Ferran Adria is one of the world’s most renowned chefs. He is the chef at el Bulli, a restaurant that was named top restaurant in the world for five years and took over two million reservation requests for 8000 seatings per year. How could this chef from the tiny town of Rosas on the Mediterranean coast of Spain sell out the 1400 seat Castro Theatre on a rainy Monday night in San Francisco? He told his story in words, pictures, and video, in an event expertly coordinated by Omnivore Books. He began by humbly pronouncing that he did not know much about cuisine or cooking. To illustrate the point, he showed a simple orange, and explained how there were so many varieties of citrus and that it would take several lifetimes to know everything about them, or about grapes, or about wine, or about any foodstuff. He then discussed different levels of creativity by explaining The Omelette and the Miniskirt. No one knows who made the first omelette, but from that idea hundreds of variations have been developed. With the miniskirt, short dresses have been around since ancient Roman times, but it took a personality like Mary Quant in 60s London to introduce the concept of the miniskirt. So this was Ferran’s goal, conceptual creativity, to create new recipes and concepts that would be as influential as the omelette. He showed videos about some of the concepts that were invented at el Bulli – the use of liquid nitrogen, gels, and spherical liquids. Fantastical, delightful, surprising, and wildly creative innovations in food. A rubber mold that perfectly rendered a strawberry sorbet into the shape of a strawberry, re-making the familiar with unexpected tastes and textures. Is this frivolous or elitist, multi-course meals that cost hundreds of euros per person, in a time when there is widespread joblessness and hunger in the United States, not to mention most of the rest of the world? Maybe, but I think there are three answers to this criticism. My own feeling is that society needs avant garde artists to push forward whatever their chosen medium, like Frank Gehry designing the Guggenheim instead of warehouses, or Picasso painting Guernica instead of ads for the Gap. Second, Ferran addresses home cooks with a new book entitled The Family Meal, based on the meals prepared for the staff at el Bulli that are economical, healthy, and accessible to the home cook. Finally, Ferran has established the el Bulli foundation to continue to develop new concepts in food and share them on-line, to inspire new chefs wherever they might be. This might be his greatest legacy, lasting beyond the ephemeral experience of a single meal – developing new “omelettes” that can be shared, improved, and contribute to food culture for years to come.
I also recommend a book that describes the behind-the-scenes operation at the restaurant, A Day at el Bulli.