and Adrià’s move may have much to do with needing to replenish his soul a little at a slower pace; a reinvention of his deconstructed self.

Adrià wasn’t born a chef and Andrews ticks some interesting boxes with the bio – military service, dish- washing, a seeming indifference to cookery, a lust for the fairer sex – but we never get close to Adrià despite the writer’s access. And that’s not all it seems. Andrews doesn’t meet Adrià for the first time until 1998, but that’s in New York, not Spain, by which time, El Bulli has three Michelin stars and Adrià has been co-owner with Juli Solar for more than five years. It’s then another five years before Andrews meets Adrià again in Barcelona at his testing laboratory, and not until 2006 does Andrews set foot in El Bulli. All of which makes this portrait of Adrià feel like a Ferran too far.

Asked to account for his success, Adrià evokes Cala Montjoi: “if the restaurant had been in a big town I wouldn’t have had the same perspective and developed in the same way; for years it was hard, but it was calm, almost nobody came, we had the time to work, to explore, to grow. All young chefs today, they shoot up like rockets. I never wanted to be the best chef in the world.” He might be, but on this evidence we can’t tell. - Georgina Scott
Photography by Francesc Guillamet