Few chefs generate the type of buzz that surrounds Ferran Adrià. During a stop in Vancouver on March 8 while on a North American book tour promoting elBulli: 2005-2011, the Spanish chef formerly of elBulli restaurant lectured to over 100 ticketholders and signed copies of his new seven-volume collection of books at the Vancouver Club. Tickets were $700 a pop, and the event was sold out. It seems that even years after the well-known three-Michelin starred restaurant has closed, chefs, diners, and culinary enthusiasts are still curious about the man whom many consider a master of molecular gastronomy.
During a small media gathering the next day at organizer Barbara-jo McIntosh’s shop, Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks, the 51-year-old Catalan chef was more interested in discussing his reasons for elBulli: 2005-2011 and plans for the future than he was addressing his celebrity status and the various food trends credited to his name, including spherification and culinary foam.
It turns out that Adrià began working on the volume of books in the early 2000s.
“A couple people came to dine at elBulli and in the evening when they were done, they said, ‘Oh, it’s fantastic, but I would like to understand what you are doing here, to understand elBulli better,” he recalled through a Spanish translator to a group that included local chefs Vikram Vij, Quang Dang, David Gunawan, and Jefferson Alvarez. “’What do you want to understand?’ I said in response to them. ‘If you want to understand it, you have to study it.’”
Adrià said that it occurred to him early on that few people had truly studied and documented food. He was not concerned with recipes, but more about the classification and understanding of the culinary arts—from seemingly simple questions, such as, ‘What is a tomato?’ to more complicated musings, like the difference between technology versus technique.
“Sometimes, we mix up what the word ‘investigation’ means because we think of it only as an ally to science. It’s not that way. Investigation is just the study of things,” he explained. “The creative field that has done the most of this is art. Why? Because they have more time. There are universities that are dedicated just to this field, thousands of people doing theses on Picasso, for example. Imagine what’s been studied on Picasso.”
Comparatively, Adrià asks how many people have studied the work of late French chef Auguste Escoffier and how much effort has gone into studying his techniques. “None,” he concluded. “People have done jobs here and there but nobody has really studied him.”
Adrià said that he launched a cataloguing system similar to the classification used in botany or Darwin’s taxonomy of species. This has resulted in an elaborate map of sorts, which he presented in New York for the first time this year.
“People always ask, ‘What is this for? What is the purpose?’ That’s the question that I’m most surprised to get. It’s as if you asked a historian or people in the world of design, ‘Why did you study what you do?’ The main goal of it is to organize things,” he said, adding that it is only by understanding individual components of food and how they relate to one another that cooks can begin to see ingredients in a different way.
Adrià makes clear that he alone does not have all the answers and that the decade he invested in writing elBulli: 2005-2011 has only triggered more questions. This is where the elBulli Foundation comes in. The chef has opened a culinary think tank on the premises of the closed elBulli restaurant. Located on the Costa Brava coast of Spain, the foundation will host 40 people “working, reflecting, and thinking about these things” for eight months each year starting in 2015.
“No one can know all cultures and foods—it’s impossible,” Adrià acknowledged. “You can go on the Internet, you can Google it, or look in books [and think you know the answers], but I would like to reflect on food and understand what it is I have eaten.”