Not far from the Plaça d’Espanya, in Barcelona, there is a tapas bar called Tickets; inside, on a busy Wednesday evening, an appreciative clientele feasts on olives, pistachios, Iberian ham, manchego cheese, anchovies and artichoke hearts – all the specialities of a classic tapas bar.
Except they aren’t. The fat, shiny “olives”, lolling on spoons, are actually made from gordal-olive jus, olive oil, lemon zest, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon and star anise. The pistachios have been deep-fried in tempura batter; the crisp little baguette around which the ham is wrapped is entirely hollow and has been painted with ham fat; the squares of manchego sit on a pastry puff filled with manchego foam, garnished with sprigs of thyme and glossy little spheres that look like caviar but taste of hazelnuts; the scales on the anchovies are made from silver leaf and potato starch; and the artichoke hearts are topped with a warm quail’s egg and salmon roe, and arrive in a glass cloche filled with smoke.
A decade ago, such a bar would have been unthinkable. The only place you might have found this sort of food was almost a hundred miles away from Plaça d’Espanya, at a restaurant called elBulli.
Tickets is the brainchild of chef Albert Adrià: he is the brother of Ferran Adrià, the founder of elBulli, who is often described as the best chef in the world. He is undoubtedly the most influential of his generation. As long ago as 1996, the French chef Joël Robuchon described Adrià as “the best cook on the planet”, much to the dismay of the French culinary establishment.
Not that he cooks any more. On July 30 2011, elBulli served its last dinner. After winning every gastronomic accolade to be had – as well as receiving three Michelin stars, it was voted best restaurant in the world five times by Restaurant magazine, and featured in every publication from The New York Times Magazine and El País Semanal to Time 100 – Adrià announced that elBulli had “completed its journey as a restaurant”. For those who might like to see what they missed, the recently published elBulli 2005-2011 (Phaidon Press, £425), by Adrià, his brother Albert and restaurant manager Juli Soler, is a seven-volume catalogue, housed in an acrylic slipcase, of every dish served there between those years.
Adrià’s energies, he announced, would henceforth be channelled into a private foundation dedicated to analysing the creative processes involved in gastronomy. Its headquarters would be on a much-expanded elBulli site, and would open in 2014. This has been much delayed, not least because it is located in the Cap de Creus Natural Park, and plans for the new building have been beset by squabbles with environmentalists. Now, though, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel: it is likely that the Catalan parliament, in July, will pass a bill declaring the project to be of public interest, allowing the elBulli Foundation to speed up construction. The planned opening date is now March 2016, with the foundation investing €9m to make the 8,000sq m site a reality: work is due to start in September this year. To allay environmental concerns, 4,000sq m of the building will be underground, with another 2,500sq m of gardens on the roof.
When completed, the project – called elBulli 1846, after the number of different dishes served at the restaurant, as well as being a tribute to the year the French chef Auguste Escoffier was born – will contain a research laboratory, elBulli DNA, which will host experts in gastronomy, as well as specialists in other fields, from architecture to philosophy, botany to anthropology. There will also be an exhibition tracing the evolution of the restaurant – “like walking through a movie”, as Adrià describes it. That, though, is not all. Adrià’s main ambition in life, now that he has left the kitchen, is to see the art and science of food given the intellectual respect he feels it deserves: to give gastronomy its rightful place at the top table of academia.
Which is why we are standing in a huge and more or less empty warehouse in the Sants-Montjuïc district of Barcelona. Adrià, dressed in a long black jacket, black T-shirt and faded black jeans, is busy talking to his team of 15 staff – former chefs, waiters and managers from the restaurant – shooting off ideas and suggestions in rapid-fire Catalan, his quick brown eyes darting about the room, his hands rarely still.
David López, the foundation’s technological liaison officer with Telefónica, the Spanish telecommunications giant and one of the elBulli Foundation’s main backers, explains that the 1,000sq m of space will eventually contain 60 to 80 people “decoding the genome of cooking”. The result will be a website, Bullipedia. “What will be here is a sort of three-dimensional version of the website – actually, four-dimensional, if you include time!”
Bullipedia’s aim is to provide an online resource for anyone interested in gastronomy: its history, development, the emotional and cognitive factors involved in food, the elaboration of recipes and techniques – in simple terms, the hidden story behind everything we eat. “Restaurants sometimes claim they cook from scratch,” says Adrià, “but that is not true. Did they press the olives for their oil themselves? Or grind the wheat to make the flour for their bread? No!” he exclaims, wagging his finger. “This project, Bullipedia, will change the entire way we understand cooking.”
The result of his team’s labours so far is one sheet of paper that has taken a year to develop. It is a highly elaborate flow chart, into which any food, or its preparation, can be fed. It starts at the top with farmers and fishermen and includes such considerations as the locations where the cooking and tasting takes place, whether the consumer participates in the cooking – even the technology involved in creating the crockery on which the food is served.
Until the new building is finished, Bullipedia’s home is in an office just off La Rambla, in the middle of Barcelona. It is crammed with books, magazines and papers, each of which has been scoured for references: Bullipedia’s aim is to cover every recorded dish and technique from Apicius – one of the earliest texts on cooking, written in the 4th or 5th century AD – up to the nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s and 1980s. “We will stop there,” says Adrià. “We are not qualified to judge our own era.” On every part of the walls not covered with shelves are charts, lists and diagrams. Adrià points to one of them: the “genome” of champagne. “Is champagne a drink? No. If I put it in a sauce, or make sorbet with it, or a jelly, it is not a drink. People drink it, of course, but at its core it is really a product, an elaboration. What someone decides to do with it is a separate thing entirely.”
It is a short walk to El Taller, the famous laboratory where, for the six months of each year that elBulli was closed, Adrià and his team of chefs would dream up the menu for the following season, playing with techniques and ingredients in a relentless search for new dishes. El Taller is still just about recognisable as a test kitchen, but the high-tech stove is now strewn with books and papers.
One of the chefs here every winter was Oriol Castro. He still works at El Taller, but his job – for the moment, at least – is as an archivist, charged by Adrià with trying to explain the creative processes that made elBulli such a phenomenon, to explore the psychology behind its extraordinary inventiveness. Castro is putting together an exhibition, to be staged in Madrid this October, chronicling both the evolution of the restaurant’s creativity and, more specifically, one year in its life: 2009. By this time all the various processes had been formalised, so there were plenty of documents to give an insight into the toil that went into that season’s menu. The exhibition will also serve as a prototype for the “walk-in movie” part of elBulli 1846. Castro takes me around dozens of head‑high white boards, each covered in papers, from carefully typed-up analyses of successful experiments to Adrià’s scrawled ideas on an Air France napkin. Gazing at all this, it is impossible to believe that anyone has ever been quite as obsessed with food as Ferran Adrià.
What would Castro have been doing when the restaurant was open? “At this time of day” – it is 4.30pm – “we would sit down together and brainstorm, coming up with ideas for dishes to showcase the techniques and ingredients we were experimenting with, and to plan the next day’s work.” Does he miss the buzz of the old days? He gives a slightly wistful shrug. “I still get to work with food [Castro is a partner in a restaurant called Compartir, near Girona], but yes, I miss it.” And what was Adrià like to work for? “He was tough, very demanding, but he had to be: he had great responsibility on his shoulders. And the food had to be just as good when he wasn’t there – better, even. elBulli was made possible because of the sweat of all the chefs, but without Ferran Adrià it wouldn’t have happened at all.”
Adrià, of course, has had critics as well as admirers: the late Catalan chef Santi Santamaria, for one. At a conference in Madrid in 2007, he denounced Adrià – and other avant-garde chefs – for their use of laboratory-made chemicals. “Imagine,” says Adrià, “I pick up the newspaper and it says ‘Ferran Adrià is a poisoner!’ I was tough enough to survive it, but it was a bit like the duel with Darth Vader, the final test.” He laughs. “I was Obi-Wan Kenobi, naturally. You need great mental strength to get through things like that: I know that 99 per cent of people appreciate what we do, but a few don’t, and that’s life.”
How does he feel now, away from the restaurant kitchen, surrounding himself with academics and working on incredibly ambitious projects? “It’s like going back to school. I’m engaged with scientists in a sort of game of ping-pong. You can either tell yourself, ‘I’m not interested,’ or you can reset your life. What Albert has done [as well as Tickets, his brother runs several other restaurants in the neighbourhood] is fantastic, but I didn’t want to be involved day-to-day. I go to his places and I give him my feedback. In a career, a chef would be happy to create 10 or 15 new dishes; we set ourselves the goal of creating 100 new ones every year. It was an amazing time, and actually, when I look at all this” – he gestures towards the boards covered in the evidence of elBulli’s creativity – “I realise that, even though the years 1994 to 1997 were the most important in elBulli’s evolution, it was the later years, when we were much more methodical in documenting everything we did, that produced the best food. I love anarchy, but you need efficiency to be anarchic. You need scientific method, which is what we are working on now.”
I ate once at elBulli, in the summer of 2003, and it was an astonishing, memorable meal. It was more an experience than a dinner, and it was very funny, too: one of the 42 courses was simply a box of smoke. About a dozen or so courses in, the first conventional plate appeared. “At last,” said my dining companion, “something normal to eat!” I looked at the menu. “Actually, it’s sea cucumber with rhubarb.”
Now, unshackled from tradition, chefs worldwide are letting their creativity run riot, and the ideas that shocked the critics when Adrià pioneered them are commonplace. Many of the chefs of the restaurants honoured in the annual San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list cut their teeth at elBulli: René Redzepi of Noma, Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, to name but three. Does Adrià see them as his disciples? “No, they are not my children. They are my brothers. And what I want to do with Bullipedia and elBulli 1846 is to arm a new generation of chefs with the knowledge to carry on what we have started.”
Adrià’s own culinary epiphany came in 1987, on a visit to Le Chantecler, the dining room of the Hôtel Negresco, in Nice. The restaurant’s chef was the legendary Jacques Maximin. Someone asked him what creativity was, and Maximin replied: “Creativity is not copying.” It is a remark that has informed everything Ferran Adrià has achieved since; and, one suspects, it will continue to drive him in the future.