BARCELONA - As the entire contents of elBulli’s wine cellar come up for auction in Hong Kong and New York, Andrew Montgomery reveals how the innovative chef’s single-minded vision and ingenuity led to a business revolution as surprising as his award-winning culinary creativity.

Chef Ferran Adria. Photo by P Messina/Contour by Getty Images.

In January 2010, Ferran Adrià announced that his award-winning restaurant elBulli would close for two years. Could it be possible that the revolutionary chef who made an art of deconstructing dishes was deconstructing his restaurant? Why would the chef close what many considered to be the best restaurant in the world? The news defied belief and made headlines – even appearing on the cover of the Financial Times.

It was Adrià’s turn to be surprised. By announcing the closure eighteen months in advance, he had hoped to gain time to gather his thoughts. But within a month, he was compelled to announce the creation of elBulliFoundation, a decision that would guarantee the future of elBulli in a different guise. Through the Foundation, Adrià could preserve and celebrate the restaurant’s accomplishments, while keeping elBulli as a centre for gastronomic innovation. This new endeavour would allow him and his team the freedom to continue nurturing the creative drive that had defined elBulli, but without the restrictive timetable and demands of a restaurant.

One of Ferran Adrià's culinary creations The Seeds. Courtesy of the elBulliFoundation.

Reflecting on the history of the industry, Adrià realised that none of the past’s great restaurants had been preserved. “It would be wonderful to go back and see Maxim’s as it was in its heyday,” he explains. “I did not want this to happen to elBulli. At the most we could sustain the pace and format for another couple of years. So that is how we came up with the idea of a foundation to preserve this beautiful story.”

To mark the closure of elBulli, the Catalan government inaugurated an exhibition at Palau Robert to chronicle the history of the restaurant that catapulted Catalan cuisine to international recognition. The final exhibit is a recording of the last dish served before the restaurant closed in July 2011. As Adrià carried the soufflés to the table, the team in the kitchen bounced in merriment while news cameras captured the jubilant and harmonious atmosphere. It was agreed that the best solution for preserving the uniqueness of elBulli was to close it down. The footage shows the immense affection the restaurant “family” had for Adrià and how they respected and praised his guidance and encouragement.

The exhibit told the story of elBulli, from its opening as a modest seaside eatery in the early 1960s by German doctor Hans Schilling and his Czech wife Marketta to its headline-grabbing closure. Adrià enters the story as an eighteen-year-old who found a job washing dishes at the Hotel Playafels in Castelldefels in order to fund a trip to Ibiza. Chef Miguel Moy spotted Adrià’s interest in cooking and encouraged him to study El Práctico, a compendium of recipes from all over the world. Later, during his compulsory military service in Cartagena, Adrià secured a position in the admiral’s kitchen where fellow conscript Fermí Puig told him of his experience in elBulli, which had by then garnered two Michelin stars under the direction of Jean-Paul Vinay.  

Icy truffle of carrot and passion fruit. Courtesy of the elBulliFoundation.

Adrià headed there for an apprenticeship during his summer vacation in 1983 and was invited to return following his military service. Shortly 
thereafter, Vinay announced he was taking half the staff to set up his own restaurant in Barcelona, leaving the elBulli manager, Juli Soler, in dire need of a new chef. Soler appointed Adrià and Christian Lutaud as temporary joint chefs. The duo rose to the challenge, researching and visiting other restaurants in Catalonia and France to refine traditional dishes and further the techniques of nouvelle cuisine. Their efforts were so successful that the search for a head chef was abandoned. However, one of the restaurant’s Michelin stars was removed.

Nineteen eighty-seven was a watershed year. Lutaud decided to leave elBulli and Adrià took sole charge of the kitchen. Adrià met French chef Jacques Maximin, who gave him a piece of advice that would forever change Adrià’s approach: stop copying, start creating. Needing the time to create, he and Soler decided to close for five months over winter – a business decision that many considered unwise, but which provided Adrià the time and freedom to create and develop a style of his own.

In the ensuing years, Adrià’s creativity flourished and he swiftly gained a reputation for culinary excellence on his own merits. In 1990, Adrià and Soler bought the restaurant from the Schillings and regained the second Michelin star. Two years later he received the National Gastronomy Award for Best Chef de Cuisine.

Having achieved such recognition before the age of 30 spurred Adrià to go further. elBulli became a sought-after destination for chefs in the making, and Adrià has fostered many of the leading chefs in the world today. He calculates that there are fewer than 2,000 truly innovative chefs in the world, and that of those, 70 to 80 percent have spent time in elBulli’s kitchen. Adrià shared his spirit of collaboration, hard work, creativity and innovation with his team.

Chef Ferran Adrià now dedicates his time to the elBulliFoundation. Courtesy of the elBulliFoundation.

The restaurant experienced a transformation in the early 1990s: the kitchen was expanded and equipped for a new period. Adrià encouraged his team to invent new gastronomic concepts, which led to the groundbreaking idea to “deconstruct” and reconfigure traditional dishes. The team worked on separating ingredients and putting them back together in ingenious combinations. elBulli redefined cuisine and came up with a new culinary language that surprised and delighted diners.

Yet Adrià felt constrained within the boundaries of traditional techniques, and by 1994, he was once again ready for change. The focus shifted from creativity in food to creativity in the dining experience. Aside from taste and smell, the other senses now gained equal importance in the enjoyment of dishes, and his techniques, processes and concepts came to the forefront.

Over the years, Adrià introduced culinary innovations including spherification, savoury ice cream, flavoured froth, liquid croquant and new forms of caramelisation, amongst others. elBulli not only gained the coveted third Michelin star, but also an international respect never before seen in world class restaurants. Adrià expanded the restaurant, opened a catering business, attended international conferences, published books, became gastronomic advisor at the Casino de Madrid and debuted new kitchen equipment such as the CO2 syphon so others could recreate his famous froths. He also opened his workshop elBulliTaller – a space for creative thinking and innovation – in the centre of Barcelona.

Nitro-caipirinha with tarragon concentrate. Courtesy of the elBulliFoundation.

elBulliTaller is now his centre of operations and where Adrià orchestrates his businesses and initiatives. But the one that takes up most of his time is the Foundation. True to form, he has sought the best advice and presented the transformation of elBulli as a case study at five leading business schools. In total, 31 projects were presented with the best ideas to be integrated into the elBulliFoundation in the coming years.

The Foundation’s guiding principles are risk, freedom and creativity and they are structured in two pillars; first, the conversion of the restaurant into a research centre and second, the creation of BulliPedia, a web-based archive of global culinary history and the most up-to-date information in the industry.

An 1,800-square-metre extension to the building is currently underway, and will be ready to open in the summer of 2014. He explains, we “will exhibit 40,000 objects related to elBulli in a space where there will also be a lot of other activity. The centre will hold special events, some of them for the benefit of society, for example a school will come to experience the world of elBulli. We will also host dinners throughout the year to raise funds for the Foundation itself.”

Begonia leaves with peas and almond oil. Courtesy of the elBulliFoundation.

In the meantime, Adrià dedicates his days to reading and researching to find the best way to present, explain and inter-relate the history of the world’s cuisines. elBulliTaller has been taken over by massive boards where Adrià has pinned lists, presentations, bibliographies, images of raw ingredients and dishes and any other category of material that fits within the remit of BulliPedia. The dining room table is covered with literature dating back to 15th-century culinary treaties.

His current concern is to find a link between food groups and taxonomy. He explains, “Tomatoes are fruit, but they are used as a vegetable, well, at least they belong to the plant kingdom. Mushrooms, however, are also considered to be vegetables, and used as such by most, but they do not even belong in the same kingdom. Fungi are in a kingdom of their own. The more I look into the food groups, the more I notice there is quite a bit of chaos. I am not sure where this research is leading, it might take me nowhere, but I doubt it.”

He believes firmly that “the dream of an innovator is that you are not understood. If you are understood, then you are not at the cutting edge.”

The world has not heard the last from this indefatigable savant. And given his track record, it is likely the best is yet to come.

Andrew Montgomery is the Media Relations Consultant for Sotheby’s Spain.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]