Since his legendary restaurant El Bulli closed in 2011, Spanish chef Ferran Adrià has traded in his saucepans and knives for computers and spreadsheets. Over the past six years, Adrià launched the El Bulli Foundation and has been working on a number of ambitious and enigmatic projects, collaborating with not only some of the world’s top chefs but also masters in the fields of finance, art, and technology.
But what, exactly, has the chef been doing all this time?
El Bulli, which captured the coveted No. 1 spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list a record five times, was much more than just a restaurant: It was arguably the greatest culinary think tank and innovation center that’s ever existed. Adrià and his team knew they had done something revolutionary with El Bulli, but they didn’t know if they’d be able to replicate that magic again.
Now, Adrià says they’ve not only come to understand what they did with El Bulli and how they did it, but even more remarkably, he believes they’ve cracked the code for how to replicate that level of creativity and innovation, over and over again.
As they gear up to finally open the long-awaited El Bulli 1846 (a research lab that will also house a museum that’s open to the public, named for the 1,846 different dishes that were created throughout El Bulli’s history) in Girona, Spain, in 2019, the El Bulli Foundation team is ready to share their findings with the world — and to leave a legacy for future generations.
“I have to confess I kind of missed the frantic activity I had when El Bulli was open,” Adrià tells Eater, “but now it is all coming back to us and it makes me excited.”
Eater: Since El Bulli closed its doors in 2011, you have not attended any food festivals and nobody really knows what the El Bulli Foundation is. Could you briefly explain it?
Ferran Adrià: Do you really want to know? [Laughs]
There hasn’t been that much interest in what we’ve been doing over the past few years. Not many people have been really interested in visiting the El Bulli Foundation headquarters in Barcelona. Do you know why? Because people are not really interested in knowledge itself, people are not interested in the research process. People just want to get the final result, and we are getting closer to it.
When El Bulli was open something similar also happened: Our colleagues were just interested in the recipes and not so much in the innovation process that lead us to those recipes and techniques. We are more interested in the innovation process than in the result itself, and that is what we have been researching for the last few years.
Since you first announced El Bulli restaurant would become the El Bulli Foundation, many things have changed. You were supposed to reopen the Foundation in the original El Bulli restaurant space in 2014, but instead you are still in Barcelona. Can you explain what’s been happening with the El Bulli Foundation up to this point?
There are several milestones that have been crucial for us in order to get where we are now.
One: the exhibitions. Since 2012, we have organized six exhibitions in Spain, the United States, Latin America, and other countries. In organizing all of them, we have been able to learn something different, and our project has been reinvented on many occasions thanks to these experiences.
The exhibition “Risk, Freedom and Creativity,” mounted from 2012 to 2014 in Barcelona, London, and Boston, was very important to realize the huge interest from the audience in El Bulli history, images, and objects. It also helped us to organize ourselves and our resources and learn how to explain them to people. The exhibits opened a new world to us of innovation and creativity. Our life after the exhibitions is no longer just about cooking, but about the innovation process. In preparing them, we realized what we already had but were not able to clearly explain before.
Two: our challenges.We have issued challenges to external companies in order to help us clarify what our goals are with the El Bulli Foundation. For example, the experience of Ideas for Transformation [an international contest held for MBA students to generate ideas for the future viability of the El Bulli Foundation] with five of the most acclaimed business schools in the world [including Harvard, Columbia, and London Business School] was amazingly enriching.
Three: Collaborating with big companies such as Telefonica and CaixaBank has been an essential part of transforming our main focus away from cuisine, restaurants, recipes, and ingredients and toward the innovation process in the hospitality sector.
Four: Throughout all these years, we have come to understand who we are and what we have done. This is the greatest project we have worked on. There have been millions of pages on El Bulli, but did we know what exactly made us so great? We realized it was not only about method, but also about human resources. That is why we decided to open the website Bullinianos [literally “El Bulli people”; Bullinianos include everyone who’s participated in any project organized by Ferran Adrià, his brother and fellow chef Albert Adrià, and the late restaurateur behind El Bulli, Juli Soler.]
So all these milestones have led you and your team to where you are now. What will the El Bulli Foundation be working on for the next few years?
First we have the Bullipedia, which cannot be understood without Sapiens. Bullipedia is a digital platform with contents that will be delivered in several multimedia formats in order to share all the knowledge we have been researching about food, cuisine, cooking tools, drinks, ingredients, and many other issues.
Sapiens is the methodology we have used to develop not just the Bullipedia, but all our projects. It is the conductive thread of DNA for all our projects. We will be launching more than 25 books from November 2017 until the end of 2018, starting with our monograph about drinks. Inside Sapiens we also have developed our Seaurching [a play on “searcher” and “sea urchin”], a tool developed to arrange and disseminate the knowledge through new technologies. It’s like a super search engine that connects all the data we have been researching.
In 2019 we are planning to open El Bulli 1846. Since we closed the restaurant, we have been trying to develop the architectural project in Cala Montjoi which will let us reopen El Bulli Foundation in the original El Bulli restaurant space. Since 2014 we have been working in a pop-up lab in Barcelona, but we will move to Cala Montjoi by the end of next year as we have finally received the legal approval for our project.
El Bulli 1846 will be an exhibition lab that’s designed to be the ideal ecosystem for creativity. There will be professional cooking, studying, and researching about creativity. We will also have guests visiting our permanent and temporary exhibitions at the same time. We will create an open-air museum [spanning more than 43,000 square feet] where a maximum of 200 daily visitors will be able to learn about the spirit of innovation at El Bulli. Details about schedule, ticket price, and official opening day are not clear yet, and that is why I will not announce our opening in advance. In spring 2019, we will start doing test runs at El Bulli 1846 with our friends and collaborators and, once we are ready, we will open to the public.
At El Bulli 1846, people will have experiences based around gastronomy, but El Bulli restaurant will not exist as it existed before ever again. We closed El Bulli because we had been searching for the limits around what a restaurant experience could be. Once we felt we could not go much further in this sense, we decided to close. However, now there are no limitations for us with El Bulli 1846 — we can do whatever we want.
Professionals from any field will be able to work with us for a temporary period. We will select the best from each field who are interested in working with us and we will ask them to learn some basics about what El Bulli is before joining us. Enjoying a culinary activity at El Bulli 1846 will not be something that you can just buy, but something you have to deserve. It is not about paying a high fee but being able to provide some added value to our project and also sharing the El Bulli philosophy for innovation.
Additionally, we are planning to share our projects and results with all professional chefs in the world and some of them, especially if they belong to the “Bullinianos” group, will be able to visit us for some days, as they were previously able to at El Bulli restaurant. Chefs like Andoni Luis Aduriz (Mugaritz), Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro, and Mateu Casañas (Disfrutar), or Grant Achatz (Alinea) will be able to visit us for a few days and they will also be able to organize special pop-up dinners at El Bulli 1846.
How are you financing your projects?
As you know, El Bulli Foundation is a private foundation supported just by El Bulli family members: My brother Albert, Isabel (Ferran Adrià’s wife), Ernest Laporte (from the El Bulli team), Marta Sala (El Bulli restaurateur Juli Soler’s wife), and I comprise the patronage committee. We have funded the project by ourselves with more than 10 million euros so far.
When we open El Bulli 1846, we hope the tickets bought by visitors will be enough to maintain us. We expect to have fixed expenses of 1 million euros per year, of which 80 percent will be devoted to funding Bullipedia and Sapiens.
We also have what we call our “Angels,” people or companies who donate money to us because they believe in us and share our values. In exchange, at El Bulli 1846 we will develop special and innovative experiences around gastronomy for them. I insist that becoming an Angel will not be just a matter of money — our Angels need to share the El Bulli vision with us.
What will happen to the Barcelona venue you’ve been using as a pop-up Bulli lab since 2014?
Until we find the right venue for it, our Bulli Lab in Barcelona will hold all the materials for our Bulligrafia. The Bulligrafia will be a museum and also an archive for all the material related to the restaurant beginning when it was just a beach bar in 1962 until it closed its doors in July 2011. It will cover topics such as the history of the restaurant, what made it different from any other restaurant in the world, the business model, the working organization, and the creative process, among others.
Here we will keep everything that is related to El Bulli restaurant, from all the menus since 1962 up until the freeze-dried bones of the “Peach Melba,” the last dish served at El Bulli. It is just amazing.
I would like to finally open the Bulligrafia in Cala Montjoi, but our current project does not allow us to build a museum in the natural park, so we are open to other locations in Barcelona or even somewhere else. I will choose the place where having the Bulligrafia will be most useful for society.
What about your New York City food hall project in the U.S. with your brother Albert and José Andrés?
We had been thinking about a similar project with José Andrés for a long time and we are ready to do it because Albert’s company (El Barri) is now a mature company. Actually, I am just supporting them — they don’t really need me for this project. [Laughs]
I have only made one demand: that they make the best project ever. This is not a high-cuisine restaurant, but a casual format in which it is not about creating new dishes or concepts, but selecting the best of what it is already in the culinary market but not yet together in the same place. Also they have to be careful and not fall back on Spanish food stereotypes.
We are planning to open it in October 2018. Albert and José already know a lot about business, I am just providing the conservative point of view, being prudent and sharing my vision with them.
Do you think people really understand what you are doing?
For two years, just before we opened the El Bulli lab in Barcelona, we were in crisis. I personally had a tough time after Juli and my parents passed away. We thought we were not going to make it, but once we created Sapiens everything started to make sense for us.
I understand that it is difficult to understand everything we’re doing. But in my case, I am feeling like I’m in the movie Groundhog Day. [Laughs] I remember when we started working with foams and deconstructions in the ’90s and many people did not understand it and they even made jokes. It took a while until people really realized what we were doing, and I feel just the same now. In 2003 I appeared on the cover for the New York Times magazine and then people understood. If things with the El Bulli Foundation move at the same rate, I think people will realize the magnitude of our project by 2020.