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Ferran Adrià: Chef or avant-garde artist?

The qualifier follows him like a surname: Ferran Adrià, Greatest Chef in the World. No one, not England's Gordon Ramsay nor Michelin supermen Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, can credibly claim to have more influence on the world of haute cuisine today.

ElBulli, Mr. Adrià's restaurant on an isolated beach two hours north of Barcelona, is the fountainhead of a futuristic approach to food that pervades the kitchens of young, ambitious chefs everywhere. Foams, airs, fruit juice "caviars," hot gelatins - all techniques and trompe l'oeil concoctions sprung from the ingenious mind of Mr. Adrià, whom Time declared one of the 100 most influential people of our time. In April, elBulli was voted No. 1 restaurant in the world for the third straight year at the S. Pellegrino World's Best Restaurant Awards.

It's also a pilgrimage site for foodies, who partake of 30 to 35 small courses, often eaten by hand or with specially engineered cutlery and presented unconventionally on spoons or, as in the case of the "caviar," in tin cans. At least, it's a pilgrimage site for the lucky few who manage to score a table. Each year, elBulli gets two million requests for 8,000 reservations.

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With the restaurant open just six months of the year, April to October, it amounts to what Mr. Adrià says is a 120-year waiting list. (Should you feel lucky, the reservation line for 2009 opens next Wednesday.)

"People make such a trip, it's a person's gastronomical dream," he says, seated in a hotel armchair in Toronto this week. That pent-up expectation is the reason Mr. Adrià does something most of his wealthier counterparts with TV deals and Las Vegas outposts could not: actually work in the kitchen "99 per cent of the time."

"ElBulli is in a very remote little bay, lost in the world. It would be a lack of respect if Ferran was not there," says the chef, speaking through an interpreter but often making himself understood with the help of expressive hand gestures and facial contortions. (In fine Spanish heterosexual-male fashion, he even blew this reporter a kiss goodbye.)

Mr. Adrià was in Toronto Wednesday to promote A Day at elBulli, his new book. More kitchen diary and photo album than cookbook, and almost as heavy and large as a rump of Iberico ham, it is, he says, a sort of graphic surrogate for 1,992,000 people who each year don't get to slurp raw egg yolks shellacked in caramel or gnaw at a grilled fish carcass wrapped in candy floss that looks like some kind of bizarre aquatic dust bunny.

"Unfortunately, many people will not be able to have dinner at elBulli," says Mr. Adrià, 46. "I felt that we needed to open it up to a wider audience and communicate our ideas."

Taking his manifesto to the broader world through books, public appearances and even chemistry sets for home cooks has become a necessity for Mr. Adrià. ElBulli, whose dishes are dreamed up during the off season in a Barcelona workshop strewn with industrial equipment and books, makes no money. There are 55 cooks for a single seating of 55. Even at an average guest cheque of €300 ($470) a person, including wine, there are ingredients to buy, waiters to pay and centrifuges and cotton candy spinners to upkeep.

If Mr. Adrià is the world's most influential chef, he may also be the most misunderstood, a situation he is constantly attempting to rectify. His embrace of mad-scientist machinery and industrial chemicals to alter textures and appearances has incited the ire of old-school toques. Unconventional flavour combinations, such as cherries dipped in pork fat, are sometimes dismissed as culinary train wrecks.

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To this, Mr. Adrià offers the standard retort: Every avant-garde artist - and he insists elBulli is about experience, not nourishment - must endure the wrath of reactionaries. Besides, however you slice it, cooking is chemistry. "When we see the liquid nitrogen, we see the world of science. But we don't realize that it's just a simple gas, which is used in industry to make ice cream," notes Mr. Adrià.

He didn't start out to offend. A dishwasher in his teens, he joined elBulli at 22, when it was a French restaurant named for its former owners' bulldogs. He soon took over as chef and worked out the "philosophy" that would become so-called molecular cuisine (a label Mr. Adrià rejects) in the mid-1990s. That's when he realized restaurants had not advanced since the early 1970s, when nouvelle cuisine replaced classic waiter-and-cart service with chef-plated dishes.

In 1995, Gault Millau took notice. The French guide awarded elBulli 19 out of 20 points. Then, in 1999, came the divine blessing. Mr. Robuchon, the French genius, declared the Spaniard the world's greatest chef.

Given 400 years of Gallic hegemony in haute cuisine, Mr. Adrià's single-handed influence is staggering. But while such acolytes as Grant Achatz (of Alinea in Chicago) and Heston Blumenthal (of England's The Fat Duck) get more attention here, Mr. Adrià points to Italy as the greatest hotbed of his deconstructivist principles outside Spain. "Probably the country that's nearest to us in this, in what's happening in the cuisine, is Italy."

"All the young chefs in Italy are doing it. Some take just a small part, some take a bigger part, some all of it." Two leading lights, he says, are Moreno Cedroni of the two-Michelin-star Madonnina del Pescatore in Senigallia and Massimo Bottura of the two-Michelin-star Osteria Francescana in Modena. Mr. Adrià calls Mr. Bottura, the courageous crazy man who would serve his countrymen liquid osso bucco, "quite radical. I love what he's doing."

The feeling, no doubt, is mutual.

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Adrià unplugged

Favourite cooking ingredient: "Salt. It's the most magical ingredient in the world."

Favourite things to eat: "Seafood and fruit. The magical thing about fruit is that if you eat fish [while]blindfolded, they'll all taste quite similar. With different kinds of poultry, it's similar. But a strawberry and an apple are completely different."

Least favourite ingredient:

Favourite wine: "Sherry, because it's very different. Then sparkling wine."

On McDonald's: "It's too easy to criticize McDonald's. But give me an alternative for €3? What can you make better than that?"

Favourite recent meal: "There's a place in Kyoto, Japan, called Kitcho [where you sit in small rooms overlooking gardens and see no other diners during the meal] that changed my perception of what eating is about. One of the aspects of eating that I'm least interested is the social aspect."

How I cook at home: "Normal, normal, normal - nothing that takes more than 30 minutes. And I make everything as I go. I prepare a dish and I eat it. Then I prepare the next one and I eat the next one."

What I cook at home: "Lightly boiled asparagus with a little drizzling of olive oil. Fried eggs with artichokes. A lot of grilled fish."


There are different levels of creativity in cooking. You can talk about following a recipe; following a recipe and adding a few touches of your own; inventing a new recipe of your own; or inventing a new cooking technique or language. Each of these can be creative, but the last one represents the highest level of creativity, and this is the level that elBulli strives to attain. It is built on a foundation of technical knowledge, experience, a developed palate, good organization and many hours of work. Wanting to be creative is not enough.

"A creative spirit does not necessarily lead to a creative result."

From A Day at elBulli by Ferran Adrià. Copyright © 2008 Phaidon. Reprinted with permission of Phaidon Press.

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