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.
BUENOS AIRES — 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."
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The kitchen at El Bulli back in 2007 — 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.