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Legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adria — who helmed world-renowned restaurant elBulli for nearly three decades — touched down in Chicago Saturday to wax poetic on cooking and creativity. After appearing at the International Association of Culinary Professionals Conference, the culinary mastermind headed to a VIP reception at Balena (1633 N. Halsted). There, Adria discussed and signed elBulli 2005-2011, a seven-volume compendium he’s been assembling since closing his groundbreaking gastro-palace in 2011. The opus comprises every dish developed by Adria and his team with stunning photographs and meticulous recipes, illuminating both the philosophies and scientifically influenced processes behind the restaurant’s radically inventive cuisine.
At a later, larger reception at Balena, speaking in his native tongue and aided by a translator, Adria paced back and forth before a rapt audience for more than an hour, passionately detailing his food philosophies, his camaraderie with peers who once trained at elBulli (including attendees Grant Achatz of Alinea and Next and Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut-Chocolat) and Bullipedia, an ambitious digital resource he and his team are creating to catalogue the entire history of cuisine. Here are some of the tastiest tidbits from his talk:
On celebrating his successes:
“We’ve gotten all the awards, all the recognition that anyone could dream of. But we never had a celebration. Never. People don’t believe it when I tell them. We had three Michelin stars, and we didn’t do a party because of that. Five times ‘Best Restaurant in the World,’ no party for that. Why? Because we weren’t thinking about today. We were thinking about tomorrow. And for us, it was a party to be able to be at elBulli. We didn’t need a celebration.”
On understanding elBulli’s legacy:
“It’s very easy to say ‘deconstructionist cooking, molecular cooking’ when describing elBulli. But there’s not one word for all of this. If we want to talk about it accurately, we have to study it. Otherwise, it’s just opinions … [For example] we were not the first restaurant to make raviolis where the pasta was not pasta. We used mango as a pasta in ’92, and I’m sure we can find in books that someone else used a fruit or a vegetable. But what did we do? We created a concept — new pastas. We opened a path with new techniques.”
On elBulli’s final day:
“Many people thought it was the saddest day at elBulli. No. It was the happiest day. Because that day I knew — I think I was the only one who knew it — that elBulli was going to continue. No one believed me. [The team] thought that it was an impasse for me to later announce that I was retiring. But I never said that. So we went on to have a celebration. For who? Very easy. For all of the stagiaires [trainees] who had passed through elBulli. It wasn’t possible to have all of them come. I decided that to have the most representative ones, the ones who had reached the highest level. The young people there, the stagiaires working there at the time, didn’t know that this was going to happen. They knew there was going to be a last day, that we’d invited 50 friends or so, but that was it.
We called Grant [Achatz], Rene Redzepi, Andoni [Luis Aduriz], Juan Roca, Massimo Bottura and Jose Andres [all of whom trained at elBulli] to invite and ask them if they’d like to spend the day there. They took a second to say yes. I wasn’t sure then if they’d say yes or not. They’re all really busy. I know what that means — they invite me to things every day, and I can’t go.
It was most exciting day in the history of cooking that we have documented. In the same kitchen, we had all some of the most creative chefs in the world forming the brigade. They weren’t there to eat, they were there to work. It was really emotional. Imagine the people that came to eat there that day. They didn’t know what was happening. They couldn’t believe it.”
On the origins of BulliPedia:
“Ethics, honesty, freedom, risk, sharing, passion. That’s what we were trying to do at elBulli. We created a world, and from this distance, looking back, we’re starting to value it. What’s the wisdom behind closing elBulli? To not close elBulli. That’s why the elBulli Foundation, our new project, is going to be fascinating. It’s a private foundation but it’s going to be for anybody who wants to participate. We’re going to focus on the world of cooking — the slogan of the foundation is ‘feeding creativity.’
In 2000, a couple came to eat at elBulli. They liked it — there were people that didn’t like it. We were sitting out on the terrace, under the full moon, a few gin and tonics. They said their experience was fantastic. ‘It was very moving. But we want to understand elBulli. What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. We’ve been doing it since ’83, but …’ So I went to bed and started to think about it, and that’s where this was born. We don’t understand cooking because it’s not organized and structured, catalogued. What’s the evolution of risotto? When was vinaigrette first made? We don’t know. In 1370, it was used in stews, not as a sauce or a dressing. This is the work we’re doing, through Bullipedia Lab — the evolutionary analysis of cooking, from the origins of humanity.”