Ferran Adrià.
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Ferran Adrià, Juan Mari Arzak

Gerry Dawes / July 2003

Food Arts presents the July/August 2003 Silver Spoon Award for plata de ley performance to two Spaniards, Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak, the Wilbur Wright of modern Spanish Cuisine, and Ferran Adrià, the Catalan wizard who has taken Spanish food into the culinary stratosphere. Arzak, chef/owner of the Michelin three-star Arzak in San Sebastián, is revered as the father of Spanish cucina nueva vasca (new Basque cuisine), a cooking doctrine that was the vital bridge between traditional Spanish food and an internationally oriented modern cuisine. Adrià, chef/partner of the now mythical Michelin three-star El Bulli, which overlooks an isolated seaside cove two hours north of Barcelona, is widely considered to be the most innovative, creative, original, and, to some, best chef in the world.

The 60-something Arzak and 40 year old Adrià have led the dizzying ascendancy of Spanish gastronomy to the point where a growing number of savvy culinary professionals, including envious Frenchmen, now consider Spanish chefs to be the most exciting in Europe. Arzak is not alone in believing that "at this moment, Spain has one of the most important cuisines in the world." On these pilgrimages to see the two maestros and other great Spanish chefs, many culinarians have also discovered the glories of traditional Spanish cuisine; thus, Arzak and Adrià have helped raise all boats in their wake.

Arzak was born in the building that houses Arzak (once his family's tavern/restaurant). He learned the basics at his mother's side and, through intelligence and imagination, elevated his family's restaurant to the Michelin three-star pantheon in 1989. With his daughter Elena in the kitchen alongside him, Arzak adds twists to traditional Basque dishes such as ventresca de bonito, lightly smoked cuts of choice bonito belly speared with a mentholated bone. El Viejo Rockero (The Old Rocker), as Arzak sometimes calls himself, still claims that his favorite dish is fried farmhouse eggs served with roasted red peppers.

Adrià, the creator of wildly imitated foams and other coolly calculated concoctions meant to stimulate the brain as well as the palate, is now the most sought after chef in the world. His recently published book, elBulli 1998-2002 (with brother/pastry chef Alberto Adrià and restaurant partner Juli Soler), the first in what will be three volumes celebrating Andrià's 20 years at El Bulli, will not be published in English until later this year, yet acolytes have bought up more than 100 copies at $175 a pop at Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York City "as if it cost $14.95," reports Nach Waxman, the bookstore's owner. Adrià's menus, conceived in his off-premise laboratory during El Bulli's five month winter hibernation, are controversial, electrifying feats of artistic and technological virtuosity. His menú de degustación can total 30 samples of what might be called "tapas with attitude," several of which are indeed served on a silver spoon. Like Arzak's, Adrià's favorite dish is somewhat more plebeian: skillet cooked green asparagus, sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt, please hold the foam.