To be fair though, Andrews does give over a whole chapter to others who are critical of Adrià, most notably Santi Santamaria who was the first ever Catalan chef to gain three Michelin stars for his restaurant Can Fabes (currently rated 79 in the Pellegrino list). He and Adrià have a long running feud that reportedly culminated with the El Bulli chef saying to Santi, ‘Shut up! I’m a genius and you’re a cook!’ but this story is more likely the invention of the press who know a juicy story when they see one than reality.
And so the G-word rears its head, genius. The word is inevitably sprinkled through such a biography with frequent comparisons made by many who know Adrià personally to fellow countrymen Dali, Miro and Picasso. Having eaten at El Bulli recently, we’re in no doubt that Adrià is indeed a genius, but this in turn presents something of a problem for Andrews for as you progress through the book, despite all the access and interviews, he struggles to get a grip on his subject.
You can’t blame Andrews too harshly for this for Adrià is clearly an elusive individual and as ethereal as his famous smoke foam. More than this, Adrià’s genius seems centred on his creative passion and documenting creative genius can only usually be done in a satisfactory way when it is somewhat retrospective. Adrià though is far from finished and in fact feels that he’s on the verge of moving creativity to a whole new level. Consider this, while Heston Blumenthal (another genius undoubtedly) is creating gastro pubs in Bray and opening a new restaurant in London (while The Fat Duck menu goes unchanged), Adrià is closing his only restaurant to transform it into a not for profit foundation. Why? Because even a non traditional restaurant like El Bulli that is the pinnacle of avant-garde cuisine is too restrictive for his creative desire.
While Adrià is undoubtedly a brilliant chef, you put the book down believing that what sets him apart from other chefs is not his cooking ability but his curiosity of the world and his desire to transform this into taste so that we see the world differently as we visualise it through Adrias's own eyes (like we see the world differently through Picasso’s paintings). Almost paradoxically therefore, it’s easy in a discussion of Ferran Adrià to find yourself not talking about food at all, that’s the kind of chef he is.
The book also gives you a strong sense of how unusual Adrià’s path to fame is and how remarkable it is that El Bulli survived at all. Dr Schilling, El Bulli’s German founder originally applied for a permit to open a medical centre on the site and when that was turned down, he decided a mini-golf course might be popular with the tourists; this was 1961 and a beachside bar shortly followed. The mini-golf was a flop but the bar stayed and in time became a grill and then continued a move toward fine dining, achieving its first Michelin star in 1976 (Adrià himself was born in 1962). Despite offering fine dining, El Bulli was so remote, suppliers wouldn’t deliver there and the restaurant didn’t even have a telephone because there were no telephone lines that ran to the location until the phone company was persuaded to lay them in 1977.
And while El Bulli was continuing to establish itself as a haute cuisine venue, a young Ferran was gaining kitchen experience through a series of stages elsewhere. Thereafter, compulsory military service saw him enter the Navy where he volunteered for the Admiral’s kitchen so continuing to learn his trade, though at this point, he had made no firm plans to be a career chef. His decision to stage at El Bulli on a Navy break seems driven by the proximity of the restaurant to a beach knowing that where there’s a beach there are girls in bikinis and an alcohol fuelled nightlife. When his time in the Navy finished, he returned to El Bulli on a permanent basis for more of the same.
The truly remarkable thing though about El Bulli was how few customers would pass through the door outside of high season. Business was so slow in the winter they couldn’t afford to pay the staff. In 1987, El Bulli extended the closed winter period from two months to five months to reduce expenses. However, hand in hand with this Adrià says that ‘since we were now closed for such a long period, we felt obliged to reopen with an entirely new menu. Beginning in March 1988, then, we began to change the menu completely every season.’ So started the process of being closed for half of each year and using the winter months for a period of renewal and extended creativity.
Despite the accolades and the Michelin stars (El Bulli got its third star in 1997), El Bulli’s fame was predominantly a local phenomena until 2003 when the New York Times Magazine did a 7,000 word cover story focussed on Ferran with the headline ‘The Nueva Nouvelle Cuisine: How Spain Became the New France’. Of this article, Adrià says ‘Before the New York Times, my success was only in the culinary world. Before the Times, there was only the restaurant. Since the Times, there has been the myth.’
So what does it mean to eat at El Bulli? First, there is Adrià’s philosophy which is based on three pillars, ‘technical and conceptual research, the role of the senses in creating and eating, and the sixth sense, the role of reason and reflection on the act of eating.’ Then, there’s the interaction between the restaurant and the diner, ‘When you cook you create a conversation with the diner. With avant-garde cooking, you create a new language for this conversation. To do that, your first job is to create a new alphabet. Then you can make the words, then you can make the sentences. As a diner you have to be willing to try to understand a new language.’ Adrià realises that not everyone will make the effort.
For the meal itself Adrià knows that ‘the element of surprise is important’. He wants his diners to react to his food on a ‘visceral and emotional level’ and he believes that like a magician, you should not reveal your tricks to the guests even though he’s unusually willing to share his pioneering tradecraft with the wider culinary world. Finally, he notes that ‘the concentration you need to eat El Bulli cuisine is very strong. You can’t do it every day.’ From experience, we certainly know that to be true.
Overall, Colman Andrews has written an impressively informative book about Ferran Adrià and El Bulli and whether you’ve been lucky enough to eat there or only dream of it, there’s a lot that everyone can take away from reading this book. His style is solid rather than racy and he skips over much of the trivia that can bog down a biography even if we do learn that Adrià’s mother has ‘warm kind eyes’ and Isabel his wife has ‘sparkling eyes and dark red hair’. He’s also not fawning and the tasting notes that he gives to one of his meals at El Bulli makes clear his dislike of certain dishes (sea anemone for example) even though he’s aware that Adrià’s critics might relish reading this in an authorised biography.
The access Andrews has enjoyed has clearly been extensive and he probably knows as much about Adrià as a biographer can hope to know. As already pointed out, we do hit the wall of how much mortal journalists and writers can ever know Adrià but since it is mortals anyhow who are going to read the book, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much after all. Overall, a good Xmas read for foodies everywhere.
Finally, we must touch on the term molecular gastronomy, a term we learn that Adrià hates and which he feels has been put upon him unfairly, not least because no one really knows what to call his type of cooking. While for the most part, Adrià seems happy with the term avant-garde, on reflection he has a better idea, ‘the name for our cooking is El Bulli’.
Thecriticalcouple ate at El Bulli in October 2010, read our review here.