Q&A: world-famous chef Ferran Adrià on decoding food, the magic of Canadian cuisine and where he sees himself in 50 years

Q&A: world-famous chef Ferran Adrià on decoding food, the magic of Canadian cuisine and where he sees himself in 50 years

Ferran Adria

Earlier this week, legendary chef Ferran Adrià—the guy who invented food foam—gave a sold-out talk at CBC’s Glen Gould Studios on Front Street. Adrià’s now-closed restaurant elBulli was often referred to as one of the best restaurants in the world. The Toronto event was organized to promote Adrià’s new projects: his seven-volume, 2720-page, $625 tome, elBulli 2005-2011, for one, and the soon-to-launch elBullifoundation, a culinary think tank and research facility, one component of which is a massive gastro-encyclopedia project called the BulliPedia. (Another is elBulli 1846, a museum housed in his former restaurant.)

The key takeaway from the talk was this: despite Adrià’s reputation as the “father of molecular gastronomy,” his culinary philosophy isn’t actually about foams, chemicals and test tubes. It’s about “decoding”: creating a complete gastronomic taxonomy by organizing and classifying foods—something Adrià believes is necessary to allow the culinary arts to flourish. During his brief Toronto visit, we sat down with Adria to speak with him about this and other misconceptions about his life and work. Here’s what he told us.

You talk about “decoding” food. How does your philosophy compare to other culinary approaches?

We’ve reached a moment in the history of vanguard cooking, not knowing what’s next or where we’re going from here. It makes us all reflect; it’s provoking and keeps us on alert. The resources we have now—the new Scandinavian cooking, the new Mexican or Peruvian cooking—are nationalistic approaches to food. […] For example, Danish cooking and Rene Redzepi. […] [The deconstruction approach] is going to have an interesting effect on the nationalistic approach. It’s going to cross all of them.

In Western cooking, haute cuisine had been with France for centuries. Spain had a little bit of a revolution in the 1990s. Even all of the nationalist cuisine we’ve talked about—Canada, United States, Denmark, etc.—99 per cent of the know-how is from earlier French techniques, elaborations. […] Maybe one of these has a slightly different technique or elaboration. Tortillas, for example, in Mexico. The decoding approach covers everything, plus popular cooking that people do daily in their lives. […] People who are against creativity—which is a lot of people […]—they can’t be against this because it covers everything. It’s for any kind of cooking. If I go back to the origins of food, they can’t argue with that. It’s a new focus, where the debate between traditional and modern doesn’t really enter into it. It requires a change in the model of discussion.

What is one common misconception people have about you or your work that you’d like to clarify?

These things are hard, especially when you have to change the way you’re doing things. Even for me it’s a continual challenge. Sometimes I think I’m dumb. […] Also, there’s not one way of cooking. The problem with elBulli is that we did so many different things. We were looking to push the boundaries. In the end, we created 1846 recipes, each one was a story. When most people think of us, they think deconstructions or spherifications. Hardly anyone talks, for example, about all the influences of Japan from 2002 to 2011, which was fundamental in our work. That’s why we have these books [chuckles], so people can study what we do.

You’re known for treating cooking as a science, but what you’re describing doesn’t sound particularly scientific.

When people think science and cooking, they have no idea that it’s not correctly expressed. We’re actually applying the scientific method. People think chemistry and physics are science, but the scientific method is something else. […] It’s the science that the world of cooking generates: science of butter; science of the croissant. […] I’m going to explain. It might be a sensitive subject, but it’s the same as if I said “I’m Catholic.” I was raised a Catholic, and it’s a part of my spiritual life, but then we have the world of science, which has shown that the Bible is an emotional concept. What we’re doing is kind of similar: cooking is cultural, emotional and sensitive, but if you explain it with the scientific method, it becomes a different thing. […] You can be more Catholic or less Catholic; more religious, less religious. But the science is fixed. There’s a similar dichotomy in what we’re doing.

What do you hope will be your legacy?

The legacy is of elBulli, not mine personally. Otherwise it would be the Adrià Foundation instead of the elBulli Foundation. elBulli changed the way we thought about food. We see the people that have come through there [including Noma’s Rene Redzepi, Mugaritz chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, Alinea’s Grant Achatz and Joan Roca, chef of 2013 World’s Best Restaurant–winning restaurant El Celler de Can Roca], that are already themselves influential as chefs, and they carry with them the spirit of elBulli. The important thing is that there will be something left behind, something tangible. This is what is going to happen at the new foundation. We’ll be able to explain why it happened. You’ll understand what happened and see what marks the future.

So it’s a new school of thought?

It’s going to be a new school of thought. What’s the [Culinary Institute of America] going to do with this information in five years? Are they going to continue to explain cooking the way they’re doing now or are they going to take the decoding and change the way they do their education? Imagine that they say, “No, we’re not interested in this,” and that you and I start a culinary school in Toronto and we apply this, and all the kids come here. What’s going to happen to the CIA? It’s going to die. There’s going to be a debate. That’s why it’s so important.

I want people to say, “I don’t agree with this or that.” Everything that we’re doing is fairly objective and when it’s not objective, I’ll explain. There hasn’t been a common language for everyone—academics, culinary school, restaurants, media—to have a joint conversation.

That seems like a lofty objective.

Yeah, it’s a total crisis! […] It’s interesting that we’re not talking about creativity. Very interesting. People say, “Oh, creativity. I don’t care, I like traditional food.” We’re not even talking about that today! We’re talking about understanding and knowledge […]. You may say, “Oh, no. You can’t touch a traditional recipe.” But we ask: why can’t you? Back in 1350, a vinaigrette was a stew, so we ask, why not? This can be applied to any kind of cooking, and that’s the shocking part of it. It kind of bends all the traditions. It’s a good thing.

In your talk, you discussed the importance of having the “freedom to create”—i.e. not having to appease third-party interests. But do you ever feel the pressure to deliver or perform?

If I don’t have pressure, I don’t function. The problem we had after elBulli—which was the highest pressure in the world of restaurants—was how we were going to maintain that pressure on ourselves? So we started [the elBulli Foundation] first, then the elBulliDNA, which we’ll update every day, and which is also a pressure-induced process since people will log on and say, “Today wasn’t such a good day at elBulli.” But it’s important for me to have that pressure. We like living that way because it gives us a sense of happiness.

You’ve been known to say, “don’t look for success, look for happiness”…

… especially for the young chefs.

Everything you’ve done—the restaurant, the projects, the foundation, teaching, these books—it seems very nonstop. Do you have GPS set on where you want to end up, and are you still on that path?

The good thing right now is that I know where my future is going to be in the next 50 years (if I live to be a hundred). When a person like me has had all the great successes of the world, you get to a moment of crisis. What do you do now? A different restaurant? That doesn’t make any sense. It was not easy for us to figure out the next step, because a restaurant either opens or closes. You don’t transform it. The magical part with this project we’re doing now is that we have at least 50 years of work ahead of us. The past year has been very intense, and we hope that it will calm down a little bit. I haven’t had a day off in a year. But we’re getting there. […]

With so much on your plate, it must feel like a burden sometimes.

Compared to the work at elBulli, very little, relatively speaking. [elBulli] was a monster—25 years, and every year we had to change everything. Even though this is a big, brutal project, it seems less brutal because we did [elBulli] already. People say, “Oh, this is easy. You just put some money down. […]” No. It is not easy, because you don’t have the know-how. You don’t have 30 years of elBulli [taps temple]. It’s impossible to construct all of this. All this is possible now because of the 30 years that have come before of deconstructing everything. And we really did spend 30 years decoding, not just this past year. That’s what these interviews are for: to remind people of this because it’s become a kind of obsession for people to understand why we’re doing things the way we are. We didn’t have the capacity to understand it before, because we were learning as we went.

You’ve mentioned all these countries rich in tradition, from Japan to France, but how about Canada? It’s relatively young and it’s highly influenced by so many cultures within its borders. Where does it fit in?

This is the error; the misconception. You say it as if you’re apologizing for it, because “we don’t have a proper identity,” but no one has a proper identity. Example: Italy. Do you know how many years Italy has existed? 1800s. Nothing. And how was it formed? From Mesopotamia, Greece, Roman Empire, plus the influence of Marco Polo and others. That’s Italy. So, Canada is similar. The influences, including Asian influences, are important now and they make it different. It’s magical.