food / travel

Superstar Chef Ferran Adria Shares His Secret Ingredient

An Argentine newspaper asks if the founder of the now-closed, ultra-famous El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia is the Lionel Messi of the culinary world. Ferran Adria sees it differently.

Spanish chef Ferran Adria
Spanish chef Ferran Adria
Susana Reinosa

BUENOS AIRES â€" His work may have earned him a revered place in the here and now, but his thoughts are often of the future. "A modern country needs investigative cooking," says Ferran Adrià, founder of the world-famous El Bulli restaurant and pride of his native Catalonia.

Using food as a fulcrum, the 53-year-old chef managed in just a few years to bring about an anthropological and cultural transformation. He earned three Michelin stars in the process and knocked France off the culinary throne it had occupied for more than a century. Then, in July 2011, he shut down El Bulli.

Prior to his recent visit to Buenos Aires, where he spoke at a conference and participated in a meet-and-greet with Argentine fans, Adrià talked to Clarín from his brother's winery outside Tarragona, southwest of Barcelona.

The first thing he wanted to discuss was his Bulli Foundation, which the pioneering chef founded in 2013. "In July 2014 we started working with elBulliLab, where our work is holistic," he explained. "We have philosophers, artists, historians, anthropologists, technologists, wine specialists, cooks, web designers and journalists: 80 people from different fields who keep changing. In elBulliLab, we eat knowledge to feed creativity."

Things Adrià didn't want to talk about are what he remembers eating as a child, or what his favorite dish is now. "Sorry, but I'm not a romantic," he said. "I'm a professional chef. I don't cook at home the way I do professionally."

The kitchen at El Bulli back in 2007 â€" Photo: Charles Haynes

CLARIN: Would you say you're the Messi of modern gastronomy?

FERRAN ADRIA: Laughs Come on! Messi has gone much further than I have. You can't compare people and professions. I'd love to be like Leo, though.

Where is your challenge today?

My challenge is struggling against myself, to see if I am able to go beyond what I did and was before. I don't have an ego drive anymore, or money ambitions. I'm not a millionaire but I live well and don't have children. I am always competing with myself. To excel and create is a daily challenge, which I consider quite natural. I don't feel pressure to have or seek new things.

There are films on chefs and creative cooking where the protagonists are really suffering. Was all this enjoyable for you or was it a continuous chore?

No, I am privileged for achieving a thousand things that were beyond my dreams. The happy moments are always greater than the sad ones. Everything I've lived through as a cook has been incredible.

In your case, how much do you owe to your talent, to hard work or to luck?

I owe a lot to talent and to the work ethic. As for luck ... Well, believe me, I haven't had that much of it. I know a lot of people who have been luckier than me. I got up at 5 a.m. today, and let me tell you I'll be in bed, with a bit of work, by 10 p.m.

After breaking out from the mould with its techno-emotional cooking and outdoing the French, El Bulli closed. Why?

When we closed El Bulli, I thought I'd make my life easier and wasn't thinking of coming back so soon. My partner died. I knew I wanted the freedom to do something I wanted, and had a lot of time to think about it. I founded the Bulli Foundation to continue creating. It's not a university or school, but the Bulli Lab has come out of it, with new challenges. Creating means going from one absolute to another, with more people and more complex challenges. Innovation and creativity encompass many disciplines. We like to learn.

When did you become aware of your culinary revolution?

The key moment was New York Times cover in 2003. That's when I though, "This is more serious than I thought."

We didn't set out to break the hegemony of French cuisine. We did what we enjoyed, and lost control of its consequences. It wasn't our specific goal.

You were a star at the Documenta exhibition in Kassel in 2007. You spoke at Harvard in 2008 and were one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people. How did you keep your head?

My wife, my parents, my friends ... These are the people that help me keep my feet on the ground. I can count on them and that's very important. I don't do false modesty because I know who I am. Sometimes your surroundings can make you stupid. So I am proud to have caused a culinary revolution without even setting out to become a chef.

Are your current projects still food-related?

Almost all of them. But some are just about innovation, whatever the area. Let's say gastronomy is an alphabet. It's not the only one, but it's the vastest alphabet in the world.

You are self-taught. You began cooking to pay for some holidays in Ibiza.

It really is the strangest thing to have reached my situation without ever hoping to do so, to have come so far without aiming to.

Yet you always had this drive inside you. What is it?

I wanted to be happy. It's difficult to explain. And I'm happy when I'm free. I like problems when they're about innovating and creating, the way others are happy when they have nothing to do. I only want money to be free, not to buy a yacht or a sports car. I'm no hypocrite: I'm not trying to train new generations, but I do want to share innovations.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!