The story with Ferran Adrià, at least to most people who follow the influential and legendary Spanish chef in the U.S., is that you can't get a straight answer out of him. On this website, almost one year ago, Joshua David Stein wrote of his experience interviewing him, "He has a tendency to respond by saying either, 'No, no, no' or 'Yes, yes, yes' and they both appear to mean the same thing." Perhaps more famously, when Adrià announced that he would be closing elBulli, the amount of confusion surrounding the news was almost farcical. One minute an article stated that it would be closing for good, and the next, another would say it was only temporary.
Adrià — in his trademark black blazer, black t-shirt, black pants, black dress shoes get-up — met me to take a walk on the High Line while he was in New York to promote his new Phaidon book, The Family Meal. We talked about his recent travels, media misinformation, and his plans for elBulli Foundation, the think tank that will replace the restaurant. It may be a recent development, but Adrià, despite going off on sublime tangents more than once in a while, is clear, direct, rustic. Here's part one of the conversation:
Are you tired?
I don't even know. I can't tell if I'm tired anymore. This isn't the period of my life where I've been the most exhausted, but we have had an intense month and a half of travel. It's getting a little more relaxed now.
Has it been mostly for the book?
Not really. I'm using this time to see the world. I went to China, since I hadn't been there in ten years and it was important for me to go back. I'm an ambassador of the Spanish brand, so I took the opportunity to go with them. Then I went to Peru, because I wanted to get familiar with the area. We filmed a beautiful documentary with Gastón [Acurio]. I was amazed by the country. I learned a lot — not so much about the actual cuisine, which is fantastic — but about the extent to which food and cooking can affect society.
I'll ask you about Peru and the issue of chefs and social responsibility later on. But tell me about China. What did you see there?
The visit to China confirmed what I had noticed the first time. It is the peak, the apex of the world as far as gastronomy is concerned. There are 80,000 recipes. That's incredible. They are just starting to use the word "chef" as we might understand it, and they are starting to evaluate and think about the state of their cuisine: "What do we have that's good? What do we have that doesn't work so much? What can we change?" They're asking themselves all of those questions, and processing the history. But there's a long way to go — we're dealing with China here — but it interests me greatly.
There was a news item a few months ago that sort of went under the radar. It said you wanted to open a foundation in China, as well as other countries.
It's actually not so much that I'd like to establish a foundation there, actually. It's that I want to come to an agreement with Chinese chefs on how to establish and promote dialogue.
And you've long been fascinated with Asia.
Well, I didn't go to Asia until 2002, when I went to China, Thailand, and Japan. And you could say that in the last five or six years, Japan has been and continues to be a major influence on my cooking. I've been at elBulli for 27 years, not just ten [laughs].
You use the term "my cooking," but now that you've closed the restaurant, what does that mean?
I see it the same way I've always seen it, and it's no different now that the restaurant has been closed. At around this time any other year, I'd be closing down the restaurant for the off-season. Right now, the elBulli Foundation team is little by little starting to connect. We had a meeting on the 29th of September, just basically to say hello, and now we will get together for a week, from the 22nd of October to the 29th.
Who will be at that meeting?
Oriol Castro, Albert Adrià, Eduard Xatruch — the team that made elBulli.
So more or less the same people will be running the foundation?
Not more or the less [laughs]. The same. So we'll get together for a week, get to talking. Some from the team have already started to do this, but pretty soon the whole creative team from elBulli, we'll be helping Albert at Tickets. When Tickets opened, we had just started the final season at elBulli, so Albert's been on his own. But now we're cooking, to answer your question.
You know where we're having the meeting in October? At elBulli. The restaurant is still completely set up. This is the first time, actually, that we haven't disassembled the place at the end of a season. I've explained this a lot, for some reason. But the whole explanation of what elBulli Foundation will be is online, on our website. It's very funny: not that much will change.
[A woman approaches Adria, starts speaking in Catalan. She says she's a friend of a friend. She asks if Adrià has any tips for eating in New York. He replies, "Everywhere." As that exchange comes to an end, a group of Spanish tourists asks to take a photo.]
Sorry about that. It's what we've said all along. Creativity, doing new things, and sharing them is the motor of elBulli.
What changes, then?
What do you mean by that?
We used to do 140 concerts a year. Now, we'll do about 35.
The dinners will be by invitation, right?
No one will pay, and it will be by invitation.
Can you give more specifics on the kinds of people you will be bringing in?
At the think tank there will be the same team that's been at elBulli for the last fifteen years, save for Albert Raurich, who opened Dos Palillos in Barcelona and Berlin. And every year, every eight months, there will be 15 chefs — it doesn't matter their age — who exhibit serious creative potential.
Will these be people you know?
It's a mix. If you ask me about how the first selection will go, I'll tell you that if Andoni [Aduriz] or Grant [Achatz] tell me that they have an amazing person working for them, I'll ask them to send me their resumé. Then we'll test them online, and then have an exam at elBulli. Or, we could have a kid from Peru, from one of Gastón's schools, who is wildly clever and shows great potential. I should say that this won't be a school or an academy. I learn something every day trying to be creative, so there will be an element of learning, sure, but we're not teaching.
So you won't have to be established already?
No, but if I want to invite Heston [Blumenthal] or Grant or a friend asks me to come spend some time working at the foundation, of course they can come. The main idea, though, is to have people that can carve out eight months of their year and dedicate it to working at elBulli Foundation. It could be, for example, the head chef at such and such hotel in Hong Kong, who is fifty years old, and has worked hard his whole life. He's creative, but he hasn't had the opportunity to truly express himself. That could be one.
What if I'm a fourteen year-old kid who doesn't know any famous chefs, and I want to take a stab at it?
Of course. We'll look at your resumé, your application, you can send me some pictures of your dishes, and we'll see. We want to bring in the best, like Harvard does, but we can also play around with the rules in certain cases. If we see a young kid who really intrigues us, we have to go for it.
And in addition to the cooks?
In addition to the cooks, there will be a team of seven or eight freelancers that will change. But here, there are really no rules. This is totally anarchic. These are the agitators. There might be a journalist, an architect, a designer, anyone. But no scientists. Fundación Alícia handles the scientific aspect. The way it will shape up, there will be one very organized team and then another where there aren't as many rules.
The whole thing is described on the website. There are details to flesh out and minor things that will change, but the main plan, it's all been described. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress gives you a very good idea of what the foundation will be like. It will, more or less, be like the workshop. What's the problem? How many people actually know what the workshop is like? How many people have seen the movie?
Which brings me to what you said in Chicago earlier this week: "No one understands what we are doing." Why do you think that is, and why do you think some perceive you as speaking obliquely, in abstractions that are hard to interpret?
Because it's new. I've spent my whole life dealing with this, man. When someone does something new, this happens. There's so much news surrounding elBulli, that it's really difficult to process. And then, there are the falsehoods and hoaxes that spread like crazy. Today, for instance, we're dealing with the news that I'm developing a menu for the Barça team. Not true at all, and there's a press release that clearly explains that. But still, it spreads. What we're actually doing is that Alícia is teaming up with Barça to do something for young kids. I can explain that clearly and directly.
But elBulli generates so much news, that my mom, the poor woman, has trouble figuring out what's going on. Even my team of cooks! This trip we just took to Peru — I was with Gastón, I was with The Basque Culinary Center, and I was with Telefónica. It's very hard to figure out exactly what I was doing with each one, and how they relate. Lots of activity generates confusion. But as far as explaining things, I do my best.
Prime example is the news of the restaurant closing. Or not closing.
Yes, and there are two press releases, which I have, that explain exactly what was happening when we decided to close and what will happen at the foundation. Both of them are still accurate. But then the speculation started. Is he broke? Is he burned out? It's a matter of excess information, and also the Bulli phenomenon. There are lots of myths, and no one wants to demystify.
You mean the media?
Not those that write about it. It's everybody. I'll walk down the street in Barcelona and hear some incredible things. Look, people keep asking me about foams and spherification, and it's because they haven't studied the restaurant, especially in these last years. Who can tell you definitively what the characteristics of elBulli from 2006 to 2011 were? Not many. There isn't a book on it yet. If you were there in 2002, great, but you don't know what was going on in these last few years. Yet things still spread. It's normal.
Going back to the foundation for a moment. In past conversations with your brother, he's told me that the goal at elBulli was always to be ahead of the game. Will that still be the case?
Yes, the same goal. But with different consequences. We were a three-star Michelin, we were regarded as one of the great restaurants of the world.
Did that bother you?
No, it's just going to be different now. Why? We won't be competing. It's just a bunch of people getting together, creating, and sharing it in real time for free. But do I know exactly what those consequences will be? I can't say that I do. Before, they would say that we were the most creative restaurant. Being creative is still the goal, but we're not a restaurant anymore. We'll be in our own category.
Since 1870, chefs of the alta cocina — it's an ugly term, but it's the one we have — they've only cooked in restaurants. Now, for the first time, we'll have this. When we opened the workshop, the taller, it was the first in history. Little by little, more people started doing that, and there are about twelve or fifteen places that I can name that now have something of the sort.
So you hope that more of them pop up in the future?
Well, I hope to develop more elBulli foundations or help inspire places based on it. The beauty of this is that chefs — especially those that work in simple, not famous places — can see what we are doing, no matter how unfinished or poor the idea we're working on may be, and be inspired and brainstorm with their teams. Chefs work hard. They usually don't have the luxury or the time to create like that.
But we'll see what the exact consequences will be. That's the magic.
Tomorrow, Adrià talks about corporate sponsorship, the need for historical and academic rigor in the world of cooking, and the limits to what a chef can do for society.