FERRAN ADRIA IS not one for false modesty, but why should he be? elBulli, his now-closed restaurant in Roses, Spain, received a reported 500,000 requests for its 8,000 available seats during the six months it was open each year.
Most of his contemporaries would agree that he is the most innovative chef in the world. Cooks who worked in the elBulli kitchen or the Taller, the workshop in Barcelona where much of the culinary experimentation and innovation took place, either as stagiaires (unpaid workers) or as paid staff, have gone on to open their own Michelin-star establishments. They include Rene Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark; Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain; and Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy.
Hong Kong has at least four chefs who worked there: Uwe Opocensky, executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental, Paco Roncero of View 62 by Paco Roncero, Gianluigi Bonelli of GE at the Luxe Manor, and Alain Devahive Tolosa of Catalunya, which opened earlier this week in Wan Chai.
"There are people who have never been to elBulli but they've listened to me at a [culinary] conference and it changed their lives," says Adria, sitting down at Catalunya. The chef was in Hong Kong earlier this month for the Sotheby's auction of the contents of the elBulli cellar and other memorabilia - the first of two auctions, the second taking place on April 26 in New York. The chance to dine with Adria in Barcelona was also auctioned for HK$180,000, not including the 22.5 per cent buyer's premium.
"The phenomenon of elBulli is incredible," says Adria. "It's not only the kitchen. Designers, architects, a lot of creative people, for them elBulli is the reference, but why? Freedom. The most important thing is the freedom, risk and liberty to create. If elBulli can do this, why not us?"
Opocensky can't praise his time at elBulli highly enough. He had been executive chef at the Aberdeen Marina Club, but left his position in 2006 to spend six months as an elBulli stagiaire, going back the following year for another three weeks. "The first few days there were terrifying," he recalls. "It was so unfamiliar. Everything you think you know as a chef you just do not know. There's nothing they do that you would recognise as something anybody else would do. It's like your first day in the kitchen. You throw out everything you know. You break down rules - don't assume, ask, look at it and make it your own."
It took Opocensky a little time to stand out from the rest of the pack.
"I was there for three weeks and was put on a section with an Italian chef who had been there for four years. They came across some Asian ingredients - banana flowers, different types of soy sauce - which they didn't really understand. I told the Italian chef I had worked in Asia and explained what to do with banana flowers," he says.
"Ferran saw what I was doing and asked who I was. He came over and the Italian chef explained what I was doing. All of a sudden, everything changed. He invited me to be part of his research and development team. I learned so much, he really showed me everything."
By the time Opocensky had applied for a stage position at elBulli, his application was just one of thousands from cooks eager to work there.
It was a very different situation when Catalunya chef, Devahive Tolosa, first went to elBulli in 1994 for work experience while he was still in culinary school, before returning two years later, this time as paid staff, spending a total of 10 years there.
"In 1994, elBulli wasn't what it is today. I went there to have dinner with my parents. Juli Soler, the co-owner, asked: 'What are you doing here?' It was winter so there weren't many guests - Roses is a summer town. I said I'm studying the culinary arts and that I was interested in working there. So he took me into the kitchen to present me to Ferran and I was hired to work there. In those days, it was different. Later [at the peak of elBulli], we would get 6,000 applications for 35-40 positions. They were looking for brilliant people - people with good technique and experience, because it was a tasting menu of 45-55 courses. In the last years they were getting stagiaires from Arzak, Alinea, from other famous restaurants."
Devahive Tolosa knew from the start that what he was witnessing at elBulli was revolutionary. "When I went to eat there, I thought: 'I will never have a restaurant like this'. In 1994, that's when all the creativity started at elBulli. That's when they created part of the kitchen for development - it was the seed for the Taller. Working at elBulli was the shock of my life because they had the creativity and liberty to create new dishes - that concept hadn't existed before at any other restaurant in the world.
"At elBulli, I learned a lot of new and innovative techniques, as well as discipline. But the most important thing that elBulli taught me was the way of looking at and understanding cuisine - to get rid of all our pre-established notions. We questioned everything. With this freedom, nothing was disproved but we found that by using different techniques, we could arrive at the same or a better result. My time there taught me to see the restaurant as a whole, where the whole team is responsible for transmitting a united message. A restaurant goes beyond the food, it has to be a global experience."
Opocensky describes his time at elBulli as "life changing". "There are only a few people who rewrite history and Ferran is one of them. At elBulli, I learned that everything is possible. ElBulli was all about creating, breaking down rules and looking at everything differently. Sharing knowledge was another big thing - you learn things much faster. You could say I learned everything there. Your thoughts are free because there is no right or wrong. Without my time at elBulli, I would not be where I am now. It opened a door in the back of my mind, where I could find my own path - the path I am walking on today."
Adria estimates that about 2,500 stagiaires have worked at elBulli since he took over the kitchens in 1987, the majority of them applying when the restaurant received international recognition, such as Michelin stars (it had three), and being number one on the annual list of World's 50 Best Restaurants.
He closed elBulli in 2011, and will turn the restaurant and its beautiful grounds into the elBulli Foundation, where the most creative chefs from around the world, chosen through a rigorous process, will come to work together, exchange ideas and create new techniques and dishes. Much of what they create will be available for the world to see on the foundation's website elbullifoundation.org and on the online culinary reference encyclopedia, Bullipedia bullipedia.com which will launch next year.
"The most important thing at elBulli is to share, to teach, to give knowledge," Adria says.
"We are searching for the limits of the kitchen. With the elBulli Foundation, the important thing is to teach, to make people think. If you think well, you cook well; if you think well, you create well. We have to create creators of new dishes."