The undisputed godfather of molecular gastronomy, elBulli chef Ferran Adrià revolutionized the idea of dining and he’s got the books to prove it. Before closing in 2011, his Spanish laboratory of food creativity ranked for five years as the world’s number one restaurant and routinely booked its entire season in a single day. The draw? Adrià and his staff stripped food products down to their essential components, then re-constructed these foodstuffs into spheres, foams, clouds, gels, and other sculptural objects of extraordinary beauty embedded with startling flavor profiles.
Adrià, his pastry genius of a brother Albert Adrià and elBulli manager Juli Soler have now cataloged the restaurant’s final body of work in a seven-book meta-document titled elBulli 2005-2011 (Phaidon Press). Packaged in a plexiglass slip case, the meticulously organized behemoth includes 750 recipes and 1,400 images illustrating the method behind elBulli’s madly inventive cocktails, snacks, tapas, pre-desserts, desserts, and “morphings.”
Since elBulli’s closure three years ago, Adrià and his elBullifoundation team have been working to convert the restaurant to a permanent exhibition space and creativity think tank. Components include Bullipedia, a digital archive which will map the genome of cuisine and the history of cooking.
From Seattle, Adrià spoke to Co.Create about science, chaos, the importance of down time and other creative principles that inspired elBulli creations showcased in the gallery above.
ElBulli disrupted standard restaurant practice by shutting down six months a year. The annual hiatus enabled kitchen staff to take a break from day–to–day execution and regroup creatively. Adrià says, “This is essentially the process that all the great artists do when they create art–if you’re a painter, you might take three years off to think about what you’ve done, as compared to the corporate world, where you’re going going going constantly. In order to be creative you have to have that rest period. At elBulli, we’d have four months to create new dishes so we could basically open a new restaurant every year.”
Adrià notes that without regular incubation periods devoted to rest, research, and experimentation, “You start repeating yourself. You can’t really step back and see the bigger picture. Whether you’re a butcher or somebody who works for NASA, everybody has access to that creative process.”
Adrià’s food-as-art breakthrough moment came when he decided to use his mastery of cooking fundamentals to expand the very definition of cuisine. He says, “Until about 1993, my idea was to give people good food that they would enjoy and make a little money. After 1994, we decided to explore the limits of cooking both in terms of the creative process limits and also from the point of view of the experience of the diner. The whole idea of being a provocateur, of using irony, humor, sensuality–none of this really existed in cuisine before.”
Turning his back on what he calls “artisanal recreations,” Adrià explains, “We extrapolated what was normal in other fields like art to create this whole sensorial experience.”
elBulli pioneered the use of chemicals and technological tools to transform familiar ingredients into exotic new forms. Adrià recalls, “In the kitchen we extracted what is known as the scientific approach. It’s an ongoing process of investigation where you’re trying to understand the why of things. If you make a certain kind of sushi, you try to figure out how it comes together. Trial and error had been done before, but what we did at elBulli was more about understanding what’s behind the dish.”
As documented in the 2011 film El Bulli Cooking In Progress, the process of arriving at a satisfyingly mind-blowing final product required patience and persistence. “We might go through 50 different steps or stages,” Adrià says. “There’s thousands (of false starts). We might test something many many many different times. It’s just part of the process of developing a new dish.”
Adrià collected nearly every scrap of paper generated over the course of the elBulli’s evolution to accumulate a 14,000-page archive. “Why do we do this?” Adrià muses. “Mainly so that we will not copy ourselves and to understand what it was that we were doing. It takes a great deal of discipline and work to be able to produce chaos. But if you just have chaos, it’s basically anarchic and you will not produce very much. This is always the tension in the creative process where you have to have this balance. The chaos is necessary in order to create something, but then you also have to have a structure and process in place.”
Most of the recipes in elBulli 2005-2011 fall into the “Don’t Try This at Home” category. Adrià says “People who are not professionals can look at the book as a tool for reflecting on the question of ‘What is vanguard cooking?’ On the surface, people might think the process is almost frivolous until they study the dishes and discover it’s not what they expected.”
Still, passionate amateurs can glean a few practical guidelines to apply at home. “One of the misunderstandings about elBulli is that we use sort of strange ingredients,” he says. “But you can use xanthan gum versus using flour, for example and it’s really the same technique. These are not strange tools.”
During elBulli’s final season, Adrià began serving “sequences” built around such themes as Japan, Peru, and white truffle. The same concept can be translated on a more modest scale, Adrià says. “In the home kitchen you could, for example, do a meditation on cows, on cattle, on beef. That’s different from artisanal recreation because there’s some story you’re telling or you’re looking at something from different angles.”
Molecular gastronomy radically re-shaped how food appears on the plate but Adrià says visual spectacle rarely ignited the kitchen’s creative process. “When we create a new dish,” he explains, “We always give thought to the aesthetic, how it’s going to appear, but that’s not where it starts. Not ever, or hardly ever. We start with the concept of the dish first and then figure out everything from how it’s laid out, to the color, to the actual dish its served in and how it’s presented. All those factors affect the dish.”
elBulli 2005-2011 brims with examples of science-based showmanship. For example, in the book collection, Adrià writes “A plate was taken to the table. There was a well in the plate that contained matto curd cheese, over which fermented milk water with added calcium gluconolactate was poured. The waiter brought out syringes filled with cucumber soup with sodium alginate and added the preparation, one drop at a time, to the soup; the drops gelled instantly and formed a cucumber caviar which, by analogy, could be described as the pasta for the soup. But there was one unique feature: the pasta had a liquid centre. It was the first time that the diners drank the liquid in which the spherification had taken place.”
An evening at elBulli proved to be a life-changing experience for many of the foodies who made the pilgrimmage to the 48-seat hillside restaurant. Adrià took pains to produce a “sixth sense” event encompassing all five senses but ultimately left the food open to interpretation. He says, “The chef can try to produce emotions in the diner, but it’s like when you go to the theater and you talk to the person next to you–your experience of the play is going to be different from someone else’s. At elBulli, the emotional reaction was really in the hands of the diner.”
For more with Adrià, see our video with the chef here.