Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ferran Adria at Harvard Part II, Beyond The Foam

Ferran Adria signs the agreement forging his new collaboration with Harvard University.

Who knew when I was writing my little post for my little blog that I'd actually be scooping TIME Magazine!! Here's the link: Adria At Harvard

While that article fairly well covers the visit of Adria at Harvard I thought I'd conclude my two part piece with just a few little notes I made while sitting in the audience. You can see me in the video sitting at the very end of the sixth row writing in my moleskine notebook as the camera looked over my shoulder. Not quite as thrilling as my appearance on The Wright Stuff last year in London but fun nevertheless.

Since the Harvard lecture by Ferran Adria was a free form talk I am just going to list my notes and a few interesting tidbits that I have learned and read since attending it. I was ready with three questions to ask (thanks Trig) but, alas, never had the opportunity due to the enormous size of the audience. Most of what I wanted to ask, however, was covered.

Adria combined his talk with a variety of slides and videos showing various techniques of spherification. Overall, he used the analogy of what he was doing at El Bulli with the development of a new language. He called spherification his alphabet, the beginning. His major breakthrough here came when he realized that using food products with calcium would spherify but not solidify. The food would remain liquid inside, leading to encapsulation.

He then went on to the use of liquid nitrogen which, of course, freezes everything it has contact with instantly. The use of liquid nitrogen in high end cooking was unheard of in 2002, when he began experimenting. It was considered "too scientific" and far too dangerous for a bustling kitchen. A drop of the stuff will, for instance, freeze human skin nearly to the bone causing a nasty destruction of tissue. He called the use of liquid nitrogen a lexicon of fifty phrases in his new language, really opening up all kinds of possibilities never before possible. A sorbet of alcohol, previously impossible, was now one of his miracles.

He posited a number of questions to the audience. What is natural? If you were to tell someone you worked with sodium chloride in the kitchen would they be surprised to learn it is simple table salt? Is crystallized sugar a "natural" food? Most health conscious mothers would say no, in fact, it is not. Yet cooks use these products every day while calling what he does too extreme.

On El Bulli

Adria addressed directly the problem of El Bulli seeming elitest and he is well aware of the situation. He noted that El Bulli is really not a restaurant, first of all. He sees it more as an experiment, a laboratory. He noted that for fifteen long years El Bulli never made money. Even today, he would have to charge diners thousands of dollars to make any real money. It employs 70 people to serve 50 diners per night. They do dinner only and are open a scant 6 months per year. One does not have to be an economist to realize it's not a huge money-maker. As someone who was sitting right in front of him for almost 3 hours I can tell you the man is not in it for the money. He also expressed his regret, voiced by several attendees, that it's impossible to get a reservation. He admitted he felt badly about this and seemed genuinely sincere. The reservations lottery seems the best solution, he said, when the demand far, far exceeds the availability. A waiting list, if they ever kept one, would be filled for the next 135 years!

His Eating Habits

Adria admitted that he does not cook often at home. It's more fun to go out, he said. One attendee asked if he ate "normal" food. Laughing, he said yes he does. El Bulli is a once in a lifetime food experience, he explained. To eat that way more than once a year would be overkill, diluting the experience itself. He also noted that he is, in fact, a fan of Kaiseki (Japanese) cuisine which he described as "the third revolution in food."

While in Boston Adria dined at Clio and Rialto. Clio is a French inspired restaurant where chef and owner Ken Oringer (a one-time El Bulli apprentice) prepared 30 courses for dinner. Rialto is helmed by Jody Adams and features a Mediterranean cuisine with Italian and Spanish influences. It is a TBF fave dining spot.

The lecture concluded with his interpreter (Adria is not at all fluent in English) reminding the audience that Adria began life as an aspiring soccer player. When he asked his coach if he would ever be a premiere player the man answered him frankly, saying no, he would be a second tier player. Adria had been working part time over the off season in a friend's restaurant. With the realization he would never be a soccer star he gave it up and turned to cooking. Thank God for honest soccer coaches we say. It was also noted, in another amazing twist of fate, that El Bulli began as a miniature golf course that served "a little food". It reminded me of the Hollywood executive who noted during a screen test that Fred Astaire can "dance a little."

Over the past two years Adria has been working closely with a film crew that is now putting the finishing touches on an what he calls an audio-visual document covering the genesis of El Bulli from 1957-2008 and the total creative process that takes place there. We can't wait to see it.


  1. If you want to find Ferran at dinner in Barcelona, I'd suggest visiting Japanese izakaya restaurant Koy Shunka at Carrer de Copons 7, just off the Via Leitana.

    Happy Xmas.

  2. Well that is very interesting... Great article...