Ferran Adria, mentor from afar
What does an avant garde chef in Catalonia have to do with a Southern boy with a deep love for pulled pork and all things traditional? Everything. Who is this bad mama jama? If you don’t know look him up and get ready for a lengthy list to come up. The most famous chef in the world is a quick sum up. But I’m not trying to write about who he is, but what he is to me.
I first heard about Ferran and El Bulli in Oregon, 13 years ago. Some guy was turning food into foam by putting things in a whip cream siphon and and squirting it in peoples mouths and calling it a “course”. I was bullshit and had many an opinion about how this guy was just trying to create to be original but I was sure it sucked. How could it not? Where is the substance? A meal is about sensations of the palate but also about satiating hunger. Foam? Not enough for me. I kept hearing reports from friends that had saved up months of hard work to go to some temple of cuisine in the US only to be amazed by the flavors but pissed because they were still hungry after. Bullshit. A tasting menu must satisfy, you must be pleasantly full. No buts about it. (A big fuck you to all the chefs who fleece guests for huge rates while not filling their bellies. You fail in the most basic requirement in your craft, filling the belly. Look less in the mirror, exercise a little more, and eat more. You will be a much better chef. Crush them without mercy when they sit at your tables.) I thought this foam guy was this kind of fake. How little I knew I would be crushed by this sensei of cuisine 13 years later with 40 courses, foam included.
As my exposure to fine cuisine grew a curiosity in new techniques started to become more interesting. The traditional braising, sautéing, and poaching still mesmerized me as I worked hard to master the moves. The rumors about this guy in Spain continued to grow and as I spewed my doctrine about posers and their shortcomings in little bites I began to doubt myself. Maybe there was something to this that was more than a fad/ scam/ style of the bourgeois. I decided to give it some of my time.
The library came up short. Articles about him were sensationalized with press groveling about the length of the meals but little substance about him, the food, and the soul of what it was. And then the book showed up. Gary Strack, the chef at Central Kitchen in Cambridge, came to work one day with this big black book with chalk stripes on it talking about how he couldn’t resist ordering this 350 dollar cookbook from El Bulli. I can still remember opening it after work at the bar like Travolta in Pulp Fiction with the suitcase. Enlightenment.
The photos showed more of the sensational fantastic, whimsical platings of the food that I had already seen. What was in the book was the soul. Recipes, techniques, equipment specs, and the progression of thought to how they got to that point with their cooking. This was where my education truly began with this unbridled creativity. Inside this book was a complete journal of how this amazing team of chefs had transformed their restaurant from a mini golf spot in a Mediterranean cove to the most exciting dining destination in the world. It was steeped in Catalonian tradition, French technique, Italian simplicity, and was unmistakably Spanish. Respect and complete understanding of classic techniques had been mastered, practiced, and changed to morph into their own magical thing. And it all happened in this small beachside stucco building in the middle of nowhere.
My fascination continued to grow as I visited the Schlesinger Library periodically where they had all the El Bulli cookbooks. Only Harvard would have a cookbook library, thank God I lived close by. The writings from Ferran, his brother, and colleagues continued to crack open the shell of tradition that I had worked in for my entire career. “It’s all been done”, “Respect and practice the classics” and “Change should be questioned” gave way to new thinking. Requests to work at El Bulli continued to be politely declined. Words like magical, fun, bitter, surprise, and unique began to describe my ambitions in flavor development.
One day at Harvest, Kal the bartender casually mentioned that this famous chef was coming to speak at Harvard. A regular customer from the university had told him, the press leaked it the next day, I was there 4 hours early and sat up front, and was one of 500 people of 5000 that showed up who got to hear his presentation.
Lecture? This was the gospel preached by Jesus himself. Words can’t describe listening to an icon in your professional ambitions lay out everything you wanted him to say and go further. The points about creativity, his critics, the unfortunate exclusiveness of the restaurant, future in cooking, etc. came as a beam of light in the murky quagmire of my then current cooking situation (that’s you Mary Dumont, a culinary quagmire). As Mary shuffled off to schmooze with some other worthless Harvard square chef I sat outside the hall in the cold of January trying to take in this baptism. It was time to make a pilgrimage to the holy land.
Reservation denied 2009. January 1, 2010
To who it may concern,
I am a chef in Boston who saw Chef Adria speak at Harvard and am finally making a request for a reservation at your restaurant. I have studied your work for years and after the lecture would like nothing more than to come and experience El Bulli in person. I am available any time August through November. If the reservation is granted I will arrange the travel accordingly. I am hoping for a reservation for 4, but will gladly accept a reservation for 2 if that is what is available. I have another chef friend who is also excited about the lecture last winter. Thank you and keep up the good work. You inspire the world.
We regret to be late giving you an answer. The demand has been again extraordinary and is difficult to go on with the management. We have found a solution but we regret that it is only for 2 people. When we start the season in mid June you can contact again to see if changes have been produced and we can add 2 more guests at your reservation.We have an option for you on Wednesday September 22nd of 2010, table for 2 people at 7.30 p.m. under the name:
Ferran Adrià will prepare a personalized tasting menu. You will try many different elaborations and it means many different products. It is very IMPORTANT FOR HIS CONFECTION TO KNOW IN ADVANCE if some problem exists, like ALLERGIES OR ANY OTHER PRODUCT THAT WE COULD NOT INCLUDE FOR ANYONE OF YOU.
I wait your news to fix the option and also with regard to this question to fix all the details at your reservation.I also ask you to give us a direct phone number to contact you, only if necessary, during your time in our area.
It was on. But there was a new twist. Ferran Adria had announced a month before I received my reservation that he was closing the restaurant permanently after the 2011 summer! The demands of the restaurant had become too much. Lots of reasons, questions, angry people who were denied again. Fuck 'em. I had a ressy, and even though it was now worth thousands on eBay I was going. The experience had to be had.
September found my wife and me finally taking our honeymoon after three years of marriage. We were crushed with the first year of parenting twins and a vacation could not have come at a better time. As we slowly toured the Costa Brava making our way to Roses, the closest town to the restaurant, the ways of Catalonia seeped in. The magic of the scenery, history, and most importantly the regional pride seemed all so familiar to a Southern man. As we prepared to go to the restaurant excitement and nervousness set in. What if it sucked? What if I left hungry? What if all my expectations had made the pleasures of the experience unobtainable? As we pulled onto the skinny road that led to the restaurant all the worries faded away. Down this winding road along the cliffs of the Costa Brava not a single house for 15 km as you soaked up the views of the area. The road dipped down into a cove where the restaurant waited with a few simple homes, a campground, and a dead end sign. Nothing else.
The meal was all that and more. What did we eat? A warm strawberry and a frozen one made with Campari. Oaxaca clams. Hare in its blood. Blue cheese globes. The freshest tiny grilled shrimp. Sweet to Savory and back again. It was like a circus was in my head. Ending with a box of chocolates with easily 30 selections that are available nowhere else. The experience was a total experience and the food delighted, excited, challenged, satiated my hunger and curiosity, and made the experience one of the best in my life. As I shook Ferran’s hand after the meal I saw in his eye fatigue from the service but a glow that only a man who is filled with passion and joy contains. It showed in the dinner we had.
So to Ferran, Buena suerte in the next phase of El Bulli as a think tank. Your influence on me has been profound and is only beginning. In this new endeavor I am excited to see how far the wings will go and I appreciate the openness and sharing you have made a large part of your work. I never thought flying was possible but you showed me that it is. Knowledge is meant to be shared and the writings and training you have passed on are invaluable to anyone who thinks about how they cook. The restaurant will be missed but the next incarnation of it will take the techniques of El Bulli to the larger world and beyond. You inspire the world.