Former El Bulli creative director is conjuring up new restaurants

Albert Adria was the creative force behind his brother Ferran's fame. Now the former El Bulli chef is winning praise by conjuring up new restaurants of his own, writes Andrew Sun

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 11:11am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 11:11am

Ferran Adria is famous as the chef of storied Spanish restaurant El Bulli, but plenty of self-professed foodies know very little about his younger brother Albert, who worked alongside Ferran as creative director of the El Bulli laboratory.

By all accounts, it was Albert who spearheaded the renowned restaurant's cutting-edge innovations, technical breakthroughs and clever plating. Ferran was the conceptual genius but Albert was the mad scientist and artist - though he prefers not be called that.

Restaurants are not traditional or molecular -- they are simply good or bad
Albert Adria 

"The words art and science are dangerous when you talk about the kitchen. We're artisans," Adria says, during a recent sojourn in Hong Kong as guest chef at Catalunya restaurant in Wan Chai.

"To talk about food as art is not for me. This is my work and the most technological machine I use is my hand."

Perhaps American celebrity chef David Chang, of Momofuku, hit the nail on the head when he provocatively analogised: "If Ferran is God, then Albert is Jesus."

As a 15-year-old school dropout, Adria joined El Bulli in 1985, a year after his older brother, and soon developed the aptitude and precision needed to be the head pastry chef.

As the restaurant's renown grew, it is reportedly Albert who conjured the most magical of food feats and engineered Ferran's culinary blueprint into reality, all the while remaining quiet behind the scenes.

Other than a six-month sabbatical in 1997, Albert remained at Catalonia's mecca of molecular gastronomy until he embarked on his own project in 2008, publishing a book of desserts called Natura.

Three years later, Ferran retired from El Bulli for good. But the brothers never really separated. Ferran is still a partner in every one of Albert's ventures.

"To cook is an attitude, it's not just recipes," Adria muses. "Every day you wake up, you have to think about what you're doing correct and incorrect. For that, you have to work hard and have a really good team."

He doesn't accept many guest chef gigs, but Adria agreed to Catalunya primarily because several of the staff - including executive chef Alain Devahive Tolosa - are old mates and former El Bulli colleagues.

"Tonight is a party. Through the kitchen, I want to make a celebration with them," he says. "It's not easy to travel this far but I see how Catalunya has progressed and its success. It's good for promoting the Catalan culture and the country, too." Adria's menu featured 28 courses, including classics from El Bulli, such as the spherical olive and tempura pistachios.

The rest of the bite-sized offerings were subdivided into Made in Spain, From the Sea, From the Land and Desserts. The HK$2,700 meal on January 3 was sold out weeks in advance and was a far cry from the more traditional tapas and suckling pig Catalunya usually serves.

The restaurant billed Adria as the "magician of the moment", a moniker lifted from the headline of a recent Time magazine profile.

Indeed, while there is plenty of trickery in his playful, modernist meal, no chef actually wants to be labelled a molecular gastronome any more. The term is so ridiculed and bastardised, it's more of a stigma than a compliment.

"I don't think of restaurants as traditional or molecular," Adria says. "There is only two styles - good or bad."

Whatever you call it, the cuisine evokes strong polar reactions. Advocates admire the inventive mix of taste, texture and flavour combinations. Detractors think it's pretentious and loathe the idea of eating foam and chemically altered blobs.

The backlash was evident when critics blasted this year's Michelin rating team for giving three stars to Hong Kong's Bo Innovation, arguing Alvin Leung's "X-treme Chinese" cuisine is not worthy of the accolade.

Ironically, the same techniques championed by the modernists are now used in more and more non-molecular restaurants. Sous vide - cooking meat in vacuum-sealed plastic bags over a low heat bath - was a technique revived by chefs such as Ferran, Albert and Heston Blumenthal. Now, it's common in kitchens worldwide.

In Hong Kong, Lab Made built a popular business through selling ice cream frozen by liquid nitrogen. Even Harlan Goldstein's Comfort, a new casual dining eatery in Central, has adopted some molecular razzle-dazzle with a nitrogen dessert of the day on the menu.

"I honestly feel the term 'molecular gastronomy' is mostly misunderstood," Bo's Leung says. "It is not a style of cooking. Rather, it is a philosophy which encourages chefs to be more creative."

The modernist fraternity is small, so Adria and Leung know each other well. ("He's a good guy and a good friend," Adria says.)

As one of the movement's key pioneers, Adria masterminded many radical concoctions and culinary inventions in his 23 years at El Bulli. But he's also witnessed first-hand the ups and downs of unleashing the molecular beast onto the industry.

"In Spain in the 1990s, there was a big explosion of modernist cuisine restaurants, because all the guests were expecting and asking for avant-garde molecular," Adria says. "Back then, avant-garde restaurants were the elite. Every chef thought he could open a molecular gastronomy restaurant and that was a mistake.

"Thanks to the economic crisis in Spain, many of them died. It's impossible to do a big restaurant when you're younger. There are only an exceptional few who can do this, including El Bulli."

In person, Adria does not look like a chef. On the day we meet he isn't wearing chef whites. Working on a laptop at Catalunya's bar, he blends into the afternoon crowd. When he does talk about food, his enthusiasm exceeds his ability to express his ideas in English, and he constantly reverts to Spanish.

He acknowledges that haute cuisine is not meant to be eaten every day. "At this moment, a lot of people don't like molecular gastronomic restaurants. But I think it's like clothes. You wear your ordinary clothes every day but only on special days do you wear your best clothes. You eat every day but you eat a special meal only once a week or so."

Everything about Adria suggests a maverick. The year he took off from El Bulli he spent selling mussels. He dabbles as a filmmaker, having made the documentary A Day in El Bulli in 2009 and promotional shorts for his restaurants. In 2010, he came close to directing a feature film until the financing fell through. He went back to food and beverage, opening a tapas joint Tickets and a cocktail bar 41 Degrees (now called 41 Degrees Experience) in Barcelona.

With his reputation, Adria could easily brand himself and open franchises around the world. Instead, all his restaurants are within a two-block area. Yet the food spans the globe in inspiration.

Last year, he opened Pakta (a Japanese-Peruvian eatery), Bodega 1900 (an homage to old-style Spanish bars) and, most recently, Yauarcan (a Mexican restaurant).

"It's my choice to stay in Barcelona," Adria says. "My name gives me opportunities, but with every restaurant I only have one chance. If people come and they don't like it, then forget it, they won't come back. It's simple. You have to be authentic but you have to please customers. If not, you'll close in six months.

"Something a lot of chefs don't understand is that their job is not finished when the dish goes out. It is only finished when the plate comes back. Normally, they think, 'Oh, the dish looks nice', and forget about it.

"If one dish comes back full then, OK, the customer is wrong. If four come back full, then the chef is wrong."

Adria has visited China four times. Could a Chinese restaurant be his next venture?

"After eating dim sum this morning, I think, 'Why not Chinese in Barcelona?'" he says. "Chinese is one of the best and most important cuisines in the world. I was told there are at least 6,000 different recipes in China. In Catalonia, I think we have 300 to 400. I am astonished.

"After this trip, I want to create an homage to Chinese food, maybe do a goose feet dish based on one I had for dim sum. But I will probably just serve it to friends and not put it on a menu. I don't think there will be a market for it from customers."

For Adria, fame and fortune are not priorities. More important are personal and customer satisfaction. With a single-minded passion in pursuing creativity, it's a surprise he only received his own first Michelin stars last year (one each for Tickets and 41 Degrees Experience), not that he really cares about them.

"You never work to get recognition like Michelin stars. You work to get the restaurant full. In the end, what is important is the customer being happy and that the place is busy.

"But the guides are good if you top the lists. You never hear them say these guides are crap.

"Years ago the only way to get reviewed was by these books and printed guides, but now if you search online, you have the whole world, thanks to things like TripAdvisor.

"That's the new reality."

Then, he laughs and adds: "Although, of the Barcelona Top 10, I haven't heard of half of them."