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Ferran Adria: a man with a very big plan

Three years after closing his El Bulli restaurant, chef Ferran Adria finds himself busier than ever, writes Susan Jung

 

Ferran Adria is answering questions at the "In Conversation With …" event held earlier this month at the Kelly & Walsh bookstore in Pacific Place, and I, as chief moderator, get the signal that we have five minutes to wind things down. Fellow moderator Fergus Fung (one of the founders of food magazine WOM Guide), asks a seemingly simple question, "Can you tell us more about Bullipedia?"

The short answer could have taken five minutes. But Adria doesn't give the short answer. Instead, he grabs a marker and sketches outlines of the Americas, Africa, Europe, Australia and Asia on a whiteboard behind us, saying, "In order to understand Bullipedia, we need to study how the world began …"

Twenty minutes later, after taking us through the neolithic period (when clay was created, and our ancestors started using it to make cooking utensils), the birth of agriculture and ranching, the origin of beer (not in Belgium, as many people believe, but in Egypt), the Roman civilisation and a lot of other subjects, Adria says, "At Bullipedia, what are we trying to do? We want you to understand all this. The job we're doing at Bullipedia is to see how to archive all this information."

By "all this information", Adria means everything the world knows about cuisine.

Adria, in case you didn't know, is arguably the most creative and influential chef in the Western world. For five years, his restaurant, El Bulli, in Roses, Spain, topped the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. It was open for only six months of the year, receiving up to two million requests for the 8,000 covers available each season.

Watch: Ferran Adria speaks with Susan Jung

The rest of the time Adria and his team spent creating techniques and dishes, such as faux caviar, microwaved cakes and "air" (lighter than the oh-so-common foam), that have been popularised by the chefs of other restaurants who worked at El Bulli as stagiaires (unpaid cooks). Adria closed El Bulli in 2011 but his influence is still being felt: on the 2014 list of the 50 Best Restaurants, the chefs of the top three places - Noma (in Denmark), El Celler de Can Roca (in Spain) and Osteria Francescana (in Italy) - all worked for him as stagiaires.

Adria is in Hong Kong as the draw card for a dinner at Aberdeen Street Social (its chef, Jason Atherton, was one of those who "staged" at El Bulli), the second of four El Bulli-inspired meals organised by the Financial Times in conjunction with Phaidon Press. The meal is costing each diner US$1,495, which includes a copy of Adria's latest work, the seven-volume compendium El Bulli 2005-2011, which weighs 18kg and has a list price of £425 (HK$5,600).

"[This type of event] is useful for me to get a feel for what's going on in the world," says Adria, before the meal. "Coming for these two days to Hong Kong is a fantastic experience because this is a city that's worth coming to once a year, to see how it's going. Hong Kong sets a lot of the trends for the rest of the world.

"But these events are also useful because they're a way for me to get to know a city and to get a feel for it. Every time we're presenting to 100 of the most important people of a country or city the El Bulli Foundation, and that's an important way to get feedback."

I heard about the foundation the first time I interviewed Adria, during one of the final celebratory meals at the restaurant in Roses. Adria described the ambitious project as a "think tank" for chefs who would spend their time in the El Bulli kitchens, collaborating on ideas that anyone could then access by looking at the website. He planned on launching it this year, but it's clear that, in the intervening years, Adria's ambitions have grown enormously.

"It's been three years since you came to the restaurant, and the El Bulli project has changed drastically," says Adria. "When the El Bulli Foundation began, it was just one project and now there are three.

"There's El Bulli 1846 [named after the year French chef Auguste Escoffier was born] - that is the site of El Bulli now, and it is a cultural project [centred on] creativity, cooking and El Bulli. It will be 8,000 square metres of narration and it's a very significant, large project.

"Then we have El Bulli DNA - which was the [original idea behind] the El Bulli Foundation. It's an observatory for creativity - a creative team that changes every year. We'll have everything from philosophers to designers and cooks. We will work on the creative process and the language we will use to do that is one of cooking, because that's what we are - cooks. Everything that is created will be disseminated over the internet. Everything - not dishes, but ideas, concepts, techniques; a lot of it will be contextualisation."

Finally, there's Bullipedia, which is named after Wikipedia. Adria says, "Bullipedia exists within a project called SeaUrching. It's a play on words between 'searching' and 'sea urchin'. That's the project we are most focused on right now."

SeaUrching, as I understand it (and it is difficult, because Adria talks very fast and has a tendency to go off on a tangent), is a humungous (and I use that word carefully) project that, if it is ever finished, will encompass all the knowledge about every subject imaginable. As part of his research, Adria says, he plans to go to Seattle, to visit Microsoft, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is scheduled to visit the El Bulli taller (workshop/laboratory) in Barcelona, Spain.

"Bullipedia will be the first prototype of SeaUrching. From here on out we can do whatever we want," says Adria. "We could have a SeaUrching for the consumer who cooks at home, but that would be different from a SeaUrching for a professional cook. We could have a SeaUrching for tourism, we could have a SeaUrching on nanotechnology. For all the disciplines that exist on Wikipedia, we could have a SeaUrching. The whole SeaUrching project could take on a dimension we can't even fathom right now.

"It's a whole new approach to what education should be like in the future, and it has nothing to do with cooking. This was not in the script when I talked to you about the El Bulli Foundation in 2011; this was not even on my mind. From the time you visited until today, the project has been multiplied by 10. We're in what can be called a conceptual trial and error phase.

"Bullipedia is a very complex matter because it's a reflection on the world of the internet. After Yahoo, Google and Wikipedia, what comes next? The last different internet project was Wikipedia, and that was 10 years ago. In 10 years, no new format has emerged."

In the mid-1990s, when Adria began to change the way he cooked from classic French to the experimental, modernist cuisine of deconstruction, spherification, foams and air that he's best known for, his efforts were met with mixed reactions, he says.

"At El Bulli, the most important thing was not the techniques. It was the attitude that we obliged people to come eat with. For the first time, people [who ate there] hated a restaurant. And why? Because we required them to do something that wasn't in the normal framework. We did provocation, irony, things that weren't normal [at a restaurant], and all of this made you think about life. At El Bulli, there was no middle ground - either you hated it or you loved it. And that is another level of creativity because it's a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift only happens every several years."

He sites another paradigm shift: that when he graced the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2003, as part of an article that basically claimed Spain had taken France's mantle as the place to find daring, innovative food.

"It was an historic front page, not because I was on it, but because of what it meant. It was a whole change of paradigm in cooking. Nowadays, cooking is worldwide - Latin America, the Scandinavian countries, Asia. But 10 years ago, gastronomy was just [in] France. [The story wasn't saying] that French cuisine is dead but that France needs to understand that the world is a big place and there are amazing people.

"Just yesterday, we were at a restaurant - Ronin [the Matt Abergel izakaya in Sheung Wan]. It was fantastic, an extremely high level. There are so many good cooks in the world and the level has risen.

"Sometimes you hear about creativity and innovation like they're no big thing," says Adria. "But the world evolves because of this. When Homo habilis appeared and performed the first innovation - the first stone tools - that changed the world. And when we are analysing the history of mankind, it has always been creativity that changed it. Electricity, the theory of relativity, everything comes down to creativity. And when it comes to creativity in cooking, it's the only field where that is under debate, which is incredible. I know of no other field in the world where they debate whether they should have innovation.

"One of the [conclusions] I've come to is that since everyone eats, everyone feels bold enough to give their opinion. If I were to talk to you about nanotechnology, would you be bold enough to [argue with] me about it? But [everyone] would feel comfortable to talk to me about cooking. It's fascinating.

"Just the other day I was speaking to Rene Redzepi [of Noma] and we said El Bulli could never happen again because of the internet. We were at it for 15 years, in which they left us in peace. We could do whatever we wanted but, nowadays, that's unthinkable. I created cooking conferences [for chefs, to get together to exchange ideas] because I thought it was so very important to share. But now, with the internet, that's happening in seconds. The most important social media platform in the world is not Facebook; it's food.

"David Lai [chef of On Lot 10 and Bistronomique, and another moderator at the Kelly & Walsh event] has given me the best thought I've heard about El Bulli in a long time. He asked, 'What would have happened to cuisine if El Bulli had not existed?'

"No one remembers that, up to 1993, for four centuries, absolutely everything in terms of Western gastronomy happened in France. It's a very interesting question, it's a science-fiction question. When I think about what we did in 1995, even [by today's standards] El Bulli is avant garde. That's when you realise what El Bulli meant."

 

 

 

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