Ferran on the Fly
Gerry Dawes - October 2010
A lot of what's-next speculation surrounds the electrifying Ferran Adrià as he plans to ring out El Bulli's present incarnation as the world's most seminal restaurant in two years.
On three separate occasions last January and February, Ferran Adrià--with just a dash of nebulous espuma--dropped a not so neatly encapsulated megaton gastro bomb on the culinary world: the moment of truth had come for El Bulli, his vanguardia food mecca in Roses, Spain, two hours north of Barcelona.
In late January, at Madrid Fusión 2010, the ultimate annual international chefs' conference, Ferran--now so famous that he is widely known by his nom de cuisine (Catalan for Fernando, the name he answered to as a boy growing up in Barcelona)--announced that El Bulli would close for two years after the 2012 season while he planned for the restaurant's next incarnation. After the announcement, he told the newspaper El Pais: "Those three days at Madrid Fusión were the most marvelous of my career, because of the reactions that I got from my colleagues."
The Madrid Fusión announcement came amid speculation swirling in culinary circles for the past couple of years that 2010 might be the last for El Bulli. Some said attacks by fellow Catalan chef Santi Santamaria and author Jörg Zipprick, who wrote a scathing book about the "chemical additives" used in the food at El Bulli (see "Spain's Chemical Reaction," Food Arts, October 2009, page 53) had taken their toll. Others claimed that there were family problems that needed Adrià's attention. Last year, Albert, his brother and confidante, left El Bulli to pursue his own personal and professional goals. Ferran left Madrid Fusión 2010 before the closing ceremonies because his mother was very ill.
Ferran Adrià intimated in both private and public conversations that he was exhausted after more than 10 years of tending to his and El Bulli's meteoric rise, though, from his frantic conference speaking schedule and numerous interviews, he didn't appear to be slowing down. In February, Britain's Guardian reported on its food blog that he was closing El Bulli for 2012 and 2013 because of "the difficulties of working 15 hours a day." He was quoted on the front page of London's Financial Times as saying, "Without pressure, there is no passion." And he admits submission to "the extreme creative mantra that sees repetition as failure."
Adrià has said that he had to give his core staff an opportunity to better themselves financially and professionally. "One thing is the demands on me and my team on a professional level," he says. "Then we also have the demands of the personal sides of our lives like anyone else."
Two weeks after Madrid Fusión 2010, Andrew Ferren, writing in the Diner's Journal blog on the New York Times Web site under the headline "El Bulli to Close Permanently," reported that "[Ferran] decided to close the restaurant for good because he and his partner, Juli Soler, had been losing a half million euros ($800,000) a year." Other reports claim that El Bulli has actually turned a profit, but, officially at least, of less than $100,000 per year. But several other reports cited a lawsuit, filed in 2008 by the grown children of a former partner, Miquel Horta i Almaraz, a fragrance company owner and football pool mega-winner who held a 20 percent share in El Bulli--and who is still alive, but in very poor health--figured in the decision to close the restaurant. The sons claim that Adrià and Soler "tricked" their father when they paid him the "laughable price" of 1,000,000 euros ($1,200,000 at the time) to liquidate his interest in El Bulli. The Horta brothers, Jofre and Sergi Horta, claim that an independent auditor pegged the real value of El Bulli and its "parallel activities" at 45,000,000 euros ($57,663,000). Adrià denies the validity of the Horta family's claim, saying the courts will judge the merits of their suit.
Three days after the Times article, Adrià was quoted in a Spanish report published by El País food writer Rosa Rivas as saying that he didn't tell Ferren that he was closing El Bulli permanently. He also told Rivas that the Times story was the result of a "dialectic confusion" done in good faith. Perhaps this is what he meant: In a major piece, "Adrià de Cerca" ("Adrià Up Close"), in a Sunday supplement in Catalonia's top newspaper La Vanguardia, Adrià was quoted as saying, "Some people have offered to help me improve my diction. But, I told them that I have always been this way, and my life has gone pretty well. I have no interest in changing."
Just a week after the Times report, at the Forum Gastronómico Santiago (a conference ostensibly focused on the cuisines of the Atlantic), held at an exhibition hall on the outskirts of the great pilgrimage destination Santiago de Compostela, Adrià, a Mediterranean chef, first wowed the crowd with a brilliant live video transmission–cum–slideshow from El Bulli and explanations about how he and his team made creations from his 2009 menu. He showed his cooks making tartar de tuétano con ostras (tartare of bone marrow with oysters), ñoquis de boniato (boniato gnocchi), and ravioli de piñones (pine nut ravioli). Of course, everything was deconstructed and put back together in a totally unique way: ingredients were frozen with nitrogen; rose petals were made to look like something else; and something else was made to look like a rose. It was ferranismo at its best, with Adrià as ringmaster (with his team on video) remotely directing the breathtaking inventiveness of the whole El Bulli magic show.
Having to create some 30 completely new, wildly inventive dishes, which on El Bulli's tasting menu can contain a total of as many as 200 different ingredients, is only part of the reason Adrià says he wants to move on--though it sounds like he's going to be doing something similar at the foundation he's contemplating as the next chapter in the El Bulli saga. Adrià says that the foundation, which he emphasizes will not be a school, will be a nonprofit think tank of "gastronomic creativity for chefs and front-of-the-house professionals." Upwards of 20 to 25 participants will be very selectively chosen (speaking of hard-to-get reservations) to work with the foundation's creative team to "pursue feedback, interaction, and projection beyond the world of gastronomy," seeking out expertise in the fields of "design, art, and creative communication." Colman Andrews, co-founder of Saveur magazine and the author of Catalan Cuisine and the new biography Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, relayed Adrià's intention to inviting members of the press to come for one week each year. "But," Adrià adds, "they will have to spend one day of the week in the kitchen."
The team will also work closely with the Alicia Foundation, which takes its name from alimentacion y sciencia (food and science)--a think tank north of Barcelona, which Adrià helped found. It's run by Toni Massenés, an El Bulli confidant. El Bulli's foundation will publish its findings in books, electronic media, and on a Web site posting daily updates of the research. The collected knowledge will be available to conferences and culinary schools, and eventually collected in what Adrià says will be "a great encyclopedia of contemporary cuisine," which will be "an exhaustive and detailed compendium of creative methods, product studies, new elaborations, techniques, concepts, and styles that have stressed the evolution of cuisine in the last decades."
And what will happen to El Bulli, the restaurant? Adrià at first said it would reopen in 2014, but, claiming that he and the restaurant had received enough prizes and awards for a lifetime, he emphasized he wouldn't attempt to regenerate it as the "best restaurant in the world."
"There will be reformations at the site, and we will create spaces to carry out our new activities," he says, "but, because of their emblematic nature, the existing kitchen and dining room will be kept intact. Nothing has yet been decided just how and who will be able to experience the new El Bulli, nor when this will occur. Though the restaurant will be much different, I'm absolutely sure El Bulli will be serving food."
Notes Andrews: "Ferran repeated in several ways that he's still thinking about the details, and that while he has pretty firm ideas of what the new El Bulli will and won't be, it's still a work in progress."
José Andrés (Café Atlantico, minibar, Jaleo, etc., Washington, D.C.) believes his cocina mater will be back with something at El Bulli that may once again revolutionize the way we think about food. "The idea that this restaurant in a little out-of-the-way place could have such an impact on the way we eat, the way chefs work, how we think about cooking is testament to Ferran's genius and the power of El Bulli's philosophy," he says. "I look forward to Ferran's next chapter."
As it turns out, Andrés didn't have to wait long. In late July, it was announced that Ferran's brother Albert had sold his interest in Inopia, his tapas bar in Barcelona, to his partner after four and a half years of lines-out-front success. Albert told the press that he and Ferran would be opening a gastrobar--the flagship of what may be a fleet of tapas "restaurants"--in Barcelona in November, nine months before El Bulli is scheduled to close (instead of closing after the 2010 season, El Bulli will remain open--with a two week vacation--until July 31, 2011). But less than two months before its due date, the calibrated Ferran remained unsure of what they were going to call the place and hadn't even come up with any of the dishes they'll be serving. Stay tuned, though, because Ferran Adrià may be writing his next chapter much sooner than anyone suspected.