Last week I had a chance to speak to the chef Albert Adrià about his experiences so far at Tickets and 41 Degrees, the restaurant and cocktail concepts he launched earlier this year with his brother Ferran and the team from the classic Barcelona seafood restaurant Rías de Galicia.
Over the course of the conversation, Adrià got a chance to discuss how he's changed as a chef, how you develop and transform a restaurant, and how in his cooking, everything goes.
How many of these interviews do you do?
Not too many, actually. 6 or so a week.
I think it's safe to say that people know you as the progressive pastry chef, but how do you see it? And how has it changed with Inopia and now Tickets/41 Degrees?
Yes, the pastry chef or the "molecular gastronomist." It's normal for people to know you for what you've dedicated much of your life to. But if you're an artist and say you are multi-disciplinary — as I might — and you only produce paintings, well, then people will know you for that.
I always said I was a cook, one focused on two things: researching new techniques and concepts for elBulli in the winter, and desserts in the summer.
But that's changed in the last years. I decided I wanted to see what I was capable of and, in a way, to get to know myself. Inopia was the first attempt at that, and it was a wonderful experience in every way. Well, almost every way.
What were the negatives?
We made a mistake creating the group, the partnership, that administrated and managed the restaurant. And overall, it was clearly a learning experience. So I sold my share of it to my partner Juanito, who has changed the name to Lolita. It's still packed and everything seems to be going very well for him.
And what's the deal now?
We wanted to see if there was something more.
What do you mean by that?
We didn't exactly know. People would come in here at the beginning and ask, "Hey, could you get me a table at elBulli. Because this is Ferran Adrià's place, right?" I'd tell them I couldn't, and then they'd ask what dishes from elBulli we had here. So the place we're in now — and I had no idea it would be this when we opened — is in creating a sort of "Bulli de Barrio," a Bulli of the neighborhood.
Right, I remember you explaining in January that the Bulli dishes would be there, but that they'd be somehow separated and limited. Do you want it to be that, a sort of neighborhood elBulli?
No, the people do. And it's not totally that yet either. Now there's this sort of amalgam of a fresh, light cooking with lots of avant-garde touches.
What would you want it to be?
Tapas, 30 to 40 Euro per person, and 400 covers a night.
Progressive or classic?
Traditional tapas. Doing avant-garde tapas for that many people is impossible. Do you know how long it takes to inflate those bread puffs we fill with manchego? To make the spherified olives? There are too many little details. It's plenty easier to just fry shrimp, and that can be just as beautiful if not more so.
How progressive is it now?
Right now there are avant-garde touches, but it's all in the service of the product. Much of the time in avant-garde cooking, the product disappears. For example, I could do a "jugo de pollo," and the chicken could disappear. Here, the chicken is always the star.
It's another example of this dialogue that's always existed between tradition and modernity. There's lots of tradition in modernity but you can't necessarily see it, and then there's pure tradition which in itself is modern.
You've just mentioned some of the challenges in terms of developing the menu and preparing the dishes. Just how hard are things for you now?
It's not that it's too difficult, it's that it's a process. We still need three to four more months to figure things out. We need to make more mistakes and adjust as we go along. The goal is to create a place where everyone can find something. The tourists can fill their quota of traditional product and then anyone who wants can eat the fun stuff.
The story with elBulli is that it never made money. Here, you have all of these business partnerships with the likes of Estrella Damm and Moët and Chandon. Are you making money?
We sure hope so. Look, at elBulli we always fought to be the best. Here, we're trying to be the most fun and relaxed. When I'm making an oyster here, all I want to do is make it tasty. I've just made one with gazpacho, and to see people be delighted by two things they are familiar with but haven't enjoyed in that way is a blast. And now I'm working on one with pesto. At the beginning, I wondered how much I should stick to being Spanish here. But there's only so much you can achieve with the olive oil, the garlic, and the tomato. They're amazing, but in the world today, one night you're eating Japanese, one night Italian, another French, and so on.
You say that the focus here isn't on doing cutting edge food, that that's the focus at elBulli. But what happens in about a week when that restaurant closes and you can't do that, at least for paying customers?
It's still very much in its infant stages, but we're thinking of "reconditioning" 41 Degrees in some way, of exploring a new concept. But there will still be a strong focus on mixology.
The reason I'm thinking about that is because Tickets is without question the more famous location, when in fact I originally thought that the smaller space would be the more exclusive concept. So people now reserve spots at 41 Degrees, which is easier, and then they'll go in and ask which items from Tickets they can have at the cocktail space — or they'll beg to get into the restaurant next door. So they don't truly experience or even enjoy that concept the way I think they can.
The goal with this space, as seems to also have been the case with Inopia, is to make your cooking more accessible to people. But still, it's practically impossible to nab a table. How do you navigate that?
Without suffering. We do the best we can, very seriously, to improve the situation and make this accessible. But we're four-month-old babies, a group that with every passing day gets stronger and better and smarter. But you have to accept that not everyone will be happy. So you hope that for every one negative, there are ten positives.
But how do you respond to something like this: I was outside of 41 Degrees last night, and a customer was complaining about how hard he had to work to get into the restaurant. That he called a friend, who had to call another friend who had to call someone who worked here.
Yeah, that's one end of the deal, sure. But what happens when I tell you that last Saturday I had forty no-shows? Fifteen at lunch, twenty-five at dinner. Every day it's about ten to fifteen people. Which side deserves more respect? And the perception, of course, is that it's impossible to get in, so those spots don't get filled. I don't want that. That's elBulli. I don't want to put up a "Sold Out" sign. People think we only let a handful of our buddies into Tickets, and that's just not true.
I could parade around the restaurant, going table by table, asking people, "Sir, have you enjoyed your meal? How was everything?" But I don't. Sure, I'll happily talk to people and take a picture, but I'm here to work.
Let's shift gears a bit and talk about the state of progressive cuisine. If we take what several chefs are doing, like José Andrés at American Eats Tavern or Heston Blumenthal at Dinner, there seems to be an emphasis now on the past. Some say it's eclipsing the progressive, the molecular, or whatever you want to call it. Would you agree with that?
I'd completely agree with that. In ten years we've done more than in one hundred. We need to return to the essence, which is something I'm keeping in mind as I develop this and new projects. In cooking there are a million truths. There's the one who does vegetarian food, the other that does seafood, and the one you've described is just another. At the end of the day, it comes down to what's good and what's bad, which the public decides.
At the risk of putting words in your mouth, what you seem to suggest is that you draw from a bunch of different places.
[Waves hands in the air, as if he's grasping at bubbles] Everything is at my disposal, but it's always grounded in tradition — in the classic — with the goal, above all, of enjoyment and fun; it can't be boring. For someone else it might be the quality of the product and a devotion to nature, and that, as is the case with many dogmas, can sometimes be false. I'm in Barcelona. Where the hell are my woods? And in La Mancha, what happens? I remember when I worked at Charlie Trotter, and it was fascinating. They'd do anything to get good product in the middle of the Chicago winter. I can do the same.
In cinema, it's beautiful to have the tenets of Lars von Trier's Dogme 95, but there are other ideas in that discipline that are just as valid. For me, at the end of the day, it's less about being devoted to a particular movement as it is working to create a place that can be magical. It's always been interesting to me that some of the more remarkable restaurants in the world — some of the most magical — are austere environments. It's just a matter of soul and passion. It's so easy to talk. But what matters is the cooking.
I don't want to sound like I am knocking movements or people that have strong beliefs. That's not the case at all, because many of them are totally authentic. When you think about it, Alinea, The Fat Duck, The French Laundry, The Bazaar, Noma, and elBulli are all valid but different. But if you analyze them, there are common elements.
What are they?
Work, knowledge, patience, and humility. You won't see these guys reading the paper in the morning. They're working.