Ferran Adrià was in town recently to publicize a fairly hagiographical — meaning both rather slavish but also not inaccurate — biography written by Colman Robert Hardy Daniel Andrews. The book was published by Penguin and so I met Adrià, his beautiful translator Lucy Garcia, his PR woman, two PR women from Penguin, and Andrews, who I didn't know would be there, in a small conference room littered with disposable espresso cups at Penguin HQ. Interviewing Adrià is difficult and not simply because of the formidable language barrier. He tends to speak in long, though insightful, monologues and appears disinterested in answering questions directly. He also has a tendency to respond by saying either, "No, no, no" or "Yes, yes, yes" and they both appear to mean the same thing. And because Garcia answered in the third person, I've preserved her responses in part to give a taste of the almost tangible barrier between eaterrogator and eaterrogatee. When I'm transcribing Adrià directly, answers are in italic. Here now, part one of the Eaterrogation:
[I enter into the room. Colman, a big man, is speaking with Ferran, unshaven, in French.]
Hello everyone. Thank you for coming.
Translator: So I ask Ferran how we are going to do this. I will only translate when he needs me to.
Colman Andrews: He understands quite a lot.
My English at the moment is not very good.
It sounds great. [To Colman] You guys speak usually in French?
CA: Yeah, it's strange. He speaks English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Portuguese.
Spanish and Portuguese are very similar. When I go to Brazil, I speak Spanish and people understand me. Especially after four caipirinhas.
I'd like to begin with the newest news, the announcement that you are partnering with Spanish telecom giant, Telefónica to turn elBulli into a foundation.
It's fantastic yes yes yes.
Tell me a little bit about this arrangement.
One thing Ferran wants to clarify is that when he made the decision to close elBulli, to take his sabbatical and to take this agreement with Telefónica, he had told Colman about this so Colman could include it in the book. But he wasn't allowed to say it because he needed to prepare. As for the reason behind the two year sabbatical, Ferran realized he needed to change the scenario of elBulli. They could have continued to 2012 or 2013 with the same format and the same structure but he didn't want to.
What was the relationship that needed changing?
If you read the book, you'll realize that through his entire professional career, they've changed the scenario three or four times to continue to have the same level and same standard of creativity. The first thing people should understand is that from 1993 on, the mission of elBulli is to be creative. So in 1998, that is when they decided to create the workshop. The problem is not many people have access to it, maybe a maximum of 100. But that was a very vital reason because they had decided to separate the creativity and the service. In 1998 when they renovated the kitchen at the restaurant, it was a dream come true because they realized they could carry out a lot of the things they were doing at the workshop into the kitchen. In 1987, they decided to close elBulli for six months a year. That in itself was quite revolutionary because most restaurants didn't close, but 2001 is when elBulli is when elBulli starts to become quite well known around the world?
Can I ask you a question?
To get to Telefónica, we need to go through this.
Okay, but how has his relationship with the client changed through all this?
When in 1994 they started to do avant garde cuisine, they were creating they started to be creative but without the need to make concessions to their potential clients. Now it seems fantastic and wonderful and even still today some people think that it is quite crazy but in 1994 everyone thought they were crazy. The most important thing about the team at elBulli is that they firmly believed in themselves and what they were doing. They weren't ambitious as far as the economy behind it. So they established a new relationship with the customer. It's a relationship that is much more similar to the one people would have with artists. And he doesn't want to go into the issue with whether art is cuisine or cuisine is art.
Well, we don't have eight hours.
What Ferran wants to discuss is that one creates and cooks and that can be an art form for everyone else. This is the most differentiated fact in Ferran's opinion with nouvelle cuisine. Nouvelle cuisine was for sure the most important and revolutionary trend. Ferran considers himself a descendant of that in his thoughts and in his way of thinking. But, when people were cooking nouvelle cuisine they had their customers' desires and wishes in mind. So the client, the customer, was in a way manipulating the end result that chefs would create. But when Ferran and his team were doing what they were doing in 1994, that was a completely different thing.
The power dynamic shifted.
Yes. But Ferran wants to state that we are always talking about avant garde cuisine which is different. Ferran now is going to open a tapas bar with his brother. Their attitude at the new business is that they want people to like what they do, to enjoy it. They are not trying to debate, or provoke, or be avant-garde. Maybe, make people think. Ferran can talk about both aspects of cooking.
So if one is avant garde and the other isn't, do you consider this a retreat?
Ferran's a cook. He could also get into a sushi bar.
Colman Andrews: Or a pizzeria.
He could learn how to do it and do it. When we talk about avant garde cuisine we are talking about a completely different level and it is important to keep that in mind. By 2001, they had already established an important relationship with customers and it was then that they decided that they were going to close the restaurant for lunch. So they were closed six months of the year and then they closed for lunch. For American mentalities, this is inconceivable. They were giving up on 2 million dollars a year.
It seems to be that he almost has an antagonist relationship but for Americans, this sort of sadomasochism is appealing.
Most people like the purity behind it. In the end, what we are talking about is achieving the most absolute and pure form. Ferran cooks as a personal way of expressing himself and the business aspect has nothing to do with that.
What is the danger in this increasingly solipsistic way of cooking where it's more and more about absolute self-expression, regardless of the person who is eating your creations.
If you were to invite Ferran to your home, you don't have a menu. You would cook whatever you think would be appropriate. That is normal. When we talk about cuisine and restaurants. You can't just talk about one thing. At lunch, we're going to eat at DBGB. We want something that is relaxed because we need to talk,. We don't want strange inventions because Ferran's aim and mission eating there is quite different. Imagine you were to take a plane tomorrow to go have a meal 5000 km away, an exceptional place, you'd expect exceptional meal.
In other words, it's almost your duty to be as pure to himself as he can because that is why people are going.
This isn't a credo. It could be for avant garde cuisine but not for cuisine in general. Ferran gets this question a lot, what the future of avant garde cuisine. First we have to establish what this cuisine is about. It's about creativity, in all the different names people attach but it's about creativity. The future, Ferran thinks, will be the same. If there is creative talent then people will continue to create, maybe with other adjectives and other characteristics.
[Tomorrow Adrià answers my questions about Telefónica. Kinda.]