I ate at elBulli this year which means there is only one answer to the question: “What was the best meal you experienced in 2011?” It’s an obvious choice. And a truthful one. After diligently submitting my annual reservation request for over a decade and promptly receiving my rejection a few months later each time, I was accustomed to the weary bitterness of denial. My only comfort was knowing millions of others wallowed in the same exhausting disappointment, our collective angst padding the bruising impact of the rejection-email wallop. With elBulli closing its doors forever in 2011, this year’s reservation request felt bittersweet. No longer having to swallow the sour pill of rejection would do wonders for my psyche, but it also vanquished the flame of hope I tended to that somehow burned bright enough year after agonizing year to inspire another reservation request.
And then it arrived. At long last, just shy of losing the opportunity forever, I received news that a table awaited me at elBulli. The timing could not have been more serendipitous since elBulli was writing their staff meals cookbook at the same time my co-writer and I were writing our own. Fortified by one miracle, I decided to ask the universe for another. It arrived after my visit to Roses in the form of Ferran Adria agreeing to write the foreword to our cookbook. It also resulted in this interview with Chef Adria preceding the dinner that I shared with the British photographer Jason Lowe who was with me in Spain to shoot two other legendary Spanish restaurants for the book. Chef Adria told me during our conversation that “the spirit of elBulli is happiness. The food is more than just eating. It’s a part of life.” I feel tremendously grateful after all those years of waiting that it at finally became a part of mine.
An Interview with Ferran Adria:
You have said that you have to actively look for inspiration. How does the process begin for you?
It’s very different when you’re talking about working on a team or working alone. Particularly with regard to creativity. When you’re on your own, you have to depend upon yourself but when you’re in a team you can depend upon others. There’s compensation in a team environment because someone can be without as much inspiration at a particular time but somebody else will inspire them. There’s constant compensation when you work as a team. The doubts and the questions that you might have are always about the limitations. How far can it go? That’s the perpetual question. You have to ask yourself that question every single day.
Innovation is such a critical factor in your work but history is just as important. How do you strike a balance between the two?
If you don’t know the work of elBulli you can’t contextualize what we’re presently doing. You have to know everything we’ve done in the past to move forward in the present. If you don’t know the work of the eight or nine creators of nouvelle cuisine, you can’t contextualize the work of the present. Everyone talks about everything and they talk and they talk, but explain what happened at elBulli in 1995 and maybe two or three people will be able to answer that. Tell me the types of construction that exist? They have the books here, everything is accessible to them, and yet they do not know the answer. It’s very difficult to have the time to do homework, particularly where society is at the moment, with so much information available to us. You don’t have the time to organize it and choose what is relevant and will legitimately benefit your work.
You will try over 45 dishes tonight. Before we started serving these dishes, did anyone else? You have to ask yourself that question all the time. Our menu is very Japanese in style with several dishes being served. At least that’s what they say. But it’s not true. In Japan, they will give you eight or nine dishes. They might give you sushi but you will receive twenty of the same thing. The Japanese are actually more inspired by the traditional Spanish style tapas. That’s why we started serving this very long menu. I’ve never seen this in writing, this idea that Japanese inspiration comes from tapas but I believe it.
You believe that vigilant work fosters creativity. How so?
In general, you can’t talk about elBulli dish by dish. You have to consider the menu as an overall concept. I normally don’t talk about this type of thing but because we’re closing, I consider it a good moment to recognize this because during the next two to three years we’re not going to be doing anything new so this is a good time to analyze what we’ve done and where we are headed.
It’s one thing to create, it’s another thing to analyze. We have a series of books which document everything we’ve created. We self-analyze. You can’t look at creativity as a game. Perhaps it’s my fault that we have been quite frivolous with the idea of creativity but creativity requires hard work. It is not simply something innate that emerges out of thin air.
What do you hope to accomplish through the work of the elBulli Foundation?
The basis of The Foundation is structured around our team. You have to understand the history of elBulli to understand the work of The Foundation in relation to creativity. Up until 1993 we were a standard restaurant. People ate here, they liked it, and because of this they returned. From 1994 onward, the feedback become secondary. We began to create to create instead of doing what we thought had to be done to receive positive feedback. This was something new. The idea was that we were doing whatever we wanted to do, the feedback was considered interesting but it was irrelevant. Our only concern was to do what we wanted to do.
When we started adding a sense of humor and began to provoke people it was something new. People don’t typically go to restaurants to be provoked. There were many components to this new language and we needed a new setting in order to continue to develop this language. In 1998 we developed a workshop. In 2001 we began closing during the day. The menu disappeared in 2002. We were the first restaurant, at least in Europe, to take away the menu. This gave us freedom. In 1993 we redid the kitchen. It was completely refurbished, giving us more space and allowing us more freedom in the kitchen. In 1997 we started closing for six months per year and all of these changes were done to give us more freedom to create, to allow us to continue creating.
In 2007 or 8 we started to feel that we needed to make another change. That’s when we decided that we wanted to take a two year break to give us time to think about what we wanted to do. No one believed it and everyone was speculating what was going to happen. We had to make a decision to explain it before we actually had planned to explain it in order to calm all of the unexpected press and speculation.
This is one aspect of it. Another is that life has its moments and its history and its system. Sometimes you’re in the system and sometimes you’re out of the system. Someone is put in jail and they’re out of the system. There’s also a system in the industry. No matter how good the system is, there will come a time when the system wants to get rid of you. This is normal. I don’t think that anyone has won the Oscar twice for example because the system does not allow it. ElBulli has almost become a monster. The system was beginning to give and because you can’t change the system, I’ve decided to leave the system for a while.
The restaurant is closing so that we no longer have to worry about Michelin or awards or reservations or anything else. We are choosing a more relaxed setting. At the moment we are not causing a problem to the system but our decision is good for the system. This decision will force the system to look at itself to ask the question, “What has happened? What are we going to do now?”
The Foundation will create a global experience. It will no longer just be three hours of sitting in the restaurant. There are endless possibilities. You can take an aperitif to the beach for example. This option no longer makes it a restaurant. It makes you think, “What are the other possibilities?”
We can create on our own time and we will decide when we are ready to start receiving feedback. We can go for a month without serving anybody. Anything and everything will be possible. What is the problem with this? The one problem is that we might not have the discipline that is required. The six month system of knowing that we had to open and that we would have to present at the end of a six month period put pressure on us to create. Now knowing that we will be able to do what we like whenever we like it makes it more difficult. If you don’t have the deadline as such, you can become a bit blase about it. I’ve therefore created my own pressure. Every day, I’m going to post on the internet what we’re doing. This will force us to perpetually create.
Why a foundation?
They are not seen the same here as they are in other parts of the world. A foundation is considered a strange concept in this country. I could have created a business out of it. For example, by posting recipes on the internet etc., but creativity has never been about business. I’m not going to make a business out of creativity. There’s a social perspective to it. We feel like we can offer the talent that we have to the culinary world. It’s an enjoyable format, a pleasant format from which to continue with our work of creativity. Those are the reasons behind The Foundation.
How do you suspect your life will change once elBulli closes and The Foundation is started?
The ten core members of the team are another reason for starting The Foundation. When we began years ago, we were single, we didn’t have children. Now we all have families so in order to continue, we needed to change the format. In general, we will now be able to go home at half past seven, for example. Perhaps in five years time, we will be able to replace these ten core members, but currently they are the ones who understand the language of elBulli and learning this language is work onto itself.
It’s a very complex situation. We have been at the forefront of everything for 25 years. That is an extremely long period of time. In order to be honest with ourselves, we have to change. We could continue doing this forever. We will always have new people coming in to visit elBulli. They would not know if it was new or not. It would be very difficult to create another elBulli. We could continue in this way for ten years, just as we are now. We could double the price of the menu and people would still come, wealthier people, but people would still come. But we feel as if this would kill the spirit of elBulli. We see elBulli as a way of understanding life, it’s a matter of spirit, it’s not about making money.
The spirit of elBulli is happiness. The food is more than just eating. It’s a part of life.
When do you know a dish is ready?
It’s very difficult to explain. It’s when you can’t go any further and you’ve come to the end of the process. It gets to a point where, because it is all very subjective, you have to say, “Enough, this is it.” Every dish has to have a route, a trajectory. If it’s not going be new, it doesn’t deserve being at elBulli. It has to be slowly developed. It’s not just the technique.
This is the first time we’ve been open in the winter. It depends upon the seasonal product which we haven’t worked with before so now we’re creating very different things than we ever have before. A new technique might be a route that we follow but it’s not the only thing. We are perhaps trying to provoke a certain reaction or desire or incite laughter.
The menu is like a film. There are around 45 dishes and every dish is its own scene. There’s time for everything in a film. They cry, they kill somebody, they laugh, they fall in love, but if you’re always killing somebody it gets a little old. If it was always the same scene, always the same theme, it would get old. Good films are more balanced and so we ask ourselves what type of film we want to create? It depends upon the moment, it depends upon your mood. During the 25 years that we’ve been doing this, there may have been times when we’ve gone for a certain genre. You don’t receive bread and butter at elBulli. You haven’t traveled thousands of kilometers to receive bread and butter or to watch a movie you’ve seen a thousand times before.
What makes the movie of elBulli unique?
The first 45 minutes for me in a restaurant are very important. What’s normal in a restaurant? You’re greeted, you sit down, they give you the menu. They might give you something to snack on while you’re waiting up to a half an hour but nothing basically goes on for half an hour. It’s like going to the theater and sitting down and waiting for a half an hour for the movie to begin.
It’s a ritual that happens in restaurants around the world. In a formal restaurant, where there are two courses and a dessert, it’s logical. But why? Because otherwise this experience would last only a half an hour. The cheese trolley comes out, this keeps people there for a half an hour longer. It’s a fantastic device to lengthen the experience. You can then be there for two hours having eaten two courses, the dessert, and the cheese. You’re there for two hours but these devices just serve to extend everything.
At elBulli this isn’t the case. You’re coming here for a different experience. You’re not looking for the thing you expect at most of the other restaurants. We started the snacks and the cocktails to change this.
What do you think the legacy of elBulli will be?
I have no idea. Time is the only thing that will tell us this answer. Over the past 25 years, people have often asked this question but they have always said that time will tell and we won’t know until we get there but now, 25 years on, we feel that elBulli, not specifically me, will have its place in history. In what role? We will have to wait and see. Even our enemies, and we have a few, understand that elBulli has created a movement that has changed things. Nobody can deny that.
Will you be collaborating with other chefs in this new incarnation of elBulli?
Every year we will have people collaborating with each other. It will be similar to a grant type of selection process, but it will not just be for young people. It will be for the most creative people. There will be an exam and a selection process, which will be very difficult. It will be a Harvard type selection process. The success of the project depends upon this talent.
What will the criteria be?
You have to be creative. We know what we’re looking for. This is another new aspect of the elBulli Foundation compared with other places. Normally the number one priority when you’re hiring for a restaurant is that you want people to work hard, but our number one priority is that we want them to be creative. This will be the first time that chefs are cooking without having a restaurant to cook for. Obviously there are chefs in large companies that do this but in the world of cuisine, in the restaurant industry, this will be the first time.
This hasn’t happened for 220 years. It creates new possibilities for the chefs. They cooked for kings and for noblemen and so on, but it wasn’t until more or less 220 years ago when the first restaurant was created that a new stage began in history. For the past 220 years, if you were a chef, you were most likely working in a restaurant. It was intrinsic to the industry. But Careme never worked in a restaurant. And we are returning back to the beginning.
Dinner at elBulli: