Albert Adria flips excitedly through his newest book, Natura, showing off his favourite dessert creations. He's at the Kee Club in Central, where, last Thursday, he signed copies of the book, showed a short film about the techniques and inspiration that went into it, and another film about the history of a small restaurant in Spain called El Bulli. If you have even a remote interest in the world of fine dining, you will have heard of this restaurant. El Bulli is not just any Michelin three-star restaurant. Voted by chefs, food and beverage professionals and food writers (including this one) to be the best restaurant in the world for two years running by Restaurant magazine, it's also the hardest one to get into, with about 500,000 e-mail requests for the 7,000 seats available during the six-month season. It is also, without doubt, the most creative and influential restaurant in the world. Adria (right) and his better-known brother, Ferran, make what is usually referred to as molecular cuisine. Almost everyone has by now tasted the ubiquitous 'foams' and fruit 'caviars'. Such is El Bulli's reputation for cutting-edge techniques that each year, thousands of experienced chefs apply to work there without pay; in 2003, Kee Club chef Gianluigi Bonelli was one of the few chosen (he's the one who asked Adria to come to Hong Kong for the Natura book launch). Adria is - or was (more on that later) - the pastry chef and creative director of El Taller, the El Bulli laboratory where ideas are worked into something edible; brother Ferran is the chef de cuisine. True to its title, Natura is inspired by nature - and other things. 'Every dessert has a history,' says Adria. 'Roots [mandarin sorbet with chocolate sponge, chocolate and yuzu mousse, black sesame rocks and chocolate roots emerging from 'earth'] is my homage to director Guillermo del Toro, who made [the Oscar winning] Pan's Labyrinth. He's a very good friend. I wanted to make something like a tree in the movie, but it was very difficult, so in the end I turned the tree upside down - this is the roots. Thinking of the dessert took four or five days but the technical part was hard. It took about 10 days [to perfect].' Most people look at falling leaves and see falling leaves. Adria sees them as an idea for something edible. 'Fall landscape [spiced bread crisps with cherry sorbet, muscovado sugar cake, salted yogurt, cocoa gum nuts and Crumiel scarves] came about because in winter, I would walk from the kitchen to my car and I would look down because every day the view is different. It's the time when the seasons change, and I thought, 'This is dessert'. Once you get the idea, the rest comes easily.' El Bulli, on the beautiful Cala Monjoi bay near Roses, along the Costa Brava, started in 1961 as a place for mini-golf. By 1964, it had evolved into a casual restaurant serving simple grilled dishes. Named after the German owner's bulldogs, the restaurant gradually became known for nouvelle cuisine (which was actually new at the time). It had two Michelin stars when a young cook named Ferran Adria joined in 1984. He was made chef de cuisine in 1985 (the same year Albert started at El Bulli, at the age of 15). The Michelin inspectors, thinking a 23-year-old chef was too young to have two stars, removed one. The second star was reinstated in 1990 and by the time the restaurant received its third star six years later, the food world had already noticed the chefs' wildly experimental cuisine. The brothers are known for using kitchen equipment in unusual ways: a compressed air siphon, for example, for making foams, or the siphon and microwave for 'baking' truly spongy sponge cakes. 'Most chefs think of the microwave as a stupid machine, like the siphon. I combine these two machines to create something with an amazing texture,' says Adria. El Bulli's menu - some 30 courses served each night - changes completely from one year to the next, putting much pressure on the creative director, who says, 'I create my own pressure. When people say El Bulli is the best restaurant in the world, you can only go down. When I work in winter [at the laboratory], I might have 1,000 ideas, and out of them, I might make 100 good ones. But every year you become more experienced and there are more successes. Ninety-five per cent of the dishes are very, very difficult, but 5 per cent are orgasmico.' The last word isn't one that needs translation. 'It's orgasmico because I cannot share the experience with anybody, it's only what I feel inside - it's really good.' During the interview, Adria confirms that at the end of the 2008 season he resigned from El Bulli. He had quit once before, in 1997, amid an 'existential crisis', out of which came his first pastry book, the highly acclaimed Los Postres de El Bulli. 'It was a really bad moment for me, I didn't believe in haute cuisine, I didn't believe in anything], I didn't want to work any more. I said, 'I'm going to search for mussels.'' Bonelli and I laugh, thinking it's a Spanish idiom meaning something else entirely, but Adria is serious. 'I talked to Ferran and said, 'I don't want to work any more this season - do you accept this?' In the morning I searched for mussels to eat and in the afternoon I started my book.' In 1997 he stayed away for less than a year, but he says his latest resignation is permanent. 'It's for different [reasons],' he says. 'First, for my family and me. Second, 20 years working at El Bulli - when it's open - I [felt I] lost the freshness, it was becoming automatic. It was the time to make decisions in my life and for my own future. I'm tired of the life [of being an haute cuisine chef]. There is no life, it's only cooking.' He's focusing on his three-year-old tapas bar, Inopia, in Barcelona, and writing a book on traditional Spanish home cooking. 'I want to bring back what we lost a long time ago - food we would eat every day. Rice with rabbit, for example, or pasta with pork ribs. Caracoles [snails] - there are maybe 20 different Spanish recipes. Before, in restaurants, you could eat snails, but now it's very difficult. With the young generation we've lost the traditional side. But it's changing. I was the first [Michelin-star chef to open a traditional restaurant] but others are [doing likewise]. Carlos Gaig has a one-star Michelin [called Gaig] - he opened La Fonda and it's full every day. Fermi Puig of Drolma, which is very expensive - he opened Petit Comite, which has 200 people every day. At Inopia, it costs about Euro22 (HK$232) to eat. We have 150 people every night and 13 workers. At El Bulli, there are 50 people every night and 70 workers. The tapas bar is more relaxing, the food is no problem. I like to eat it and Ferran is my best customer. Every two weeks, minimum, he comes. 'At first, people thought it was a new place from El Bulli, but it's a bar. We serve potatoes, anchovies, beer - but no foam. In this place, I'm the maximum purist - it's 100 per cent traditional. I make patatas bravas and my patatas bravas are the best I've tried. It's not a gastro-bar, just a bar. When I serve anchovies, it's just bread with anchovies on top; in a gastro-bar, it would be toast with anchovy, balsamico, black olive. Journalists want to define your food - molecular gastronomy, gastro-bar, traditional. In the end, you're either a bad cook or a good cook.'