Ferran Adrià, El Bulli, and the High Cost of Bright Ideas

by Emily Bell with Will Blunt and Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno
January 2011

Table of Contents

Creativity

Transparency

Influence

Reincarnation

Biography

Chef Ferran Adrià
El Bulli - Roses, Girona, Spain

Restaurant Info

El Bulli
Cala Montjoi .Ap. 30 17480
Roses. Girona, Spain
tel (34) 972 150 457

www.elbulli.com

Photos

Chef Ferran Adria, Chef de Cuisine Oriol Castro, and Sommelier David Seijas of El Bulli - Roses, Spain camera

Recipes

Cloud of Carrot with Tangerine Concentrate
Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli - Roses, Spain

Round Mango with Caramelized Raviolis
Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli - Roses, Spain

Apple Caviar
Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli - Roses, Spain

Frozen Caipirinha Cubes
Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli - Roses, Spain

A Spoonful of Piña Colada
Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli - Roses, Spain

Hot Frozen Gin Fizz
Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli - Roses, Spain

El Bulli Menu

El Bulli Menu - Cover El Bulli Menu - Inside El Bulli Menu - Back Cover

» The Major Contributions of Ferran Adrià and El Bulli

It’s been a year since Ferran Adrià stunned Madrid Fusion with the announcement that El Bulli, home of the most documented, dissected, and feverishly coveted dining experience of our time, would close its doors. It’s been a year of speculation, a year of scholarly conjecture, fervid gossip, and anticipatory mourning as the food world comes to grips with the inevitable shuttering of its holiest—and unlikeliest—of shrines.

The terrace at El Bulli
The terrace at El Bulli

El Bulli, the little restaurant on the precipitous hill, was the perfect sum of so many incongruities: a local restaurant ignored by locals, founded in search of the tourist buck and built on mini-golf dreams; one-time watering hole for golden beach bodies and eccentrics turned gastronomic temple for the foodie elite; briefly “Bar Alemany” serving grilled fish on a lonely Spanish coast; and, finally, insolvent, chameleon restaurant transformed by a no-name Catalan into the epicenter of avant-garde cuisine.  

That’s El Bulli: beach-bathed, Boho-roots grafted onto the magic bean stalk of Ferran Adrià’s obsessive creativity. And now, on the verge of its two-year hibernation, as gastronomes everywhere analyze and eulogize the end of an era, a question nags. On the heels of StarChefs’ recent El Bulli tasting, a tasting that felt more familiar than revelatory, we can’t help but wonder: has Adrià—with his devoted transparency, legions of trainees, marquee techniques, and widely published perspective—created a context in which the culinary fantasy of El Bulli is becoming redundant? Is El Bulli closing because it can’t keep creative pace with the world it created?                                          

Chef Oriol Castro and the El Bulli team
Chef Oriol Castro and the El Bulli team

Creativity

It seems absurd—blasphemous, even—to talk about creative lag in the context of El Bulli, gastronomic midwife of the untried, undone, and inconceivable. Ever since Jacques Maximin planted that infectious idea in Adrià’s head—“creativity is not copying”—originality has been the driving imperative behind the chef’s cuisine. (Repetition, naturally, is his kryptonite.) But Adrià’s creativity was so insistent it yielded a new language of cuisine, a language Adrià and El Bulli broadcast with an unprecedented transparency, a language that everyone began speaking.

And this—Adrià’s generous and pervasive influence—is what diluted the intensity of StarChefs’s El Bulli tasting. Of course there were incredible dishes. El Bulli’s genius still defies even the star-spangled quantification of Michelin: Tomato Tartare, a poetically simple presentation of tomato textures with ice crystals; a Gorgonzola Globe, broken into shards and dusted with fresh nutmeg; Eels in Carbonara Sauce, gently briny eel swimming in the rich silk of egg yolk; Wild Strawberries with Hare Soup, a luscious broth with just the teasing bright hint of strawberry.

But these and so many of the dishes in the 30-plus course tasting landed with less revelation than sense. And they made sense precisely because Adrià has created a context in which the unexpected, the tirelessly innovative, is to be expected. For so long ahead of its time, El Bulli is slowly becoming of its time, subsumed by its own culture.

Soy Matches and Yuzu with Miso
Soy Matches and Yuzu with Miso

Transparency

It was inevitable that El Bulli would influence modern gastronomy well beyond the “holiday village” of Cala Montjoi. And this would make Adrià the tragic hero of our story, creative genius eclipsed by the sheer generosity of his ideas. El Bulli practically breathes creative transparency. Beyond the estimated 14,000 pages written about restaurant and chef, El Bulli administers rigorous self-documentation. The General Catalogue, including books and CD-ROMs, records three decades of El Bulli’s culinary evolution. And with a new roster of young chefs immersed in the process each season, it’s as if El Bulli intends to breed its own competition. Which, in a way, it does.

As Adrià told Colman Andrews, his latest (and supposedly last) biographer, this transparency is entirely on purpose. The Catalogue, he says, is “the only way we have to combat plagiarism.” As other chefs jealously guard their recipes, Adrià demonstrates ownership by sharing. Everything. And when he sees his influence in other restaurants, he’s not angry—he’s overjoyed. “When I go to Brazil and I see a young chef who has been inspired by us, who has copied what we do and seeks to build on that” he told The Guardian, “that is just the best feeling!” Adrià’s joy isn’t born of flattery or delirious fatigue; when he sees imitation, and what’s more, innovation built upon that imitation, Adrià sees a world in which his vision of cuisine is flourishing. It doesn’t matter whether it comes out of El Bulli, its Taller workshop, or a restaurant halfway across the world.

Influence

Chances are, you’ve tasted the impact of El Bulli, which is most often associated with its marquee techniques (and sometimes filed under the misnomer "molecular"): the liquid magic of spherification (a technique which Adrià and team didn’t invent, but vastly improved upon), foams (that one-time luxury accent of fine dining menus everywhere), and other ethereal edible marvels like papers, films, and airs.

Sugar Cube with Tea and Lime
Sugar Cube with Tea and Lime

But Adrià’s culinary contributions extend far beyond a few misunderstood techniques. The short version of what he, brother Albert Adrià, and El Bulli’s core team brought to modern gastronomy is an uncompromising vision of unfettered purity. The long version is spelled out in “Synthesis of Our Cuisine,” El Bulli’s 23 gastronomical tenets. Among its central commandments: the traditional succession of courses has been replaced with an intentionally provocative, multi-sensory experience. Sweet and savory intermingle freely, often exchanging traditional roles. Familiar flavors assume uncommon, even fantastical textures, and vice versa. And memory, irony, and emotion have become viable accompaniments to culinary satisfaction. Thanks to El Bulli, culinary preconceptions mean less; chefs everywhere, of every stripe, are experimenting with new freedoms.

But Adrià’s influence isn’t relegated to fine dining. Everything from Cold Stone Creamery’s non-melting ice cream to the “naturally flavored frozen foam bases” of Cuisine Solutions, says Andrews, owe their existence to El Bulli. And professional collaborations have birthed such unlikely spawn as Fast Good fast food restaurants, a line of Borges vinaigrettes, edible coffee for Lavazza, and even Mediterranean-style Lay’s potato chips (which gave Adrià’s frothy-mouthed detractors some much-needed fodder). Adrià, already in possession of a couple honorary doctorates, even made it to the Ivy League, with a culinary-scientific collaboration between Harvard University and Fundacio Alicià.

Suffice to say, the radius of Adrià’s impact keeps expanding: consumer shelves, academia, fast food, and beyond. The wide world is learning to speak the language of the avant-garde. And in that eager cacophony, the song of El Bulli is muffled.

Reincarnation

El Bulli Restaurant - Roses, Spain
El Bulli Restaurant - Roses, Spain

Of course, it’s much easier to point at dollar signs and bottom lines, to blame the restaurant’s closure on the fiscal impracticalities of the avant-garde. Adrià himself was among the first to admit that money was a problem, telling The New York Times’ Andrew Ferren that both El Bulli and the Taller were gushing upwards of half a million euros per year, and that he and partner Juli Soler would “rather see the money go to something larger that expands the concept and spirit of what El Bulli represents.’’

But if you read between the lines—and what has El Bulli taught us if not to read between the lines—you’ll see much more than financial frustration; you’ll see the fire of greater ambition. El Bulli ushered in a paradigm shift, and in the new paradigm, it has to reinvent itself to stay relevant—to stay at the scintillatingly pure fringe of the creative vanguard. Those half million euros are an investment, an investment Adrià and Soler would rather see go “to something larger,” something that lasts longer than a season, something that reaches more than 8,000 diners a year. That something, they say, will be “a foundation for all avant-garde gastronomy lovers,” a “breeding ground for new ideas and for new talent”—select apprentice chefs, restaurant professionals, but also any creative disciple of the El Bulli creed. Ferran Adrià isn’t “ending” El Bulli. He’s knocking down the shrine to erect a temple.

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