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Ferran Adrià at Harvard: Why elBulli Will Never Reopen as a Restaurant

Harvard University's annual Science & Cooking public lecture series brings chefs from around the world to lecture on the intersection of science and cooking. And Eater Boston editor Rachel Leah Blumenthal is on the scene. This week: Ferran Adrià on "Decoding the Creative Process."

Ferran Adria at Harvard
Ferran Adria at Harvard
Photos by Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater

"I’ve been here since noon," declared a woman, aggressively claiming her space at the front of a growing line of people who hadn’t reserved tickets ahead of time for Ferran Adrià’s 7 p.m. lecture. "I took photos of the clock in the lecture hall in case there were any questions," she continued. That’s the kind of fervor Adrià inspires, and his annual Science & Cooking lectures are always among the most well-attended of the whole series. Last night’s installment even attracted a celebrity guest in the audience, drummer Questlove, whose presence gave Adrià the opportunity to drive home his point about the creative process being different from one discipline to another — music versus gastronomy, for example.

Whenever he speaks, Adrià tends to ask a lot of giant questions that seem rhetorical at first but are meant to evoke thought experiments. ("What’s chicken?" he asked via a translator at last year’s lecture. "What is cooking? What is cuisine?") This year, he took a step back and focused on the very act of asking questions, explaining that since closing elBulli in 2011, he and the team have spent the last several years "doing many things and asking ourselves many questions," he said via a translator, in order to transform elBulli into its three-pronged future.

Ferran Adria and Questlove at Harvard

The first prong is elBulli Lab, a private foundation based in Barcelona that will officially launch in March 2, 2015 with a staff of 70. They’ll be working on projects and exhibitions aimed at decoding creative process, among other aspirations.

"elBulli is never going to open again as a restaurant."

The second prong is elBulli 1846, a visitor center meant to preserve the legacy of elBulli through various exhibits charting the restaurant’s history, launching on September 2, 2016. ("1846" refers to the number of dishes created over elBulli’s lifespan.) elBulli 1846 will also open one month of each year for 20 dinners for 25 people each — although Adrià quickly backtracked from the word "dinner" when describing the experience. "Forget about the concept of dinner," he said last night. "They won’t be dinners," but they will be "incredible" and "experimental." On one point he was adamant: "elBulli is never going to open again as a restaurant." It closed because Adrià and his team thought that they could only sustain it for another three or four years in its existing form, so it made more sense to close it and transform it into something lasting.

The third prong is 6W Food, poised for a 2017 launch. It will be a 7,000-square-foot venue with components of a science museum, art museum, and more. "You’ll understand what cuisine is when you leave," Adrià promised, describing it as "unlike anything in the world" and how he foresees cultural spaces of the future.

Ferran Adria at Harvard 2014

After giving an overview of elBulli’s future, Adrià dove into the stated topic of the lecture, "Decoding the Creative Process." In the course of "asking [themselves] many questions" over the past few years, the elBulli team has been working to understand more about how the creative process works in order to "be able to create again." They’re finding that it’s actually quite different in each discipline. "Imagine Picasso and Tarantino," Adrià said. "Quite different, isn’t it?" While Picasso produced works of art painting alone, Tarantino (Adrià loves him) works with thousands of people to make movies, from the cast and crew to the marketing and business people behind it. The art process is very different from the film process.

At first Adrià thought that the creative process would be difficult to conceptualize, but then he considered the genome-mapping of human DNA. He thought that the same idea could be applied to the DNA of creativity, so to speak, not just in his own field but in art, design, and other disciplines as well. He and his team began to create visual maps exploring these processes. The key is really having the time to do it, he said, explaining that that was the main driving factor behind elBulli's success - closing the restaurant for half of each year allowed them to have time for creative thinking. "Not to say that it's better or worse" than the processes that other people go through, he added, saying that most jobs don't allow for that kind of time. It's just what happened for him, and the visual maps just illuminate what actually happens - not what's the best process.

They also spend 24 percent of their revenue in "investigation," he added, guessing that companies like Apple or Google only spend about 12 percent. ("But we don’t drive Ferraris," he said, laughing.)

Questlove at Harvard

The point of decoding the creative process? "If you’re a professional, you have to understand your discipline." Understanding the route that others have gone through helps you avoid copying things that have already been done so that you can forge your own path. "When we started doing this, everyone thought we were crazy," said Adrià. "The truth is that everyone thought we were crazy for the last 25 years."

"We create order to create in chaos. 99 percent order, 1 percent magic."

While it may work differently for others, Adrià finds his creativity in organized chaos, methodically investigating. "Creamos orden, para crear en el caos. 99 percent de orden para un 1 percent mágico," he projected on the screen. "We create order to create in chaos. 99 percent order, 1 percent magic."

The Harvard Science & Cooking lecture series continues next Monday, October 27, with Martin Breslin from Harvard University's Dining Services on "The History of Culinary Thickeners." The event is free and open to the public; seats are first come, first served. More details can be found on the Harvard website.