Who will succeed celebrity chef Ferran Adrià?

The genius behind the Catalan restaurant elBulli has produced an entire school of thought

Jesús Ruiz Mantilla

In the prestigious San Pellegrino Best Restaurant list, four of the top 10 chefs have spent time behind the scenes at Ferran Adría’s former restaurant elBulli, located in a remote part of Catalonia, near the French border. There’s Massimo Bottura, who runs the world’s top-rated Osteria Francescana in Italy, and the Roca brothers from El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, which ranks second.

Ferran Adrià (l) with Andoni Luis Aduriz and Ferran's brother Albert.
Ferran Adrià (l) with Andoni Luis Aduriz and Ferran's brother Albert.Caterina Barjau

And there is also Noma’s René Redzepi from Denmark, as well as Andoni Aduriz who heads Mugaritz, in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa. And if one looks further down the list among the top 50, quite a few more elBulli apprentices turn up.

But Ferran Adrià’s true legacy to haute cuisine goes far beyond best-restaurant lists – it encompasses an entire philosophy and approach to life, one that is revolutionary in the purest sense of the word.

Ferran and Arzak, together with Albert Adrià and Aduriz, are still leading the revolution in Spanish cuisine

Nothing has been the same on the global gastronomy scene since the world-famous elBulli became one of Spain’s most unlikely success stories. Tucked away in a remote cove on the Girona coast and open for just six months out of the year – and then for dinner only – elBulli challenged the perceived supremacy of French cuisine with a cry for creative freedom.

Its status as the world’s best restaurant continued unchallenged for an entire decade until Adrià decided to close it down in July 2011. These days, it is a case study in business schools, which hail it as a miracle.

Slightly weary of ovens and stoves, Adrià has come to terms with both elBulli’s success and closure, reinventing himself by turning his attention to investigation and research.

In Adrià’s opinion, the scope of cuisine as a cultural and experimental phenomenon needs to be explored and, to this end, he has embarked on the interpretation of history through food.

The elBulli workshop is a space for research and creativity supported by the Telefónica Foundation.
The elBulli workshop is a space for research and creativity supported by the Telefónica Foundation.Caterina Barjau

These days he spends his time in a vast workshop in Barcelona, near Montjuïc, where he has surrounded himself with biochemists, anthropologists, graphic designers, engineers, nutritionists, art history scholars, audiovisual technicians, sommeliers and, of course, chefs with different areas of expertise.

Working to a (more or less) strict timetable, Adrià directs the operation from a plastic chair that commands a view of audiovisual rooms, meeting spaces, maps with formulas that include lists of tasks, and an archive where documents are stored, including the relics of an impressive past, old accounts and other details that have escaped the trash.

“We are getting to grips with the essence of cooking. Most of us are chefs; we need to dig into the why of things,” says Ferran, with the expression of a permanently inquisitive lizard. “What are we doing? Should we create? Should we reproduce objects like artisans do? Should we communicate? Is it important to deconstruct food and cut open the melon, as it were? I don’t know if we have invented anything. Nor can we go around with preconceived notions, when it turns out that the croquette is not Spanish and green sauce is not Basque.”

From time to time, Adrià’s most revolutionary successors come to join him at the workshop: his younger brother Albert Adrià, who inspired the chic Barcelona eatery Tickets, and Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef at Mugaritz in Gipuzkoa.

Their method is to bombard themselves constantly with questions about the most obscure details and query everything

They are all on the same wavelength but all this thinking could drive one mad; this method of constantly bombarding themselves with questions about the most obscure details, questioning everything, from the most innovative invention to the most hackneyed concept.

“We should use our freedom to exercise our critical faculties,” says Aduriz. “We have been slaves to the established line. What elBulli did was to break the rules, taking them all apart.”

“Our focus is on the generation that is now between 15 and 17 years old,” says Adrià. “We should try to inspire them to be better than us. If there had been a previous generation helping us to think outside the box in the 1990s, we wouldn’t have had to question so many things.”

Is there hope then for the millennium babies, those fast-food victims and prisoners of pre-packaged fare? “The future can be found to a great extent in the past,” explains Adrià, whose bold decision to close the restaurant triggered a new and personally rewarding phase in his life, including lectures at Harvard University.

Inside elBulliLab, 80 people research culinary history alongside brands such as Dom Pérignon
Inside elBulliLab, 80 people research culinary history alongside brands such as Dom PérignonCaterina Barjau

The overarching goal is to ensure that his replacements, the people who will carry on his legacy, will be better than himself. “I’m excited to see that this is now happening,” he says.

Nowadays, he enjoys exploring the mystery of the scallop as a hermaphrodite element, or understanding which of the 3,000-plus different varieties of tomato can be considered natural.

“It’s basically doing an autopsy to discover what no one can see…” he explains, while Aduriz insists on the importance of asking specific questions. “That’s where you get clarity,” he says.

“The big mistake that has come back to haunt us is letting people believe elBulli was just a restaurant when it was more R&D,” says Ferran, whose projects now receive funding from the Telefónica Foundation.

The complexity of elBulliLab makes this all too obvious, as do the diverse paths taken by Adrià’s successors. “Albert has run with the prêt-à-porter aspect of what we were doing, and Andoni has taken the most avant-garde route. We weren’t sure at first if taking elBulli to the people would be possible. But Albert showed us it was,” says Ferran.

Nothing has been the same since that unlikely venture tucked away on the Girona coast shook up the restaurant world

“Put simply, we are interested in the mystery of things. I have wondered at times why some people were so bothered by what we did.” Particularly because, as far as experimentation was concerned, Adrià had set clear limits. “If what we came up with didn’t make people happy, then it wasn’t worth it,” explains Aduriz.

This is something they also learned from their mentors, particularly Juan Mari Arzak. “At 74, he’s still out there with his edgy avant-garde approach. It’s an ongoing lesson,” says Adrià.

But the famous Basque chef was also able to learn a thing or two from tasting elBulli’s concoctions. They left him feeling unsettled, as if there was something escaping him, and he needed to understand what it was. So he decided to stick around to watch Adrià at work for 15 days – 15 days that were to mark the start of a long, close partnership.

Together with Albert Adrià and Aduriz, Ferran and Arzak continue to lead the Spanish cuisine revolution that kicked off in the 1990s. They move it forward one step at a time, without losing sight of the need to be constantly creative – a goal that has radically changed the face of cuisine around the world.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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