Ferran Adrià Thinks No One Can Ever Understand elBulli

We spoke to Ferran Adrià of the now-shuttered elBulli—once considered the best restaurant in the world—about innovation outside the kitchen and educating a new era of chefs about food and cooking.

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Oct 11 2016, 6:00pm

World-renowned chef Ferran Adrià, formerly of elBulli restaurant in Roses, Spain, is the subject of a new exhibit at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, called Ferran Adrià: The Invention of Food. The multimedia exhibit includes photographs, video, and tableware, and since you can't have an exhibit on food without taking a bite, visitors can taste a 36-month aged pata negra, a jamόn Ibérico from northern Spain, each day.

On the occasion of the exhibit's opening, we caught up with chef Adrià (with the help of a translator) to find out what he's been up to since the closing of elBulli in 2011.

186/Marrow with Caviar (1992), ©elBulliArchive/ Francesc Guillamet.

186/Marrow with Caviar (1992), ©elBulliArchive/ Francesc Guillamet

MUNCHIES: Hi, Chef Adrià. Since elBulli closed, you've been working out of a lab in Barcelona on something called Bullipedia, among other things. Can you give an update on Bullipedia and the lab in Barcelona? Ferran Adrià: It's complicated. The restaurant I opened and the restaurant I closed—you don't transform a restaurant. It's not so easy. So what is it transformed into? When we started, we didn't really know what this project would be. The only thing we knew is that we would not be focusing on gastronomy or cooking, but on innovation and creativity. That's the first and most important thing to understand for elBulli. So, our work is about efficiency and innovation; we are always experiencing and working to be more efficient in our innovation. To be efficient is very important.

For instance, everyone talks about elBulli, on social media, all over the world. But who really understands elBulli? No one. Because to understand it, you have to read all the 8,000 pages of work that are out there [in the other room of the exhibit] to see all the history, and people say, "Well, I don't have so much time," so you can only understand a little. For you to understand and create, you need certain knowledge that is necessary. For example, say you're a painter, and you don't know what Surrealism is, what Cubism is. Can you still be a painter? Sure. But the logical thing is that you'll end up copying all the periods of art because you don't know anything.

So Bullipedia needs to be the essential things for a chef, for a cook, to understand gastronomy. The problem with gastronomy is that it's never been taught in college or university. There's anthropology, history, but no gastronomy. If you don't have the holistic history, it won't work. For the first time, we're having holistic work around gastronomy. In elBulli Lab, there are 80 people with different disciplines working on this. Historians, anthropologists, philosophers, artists are all there. Now, what has not been done for 500 years in colleges and universities, we're doing it now, doing all that work now. And we want to really understand gastronomy, what it means and how to do it.

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1062/ alphabet soup (2004), ©elBulliArchive/Francesc Guillamet

So do you want to teach? No. It's one thing to learn and one thing to teach. I want to learn. I learn every day. And it's really bad if you don't learn every day. And I want to learn to create. And I have a team, and we learn together. Of course, everything that we are creating, people will be using it to learn.

So a regular person like me can go to Bullipedia and understand it and use it? Absolutely. The internet has changed everything, it's very easy to learn now. For instance, I film everything. So someone in cooking school can go online and find it and learn, and no one needs to teach him in person. With all the new technology, we're really thinking about how this changes the future and how we can learn more and people can use it to learn. But to answer your question, I'm not interested in doing any teaching because teaching a class and repeating concepts, that doesn't interest me at all. I have lectured at Harvard for nine years. When you teach in Harvard, it's not teaching—it's innovation. It's completely another level. The students probably know more than the teacher. It's very different.

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Detail of installation Nature designed for the exhibition Ferran Adrià. Auditing the creative process. Fundacion Telefónica. 429/ fire (2007), ©elBulliArchive/Francesc Guillamet

I know there have been other exhibits on you in the past. How does this one compare? What I like is when people take a concept and see elBulli. Each exhibit has been different. I love this one. There's always a question of the quantity of information that every show has to have. I really appreciate this one because it's a mix between the art and the science. Even if it wasn't about cooking and around me—I'm just really interested in these kind of shows that mix both things.

What I take home from this show is that less is more. For instance, Cala Montoji [the bay on Spain's Costa Brava that the restaurant overlooked] is in that picture there at the end of the exhibit, a photograph from about 1840. But in reality, it's ten times bigger than this room. And all the space of the show is about innovation, not about cooking. If you put too much information, people at some point can't take it in anymore. [This show] is very elegant.

The film with Richard Hamilton [an artist who came to elBulli often before he passed away in 2011] is very emotional for me. Because it's the only one in the world. And to have that interview with Richard Hamilton here is very special because he passed and we will never be able to have it again. Of course, if you don't know who Richard Hamilton is, it might not be so special to you, but for me it's very special. With this kind of show, there needs to be some knowledge before you come because if not you might pass through and not understand everything. If you go to a show with just paintings, it can be explained to you and you can get emotional, but it's not necessary, you can still enjoy the paintings. But this kind of show you need to know a little bit.

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1430/ butterfly (2007), ©elBulliArchive/Francesc Guillamet

But still, you can see this [pointing to photographs of elBulli's dishes juxtaposed with photographs of nature that inspired them] and see that it's art. Yes, of course. And all the table settings. But for instance, maybe people don't know that elBulli won one of the most important design awards in the world for the table settings. Because it was the first time that chefs and designers worked together to create, it was really an innovation. It had never happened before. And it was really a revolution for table settings and flatware. The goal of this exhibition was to have a mix of things that you can see and understand and also things that need to be explained. I think the mix was really well done. This kind of show opens the way to other shows and demonstrates how to do it.

Do you have a food that you consider a guilty pleasure? I try to enjoy everything and I try to enjoy the moment. For instance, I've been standing here for an hour and half, but I'm enjoying it! I'm staying at the Vinoy [in downtown St. Petersburg] and for instance, this morning, I'm not trying to find out whether the coffee is better here or there, or if the croissant is as good as it is in Paris. I'm just enjoying everything and taking it easy. Living in the moment. I need to disconnect from who I am professionally, because if not, I'll go crazy.

This morning, I arrived at the museum and if I was this kind of mega arrogant person, I would say you need to prepare my coffee this way and be very specific about how you cut the fruit. The normal thing would be for me, as a chef, to have the perfect coffee, and for me to see, smell, degustate. But it would be crazy for me to do that all the time.

If tonight we go to a restaurant, and you're a gastronomic journalist, and I don't know where we're going—if I decide where to go I know we will eat well—but if I go with you, and I'm not familiar with the restaurant, and we start eating…Let's say we're eating crab. And the crab is just OK. I have a problem. Because if I don't say anything, you'll think, Ferran is not good because he's not telling me that the crab doesn't taste that good. But the problem I have is that I don't know if you know about crab. This happened to me once. I've been with some of the best chefs in the world. And once I was with someone and we had shrimp that was just OK. And he ate it. And I looked at him like, What are you doing? You're one the best chefs in the world! So I need to live with this kind of paranoia because I never know what the other person is thinking.

Thanks for speaking with me.