FEBRUARY 29, 2012
EL BULLI, KNOWN AMONG chefs and the people who follow them as the best restaurant in the world, performed its final dinner service last summer. Since then, the man behind the restaurant has been busy, among other things, teaching a culinary physics course at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In what forum or form we will next experience the food of chef Ferran Adrià is a mystery. But in the meantime, we have reading material and time to sort out just how much the man has altered the international culinary landscape — and which of his innovations will be but beautiful, passing follies, a chef’s bravado that called on ephemera like air and foam to bring him the fame of the world.
Sometime around the year 2002, public consensus conferred upon Adrià the title of Greatest. For little more than the chance to chop his garlic, world-class chefs left their nests and headed to Spain to work at the globe’s most famous restaurant, the place that had pioneered what the chef called avant-garde cuisine. There, Adrià and his staff playfully mixed flavors and ingredients and served them up in unexpected forms, as in an early dish of smoked tuna with gelatin triangles made from tomato, licorice, and pistachio and garnished with figs and pine nuts. In the service of deconstruction, he has forgone carrot soup to serve carrot air with mandarin orange accents (made with the help of a siphon bottle equipped with nitrous oxide cartridges). Another dish, a concentrate of green peas that arrived in a spoon, looked and moved exactly like an egg yolk: it was dinner as trompe l’oeil. International travelers flocked to the tiny town of Roses, where they were told not only what they were eating, but how to eat it. Serving a single strand of spaghetti and parmesan, a waiter might instruct: “Try to do it complete. Put it in your mouth and suck.”
According to Adrià, each year two million requests came in for 8,000 spaces available at El Bulli (which served 50 diners per night, 160 days per year). Not surprisingly, restaurants from all over the world picked up Adrià’s signal that food could be more than nourishment; it could express ideas about form and function. It could be art. Adrià was compared to his compatriots Picasso and Dali, who had lived just a few miles from El Bulli on the Costa Brava.
For El Bulli’s final service, Adrià’s menu stretched beyond even its usual ambitious standards, encompassing 49 courses, starting with a dry martini featuring the restaurant’s trademark spherified olives — a teaspoon of pureed olive wrapped in a thin, transparent oval skin which bursts in the mouth to release its flavour (made with the help of sodium alginate and calcium chloride). It was an appropriate public send-off for chef and restaurant alike. The following night was devoted to family and friends, a grace note to the 20-plus years of Adrià’s tenure at El Bulli.
Since 1987, El Bulli had been closing its doors for six months out of each year since 1987, reopening in the warm months, when Roses swells with tourists. The lengthy breaks provided Adrià with the opportunity to travel, and to research and develop new techniques and new dishes. The generous dose of R&D time is one of the several serendipitous (if expensive) decisions that enabled him to remain the public face of avant-garde cuisine for all these years. Most people have only heard about Adrià’s cooking, or eaten some personalized version of it via one of his many acolytes, such as José Andrés (whose restaurants include Minibar in Washington D.C.) and Wylie Dufresne (of WD-50 in New York). In Chicago, Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next) has gone so far as to create a 20-course menu with each dish a recreation of one that was served by Adrià.
Some new incarnation of El Bulli will take shape over the next two years and perhaps open in 2014 as the El Bulli Foundation. But it won’t be a restaurant, or not solely a restaurant. Even Adrià seems uncertain about the specifics, though reticence may be the real culprit behind the sketchy details. In the absence of El Bulli, however, comes the consolation of several volumes by and about Adrià and the regimen of his acclaimed restaurant. Adriá has published some version of a general catalogue of El Bulli dishes since 1983, a tome that he has expanded yearly since 1987, with exhaustive accounts of new dishes, all the way down to the origins and preparation of each ingredient. The combined general catalogue alone runs to over 2,000 pages at this point. But three recent books — Colman Andrews’s Ferran, Lisa Abend’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, and A Day at elBulli by Adrià himself (with his brother Albert and El Bulli co-owner Juli Soler) — aim to broaden the understanding of exactly what Ferran Adrià achieved with El Bulli. One final offering, The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià, presents the chef at his most accessible: a collection of 31 menus of three dishes each, laid out in such detail that even a moderately talented home cook might muddle through.
Few experiences are more intensely luxurious and immersive than a meal in a world-class restaurant. Walk into Nobu in Manhattan, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, California, Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Berkshire, England, or any of dozens of other global gastronomic destinations and note the hush at many tables, the mix of awe and expectation. Chefs that run such establishments interpret even simple dishes in ways that prompt outsized responses from diners (or, in many cases, worshippers). The food writer Francis Lam recalls his reactions to a meal at Alinea, painting a couple nearby as “appropriately reverent,” and later worrying that a woman at another table will continue talking throughout the meal, admitting “a sort of panic, as if a barbarian were at the gate.” His friend remarks, “You think you’re in a temple right now, don’t you?” Both men nod. Lam tells the story of another meal at Alinea, shared with his girlfriend, who began to cry at one point, the food prompted such a complex web of reactions.
Adrià’s dishes are so complex and thought-provoking that the diner is encouraged to have feelings not only about what he is eating, but about the act of eating itself. Take, for example, a dish of Adrià’s, rock mussels with seaweed and fresh herbs. In his “deconstructed” version, the chef serves only the meat of the mussel, arrayed on one side of a circle. Opposite are various seaweeds, arranged beneath fresh basil, mint, chervil, and tarragon. Glasswort and pasteurized sea grapes fill out the remainder of the circle. In the center sits a pool of mussel water, thickened with xanthan gum. In this way the diner experiences the mussel as much as he eats it and things associated with it. Adrià also applied his imagination to fanciful versions of familiar ingredients, like a tagliatelle made of frozen foie gras fat, or pine nut marshmallows. By all accounts, El Bulli served some dishes that were failures. When presented with cerezas al jamón — cherry with ham — one woman I know almost gagged, describing it as “more like cherry dipped in bacon lard.” The overwhelming consensus, however, held that no other chef on earth could match the daring and innovative spirit of Ferran Adrià.
For my part, El Bulli never held the appeal of restaurants whose artistry I knew and understood. One of my favorites is Le Bernardin, chef Eric Ripert’s great New York seafood restaurant. While I haven’t eaten at El Bulli, I tend to agree with Ripert, who has; he has said that while Adrià’s freeze-dried foie gras powder, for instance, is a fascinating presentation, a slab of seared foie gras is more satisfying. Still, it was at Le Bernardin that my interest in Adrià was piqued: Michael Laiskonis, the Le Bernardin’s then pastry chef, presented a dessert incorporating spheres of cherry juice that seemed to explode on my tongue, releasing a shower of intense cherry flavor. There I was, in the midst of a largely silver-haired, buttoned-up clientele, giggling at these surprises in texture and flavor. Perhaps I had misjudged Adrià and his restaurant entirely. A month later, Adrià announced his intention to close El Bulli. It was too late for me to make the pilgrimage, but I decided then to give the man and the restaurant a long look.
Ferran Adrià has transcended the role of chef, of celebrity chef even. In Spain, he is a cultural icon, the leader of a movement, a way of cooking known as molecular gastronomy. The trouble with this particular designation is that Adrià rejects it, preferring instead the term “avant-garde cuisine.” Probably Adrià also chafes at labels he views as potentially limiting. His range of skills and ideas far exceeds what we think of as molecular gastronomy. Ignore this versatility, and the impression that remains is of Adrià as a master of trickery and gimmicks, a profile that undercuts the seriousness of his work.
Beyond that, molecular gastronomy is a nebulous term, broadly applied and poorly understood. Adrià’s objections appear also to be a reaction to this misunderstanding. He is viewed as a sort of mad scientist, creating dishes almost solely from chemical components rather than fresh, natural ingredients. He is known primarily for his work with foams and spherification, gross simplifications of what he accomplished at El Bulli.
In his 2005 book Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor, French chemist Hervé This, researcher of the discipline, explains how the term came into use. Coined in 1989, it is an amalgamation of “gastronomy,” taken quite logically from Brillat-Savarin, and “molecular” because, This writes, “the term molecular was very fashionable at the time.” The name was originally “molecular and physical gastronomy,” but This himself shortened it ten years later due to the phrase’s clumsiness. This goes on to explain that “molecular gastronomy deals with culinary transformations and the sensory phenomena associated with eating.” As we see in A Day at elBulli, there is perhaps no more apt characterization of Ferran Adrià’s style in the kitchen.
At El Bulli, Adrià presented a lengthy procession of surprising dishes, many of which defied easy classification. The urge to memorialize every detail of a dish was common among diners, who were known to take notes and photos for posterity. The owners of El Bulli have attempted to do just that for the rest of us. Now that the restaurant is closed, admirers and the curious alike will be thankful for A Day at elBulli. The book is an exhaustive chronicle, filled with images of the very complex and precise work done in the kitchen. The content is laid out chronologically and reveals everything from El Bulli’s product sourcing to the staff meal it served each day. Naturally, much space is given to the development of new dishes, but we also see the attention paid to more mundane tasks, like the preparation of the dining room for service, in great detail. There are several pages of photos of floors being swept and silverware polished. The images may not be spectacular, but they do attest to the fact that a great restaurant does not run on a chef’s innovations alone.
A Day at elBulli includes recipes as well. A full-page photo of each dish is followed by as many as three pages of finely detailed instructions for preparation and presentation. It is difficult to imagine many people replicating these dishes, but, like a museum catalogue, the book is a splendid record of a gifted maker’s output. Still more telling are the small, matte-paper inserts which provide fuller textual accompaniment to the photos. Of particular interest are three sections detailing Adrià’s approach to developing new dishes and techniques. Adrià has talked repeatedly about the systematic manner in which he and his staff pursue new ideas. He does not await the caprices of inspiration but rather schedules creativity sessions.
The regimented nature of the sessions belies the playful, curious spirit at work in them. Adrià and his staff begin with an ingredient or series of ingredients, often items they have not worked with before, and examine different preparations: savory and sweet, hot and cold, and so forth. They question conventional approaches and search for unexpected reactions between ingredients, both in flavor and texture. In Ferran, Colman Andrews traces a fine example of this process and the results Adrià and company produced with the Pacojet, a sort of high-end ice cream maker that “mixes and purées frozen ingredients without thawing them.” When they inadvertently created an ice powder with an unusual texture, they sought to duplicate the outcome rather than bemoaning the unexpected result. With further tinkering, they mastered this unintended process and added the technique to their repertoire.
A Day at elBulli allows itself a certain fetishism concerning the chef’s creative process. Aphorisms on creativity, set in bold type and apparently from the chef himself, punctuate many blocks of text — an ill-conceived attempt to elevate the chef to the status of philosopher. Ferran Adrià is an enormously gifted chef, but if this volume is any indication, his ideas are best expressed through the dishes he creates. We don’t learn much from such sayings as “Creativity means changing your mind every day” (a poor take on Emerson?) and, “A creative person tries to do what they do not know how to do.” The book is so unfailingly handsome, however, even in this less expensive, paperback edition, that these seem only minor missteps. And if that were not enough, a film accompanying the book, also entitled A Day at elBulli, was released in 2008.
Ferran Adrià was the face of El Bulli, but the dishes were actually prepared by a kitchen staff composed of four chefs de cuisine, seven chefs de partie (line cooks), and 32 stagiaires, young chefs who came to the restaurant to work for the season.
These stagiaires are the stars of Lisa Abend’s book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, which provides the most cohesive picture yet of the inner workings of the restaurant. Abend was granted access to El Bulli and its staff during the 2009 season. A new crop of stagiaires arrives just ahead of the opening — a distinguished group as usual, alums of Michelin-starred kitchens all over the world. These young talents have met the standards at The Fat Duck, Alinea, Per Se, and others: in short, the finest restaurant kitchens in the world. Yet they come to El Bulli to work for free, apart from the small, spare apartments provided and the staff meal served each afternoon.
Abend draws a link between the stage method and the medieval guilds of Europe. Unlike the American impulse to establish a system with degrees and certificates, young cooks in Europe have long learned their trade at the feet of a master, and often from the age of 13 or 14. Given her background in European history, it’s a shame Abend doesn’t pursue this thread in greater detail. But this is an idle gripe. Her breakdown of the kitchen’s workflow makes sense of a complex, kinetic system. Rather than the standard restaurant kitchen, El Bulli employs stations with names such as Cold Station, Small Kitchen, and Sweet World. Cold Station, for instance, which produces dishes that require no heat, is the most likely place for the avant-garde techniques for which Adrià became famous. It was here that the spheres and airs and foams came to life, as well as dishes employing freeze-dried powders and liquid nitrogen. Small Kitchen is a catchall, handling overflow work from various other stations, in addition to preparing the staff meal each day. Sweet World, not surprisingly, is the pastry station. Because dinner is a progression of mostly small dishes, the two stations devoted to starters send dishes out to the dining room throughout the evening. The logistics are clearly daunting to the stagiaires in the beginning, but Abend minimizes the reader’s difficulty. A glance at A Day at elBulli (the book makes a nice visual complement to Abend’s account) illustrates what a feat this is.
Abend’s profiles of the stagiaires are irresistible, tapping into the peculiar mix of hope and nerves that accompanies young talents as they meet their idol, though Adrià remains distant from most of them, if not unapproachable. We watch as the stagiaires attempt to outwork one another, in hopes of being singled out for greater responsibility, but they do so without any knowledge of the criteria for selection. Abend explains that language plays a role in assigning responsibility. The permanent staff communicates with the stagiaires in Spanish, placing those who do not speak the language at a disadvantage. But for those who speak the language fluently, their time at El Bulli can be very productive. George Mendes, chef and owner of New York City’s Aldea, spent three weeks there in 2007 and rotated through three different stations during his tenure. He emerged with a host of new techniques — which he displays to fine effect at Aldea — and great regard for Adrià.
Myungsun “Luke” Jang’s story is different. Jang was an aspiring South Korean chef. He was so committed to working at El Bulli that he camped out across from the restaurant for three weeks in the summer of 2008 and was finally hired only due to the insistence of Adrià’s wife. Abend catches up with him the following year, when he returns with hopes of advancement. Instead he becomes disillusioned with the dreary, repetitive tasks necessary to put out such dazzling dishes. Despite this, he remains enamored of Adrià’s ethos, attempting to be hired as a line cook for the following year, only to run into a pair of obstacles: his own poor Spanish and the fact that El Bulli hires only E.U. passport-holders for permanent positions.
Even the stagiaires who thrive at El Bulli have their struggles. One laments the fact that they are not allowed to taste the dishes they prepare, saying the injunction is “like trying to play the violin wearing mittens.” Others doubt their creativity, and others still concede that they have no intention of presenting dishes like the ones Adrià designs. The hours are long and intense, and the stagiaires live off the savings they arrived with, sacrificing much for access to Adrià and his methods. Abend captures their personalities, struggles, and achievements so skillfully that the reader can hardly help but resolve to follow the young chefs’ progress in the future.
To his credit, Adrià had initial reservations when Colman Andrews approached him about writing a biography. Andrews is the author of several masterful cookbooks (the first was Catalan Cuisine published in 1988), and he has distinguished himself as an observer of the culinary world, particularly during his tenure as editor in chief at Saveur, where he positioned the upstart magazine as a viable successor to Gourmet. Ironically, it outlived Gourmet, which ceased publication in 2009.
Andrews had never heard of Adrià in 1988, nor had most other food writers. By the time they met 10 years later, El Bulli boasted three Michelin stars, an event Andrews calls “the quietest third star in history.” A look back bears out this appraisal. Spanish cuisine was, Andrews remembers, hidebound at the time: “Filet mignon with blueberry sauce seemed to be the emblematic specialty of the Spanish avant-garde” when Adrià was making his bones at El Bulli. Whatever changes occurred in the culinary world between the late eighties and the late nineties, Adrià was not viewed as part of them, either in Spain or elsewhere His international reputation was more or less cemented by a lengthy 2003 New York Times Magazine profile that hailed the innovations occurring in Spain as the “nueva nouvelle cuisine.” Indeed, Adrià’s style represented a clean break from nouvelle cuisine, not a refinement or a rethinking of the principles that guided the haute cuisine of his youth. The story from there is familiar. Reservation requests spiked, and El Bulli became a fixture on Restaurant Magazine’s best restaurants list, earning the top spot five times, in 2002 and from 2006 to 2009.
In fairness, it’s not entirely clear whether biography is the right word for Ferran. The book’s subtitle suggests that the restaurant is as much the subject as Adrià, though separating the two at this point requires considerable effort. Even Andrews betrays uncertainty as to what he’s undertaken. He recalls pitching the idea to Adrià as “a biography, or not a biography; a portrait. An explication and appreciation of who you are and what you are and how you got that way and what you do and why.” Unfortunately, whether the book is intended as biography or not, it often reads like a very long magazine profile. We learn that Adrià completed his military service (in the navy) in August 1983. At the suggestion of another recruit, he decided to do a stage at a restaurant he had never heard of, El Bulli, in Roses, Spain. Apparently the chef liked what he saw and Adrià was offered the job of chef de partie. Adrià was 22 years old at the time. Eighteen months later he would become head chef. He began experimenting in the kitchen at El Bulli in the late 1980s.
Adrià’s private life is conveyed in a sketchy manner, as when we are told that his arrival at El Bulli might never have happened if not for his plan to find work in restaurants to finance a summer of partying in Ibiza. His wife is largely absent, a curious choice for a book intended to clarify who Adrià is. Their relationship is conveyed in the vaguest terms. One friend who was on the scene when the couple met exclaimed “Isabel has made Ferran a new man,” and another friend says, “Perhaps he has a dimension we didn’t know about: tenderness.”
At its worst, the book lapses into hagiography, though it’s possible Andrews is less fawning than he sounds, and that he’s at least partially a victim of his decision to refer to Adrià as “Ferran” throughout the book. The reasoning behind the choice is sound enough: a wish to avoid the confusion that might arise when juggling the members of the Adrià family, from his wife Isabel to his brother Albert and parents Pepi and Gines. But the tone can be cloying, particularly coupled with Andrews’s stated intention, “to address the more salient criticisms that have been leveled against him, and to both demystify and exalt the man and his accomplishments.” We are told that, “Creativity is Ferran’s favorite word,” as though valuing creativity somehow sets him apart from even journeymen undertaking creative endeavors.
Nonetheless, Ferran contains substantial insight on Adrià and his restaurant. Gradually the uneven tone gives way to the renewed sense that Andrews was indeed equal to the task. The history of El Bulli is richly detailed. It reveals Hans and Marketta Schilling, the German couple who founded El Bulli and named it after their beloved French bulldogs, as a fascinating pair in their own right. They discovered Cala Montjoi, the strip of coastline where El Bulli was located, quite by chance. They originally opened a miniature golf course there, with dismal results, but their beach bar, with its small menu of grilled food, capitalized on the popularity of scuba diving in the area. Hans was ambitious. Gradually, the bar and grill became a restaurant. He paid for his staff to travel Europe and sample the finest food and wines, all in the service of expanding their knowledge and improving El Bulli. On the personal side, he was often unfaithful to Marketta, though she “continued to be a presence at the restaurant, occasional but significant.” And while the restaurant had some lean years, it was never without major talent in the kitchen.
Andrews’s account of Adrià’s early years at El Bulli, when business was often scarce, is also filled with wonderful anecdotes, like Juli Soler’s practice of fielding reservation requests while looking at an empty calendar. He would calmly inform the caller that the restaurant was booked up for the next couple of days, attempting to build a buzz in place of the silence surrounding him. We get a picture of Adrià at the center of a group of young chefs, often at loose ends due to the lack of business. The scene recalls M.F.K. Fisher’s curious visit to a well-regarded but out-of-the-way Burgundian restaurant. “Only a master,” Fisher observes, “could live in this isolated mill and preserve his gastronomic dignity through loneliness and the sure financial loss of unused butter and addled eggs.” Remarkably, Adrià does one better, emerging from the solitude with a new creative direction, one whose influence even he would have been hard-pressed to foresee. Nouvelle cuisine succeeded classical French technique after a long, illustrious run. Its own run was shorter, perhaps because a style emphasizing fresh ingredients and simple presentation could only survive so many permutations before entering a decadent phase. Adrià’s approach, whatever name it bears, was a second pronounced shift within a relatively short period. Any clean break with acknowledged masters is greeted with skepticism. But as awareness of Adrià spread, so did the popularity of his techniques, so widely that Andrews jokes, “Can Ruby Tuesday’s spherified chicken wings and blue cheese foam be far behind?”
Andrews’s analysis of Adrià’s creative process is fluid and subtle. He traces the path from Adrià’s foundations in nouvelle cuisine through a burgeoning interest in tapas to his later enthusiasms, among them the kaiseki cuisine of Japan. Ferran supposedly represents the last occasion on which Adrià will collaborate with an author. If this is true, it’s a shame. The book is a solid start, but certainly much remains to be said.
The rush to assess Ferran Adrià’s place in culinary history started long before El Bulli closed. There is no question of his influence, which is broad and, in some facets, sure to last. The dishes and techniques originating at El Bulli are a major part of how he will be remembered. The books, films, and multilingual website cataloguing his work provide a remarkable record of a long, fertile period. Their impact is already apparent in kitchens everywhere, sometimes in a gratifying way and sometimes with a bit too much enthusiasm. Michael Laiskonis, the former Le Bernardin pastry chef, remembers first encountering Adrià’s books as a young chef and having to “put them away” due to the threat of getting too swept up in them.
More significant than the artifacts themselves is the spirit of openness behind sharing them. If early reports are any indication, El Bulli’s next incarnation will extend this still further, with daily reports on work at the taller posted to the website. It seems appropriate that this news brings to mind a former El Bulli stagiaire. René Redzepi went on to become chef and co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, now generally regarded, in the wake of El Bulli’s closing, as the world’s finest restaurant. Redzepi holds weekly developmental sessions with his kitchen staff and shares the results of their work in real time, via Twitter. As for Adrià’s work, and largely thanks to his General Catalogue, chefs all over have unprecedented access to his ideas, and the effect has been galvanizing. A sense of possibility, of permission to attempt the improbable (and fail at times) has swept kitchens worldwide. Even chefs with firmly established reputations, like Terrance Brennan, whose Picholine in New York has held two Michelin stars, view this changed climate with admiration, calling this the most exciting time he can remember for young chefs. And despite the fact that he is a decorated chef, firmly in mid-career, Brennan has quietly adopted techniques from Adrià that fit his own personal style.
But as with a seismic shift in any creative discipline, Adrià has his detractors. The Spanish chef Santi Santamaria, who held three Michelin stars of his own, criticized Adrià as part of “a gang of charlatans who work to distract snobs,” and questioned the use of what he called “emulsifiers and chemical agents,” suggesting they place diners’ health in danger. A similar concern with additives comes from food writer Jörg Zipprick, who has called Adrià’s food artificial. Curiously, Lisa Abend notes that a number of the stagiaires she followed at El Bulli tell her they want to cook “real food” in the future, despite their admiration for Adrià and their desire to learn from him. Misgivings or not, Adrià’s influence will not be undone at this point. Neither will chefs who refuse to embrace these new ways end up deemed Luddites; there’s always an audience for those espousing purity and simplicity, whatever the field. The most recent El Bulli cookbook, however, might take them by surprise.
With The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià, the chef may reach the few remaining corners of the culinary world that have remained resistant. The book presents 31 menus, each of three courses, modeled on staff meals served at El Bulli. The stagiaires are said to have raved about the staff meals, which were among the best served in any restaurant. The only concession to El Bulli’s style, at least the style evident in its dining rooms, is a pair of recipes employing a siphon for creating foam-based desserts. Instead, the book is filled with the sort of simple, hearty dishes often seen as the antithesis of El Bulli. Each was designed to cost less than $4.50 per serving, at least when calculated using the wholesale prices El Bulli paid for its ingredients. The book also offers a guide in front for organizing the home kitchen, as well as a visual index of useful equipment. The meals are almost wilfully simple. They open with choices like Caesar salad and melon with cured ham. The meals center on dishes like osso buco, sausages with mushrooms, and pork ribs with barbecue sauce. The desserts often incorporate fruit, and over the course of the 31 menus, the stick blender is used more frequently than the soda siphon. Should anyone doubt the quality of the dishes on offer, consider what stagiaire Emma Leftick tells Abend when asked what she will take away from El Bulli: “Those noodles? The food was so good.” Those same noodles appear in The Family Meal as “Noodles with Shiitake and Ginger.” Ferran Adrià appears exactly once in the whole of the book, shot from a distance, seated at a table, half in shadow. The food is what matters. Nothing else. If this is the final cookbook of Adrià’s El Bulli era, the emphasis makes for a fitting coda.
Perhaps the loftiest implication of Ferran Adrià’s career relates to the sensory experience of eating. Critic Denise Gigante has observed that, in philosophy, taste has long been relegated to the lower rungs of the sensory hierarchy. Vision and hearing occupy the top spots. The remaining, “bodily” senses are lumped together. Because it is so married to pleasure, taste in particular is usually treated with caution, a phenomenon perhaps both puritanical and at odds with rational thought. Adrià, however, engages taste in a manner that acknowledges its complexity. He addresses the nostalgic component of taste and goes a step beyond this as well, with his use of unfamiliar presentations. A rose may be a rose, but it may also taste like artichoke: In 2009, El Bulli served a series of rose petals, blanched and arranged on a plate in the shape of a rose. They were drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt before being finished with drizzles of artichoke and rose oils, which somehow heightened the flavor of artichoke, further confounding the diner’s efforts to untangle the elements at work. The dish’s effect is like seeing a familiar face in a foreign town. There is the initial impression and a pause to confirm it before, finally, a rush of pleasure or disappointment. This complex series of reactions suggests that taste is more cerebral than we have long thought.
Adrià’s belief in a diner’s “sixth sense” also bears mentioning. For Brillat-Savarin, the sixth sense was physical desire, or that which “draws men and women together.” Adrià’s hierarchy has perhaps been adjusted with age. In any event, his dishes play on the interrelatedness of the senses, but with an additional mental element. Andrews sums up the chef’s view, which “involves the emotional reactions diners have to what they eat: childhood memories stimulated, echoes of favorite foods heard, cultural baggage of all kinds unpacked or rummaged through.” It calls to mind the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s observation that food is “a highly condensed social fact.”
Whatever Adrià’s next venture entails, he is a man who has already earned the highest accolades possible from his peers. For every Santi Santamaria, there is a Thomas Keller, he of the French Laundry and Per Se, who professes to have been “amazed” by Adrià, or an Eric Ripert, of Le Bernardin, who, in spite of his skepticism regarding El Bulli, was “blown away.” Think of Adrià’s time away as an intermission. When the curtain rises on the next act, we are all but guaranteed another remarkable performance.