Ferran Adriá – El Bulli.
Ferran Adriá, famed Head Chef of El Bulli restaurant is carrier of the title ‘World’s Greatest Chef’. He was recently in Cape Town to speak at the Design Indaba where Sarah Marjoribanks caught up with him.
Ravi Naidoo, the main man behind the the design conference, was so adamant that Adriá attend that he threatened to fly thousands of kilometres to Spain to convince him of the conference’s importance. Jokes Adriá, “And that was when I knew that this was a very special event.”
There are very few chefs whose food transgresses borders, influences people other than food enthusiasts and those in the hospitality trade. Judging by Ravi’s enthusiasm for Adriá to address a packed hall and the standing ovation Adriá received, he is one of them. Such is his influence in contemporary culture that he has voiced a character in Ratatouille and has even appeared on The Simpsons, an animated immortalisation that is usually reserved for heroes of popular culture: rock stars and actors.
Born in Catalonia, Spain, Adriá began his career in the kitchen as a dishwasher at the Hotel Playafels, where he steeped himself art of traditional Spanish cuisine. At the age of 19, he was drafted into the Army where he worked as a cook, an element of his career he shares with South African chefs Rudi Liebenberg and Trevor Boyd. At 22 he became a line cook at El Bulli and 18 months later was Head Chef. Today, El Bulli is listed as the top restaurant in the world and is renowned for its unique approach to food. Although his cuisine is dubbed ‘molecular gastronomy’, Adriá prefers to call his approach ‘deconstructive’. The restaurant is a small one, but where the number of chefs in the kitchen out-number patrons in the restaurant. In a move that most restaurant owners would baulk at, El Bulli closes for 6 months of the year. This is when the creative juices start flowing: the menu, cutlery and crockery are all completely redesigned ensuring that each year at El Bulli has a completely fresh start. It’s Adriá’s highly creative approach to food that has earned him countless accolades and status in the design world. In 2006, he was awarded the Lucky Strike Award, given by the Raymond Lowey Foundation in New York and one of the most important design awards in the world. When he queried why he received the award, the answer was simple: “We gave the award to those who designed the tables, the forks, the knives and the plates – it was about time to give it to the person who creates the food.”
Addressing his audience at the Design Indaba, Adriá spoke of the queerness of human nature and its effect on food. “In the morning you have coffee first and then your fried eggs. At lunch you have fried eggs first and then the coffee. It’s a very simple example, but the question is why do people do things the way they do?” It is this questioning of the culture and habits surrounding food that has made Adriá a phenomenon in food circles, and attracted criticism, with Spain’s chefs being divided into Pro and Anti Ferran Adriá camps. Traditionalist Spanish chef Santi Santamaria attacked Adriá’s dishes calling them unhealthy, alleging that they were created to impress rather than satisfy, and that the chemicals used actually put diners at risk. The claims were pooh-poohed by Ferran loyalists, who put his comments down to jealousy.
In a demonstration of Adriá’s inquisitive mind, he showed the audience at the Design Indaba two ways of seeing food: the social way where food is unquestioningly see and consumed for nourishment and; the way a chef sees food and analyses it – creatively. He holds up a glass of water, takes a sip and says “How many times have we done this? Maybe ten times a day? 365 days a year? That is the social way to do it. Now let’s do it the way a chef does it. We look at it, and we see it has no colour. There are very few products that have no colour. We smell it and it has no smell. There are very few products that have no smell. The texture is not solid, it is aqueous. It has no flavour – it is not sweet, it is not salty, it’s not astringent, it’s not acidic. What is my point with this? My point is that if you are not interested in looking at water like this, you are not interested in being creative.”
With all of the adulation surrounding Ferran, it is surprising that he still remains a down-to-earth character, paying tribute to those before him and to the industry by saying “Without the past, there would be no creativity. At the end of the day, I am just a chef. I go into the kitchen every day, and do my work.”