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Portrait of Ferran Adrià. Photography by Francesc Guillamet, courtesy of Phaidon.
NEW YORK – There’s not a lot of disagreement about the identity of the world’s best chef: 51-year-old Spaniard Ferran Adrià, because of the wildly experimental but fiercely rigorous cooking he produced at the three-star restaurant elBulli, which closed in 2011. (The restaurant’s former home on the Catalonian coast is now a foundation devoted to the study of food.) Known for playing with texture and temperature–and for “molecular” gastronomy, a term he hates–Adrià created the ultimate destination dining. Now he’s just released a seven-volume set of books (Phaidon, $625) containing every recipe from the restaurant’s last seven years. As if that weren’t enough, there’s an exhibition of his sketches organized by Brett Littman, the director of the Drawing Center in New York. The show is travelling in the US and Europe, and its next stop is the Ace Museum, in Los Angeles, opening May 4. Ted Loos spoke to Adrià when he was in New York to get the word out about his book.
Why do a book?
This is not a book, it’s a comprehensive catalogue. This is part of a project that I began in 2001, a catalogue of all the dishes from El Bulli from its whole history.
Who’s the target audience?
First and foremost, professionals in the industry. But there will also be passionate amateurs in any kind of creative field–anybody who came to the Drawing Center exhibition would potentially be interested in the book.
Speaking of the exhibition: why have a show of your drawings?
You’d have to ask Brett, who organized it [laughs]. He said at this point, in 2014, the whole debate about whether food is art is kind of passé. The really interesting thing is the dialogue between disciplines. To achieve any kind of vision, you do sketches: for fashion, for theatre, for film.
Five pepper melon-CRU/melon-LYO with fresh herbs and tender almonds. Photography by Francesc Guillamet, Courtesy of Phaidon.
I never made it to elBulli. Will the Phaidon books substitute in some way?
It’s separate. It’s like a catalogue raisonné. The difference between this and a catalogue raisonné is here we have pure objectivity. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dish we didn’t like–it’s all in there.
Is there a parallel between your cooking, which transforms everyday ingredients, and the way a great artist can transform paint?
Why does cooking have to be like painting? Cooking pre-dates painting. It’s true that there are things in vanguard cuisine that sort of parallelled things that happened in vanguard art. But in the early 20th century you had enormous steps forward in painting, but not so much in cooking.
And the books spell out those more recent steps?
In cooking there isn’t that codification yet–that written history. Imagine if we didn’t know what years Picasso or Kandinsky painted! When you catalogue your dishes, you see your own evolution. A lot of times you see that you haven’t really done anything new, that you are copying. That’s the dilemma that separates the one who wants to self-examine from the one who doesn’t.
Roses and artichokes. Photography by Francesc Guillamet, courtesy of Phaidon.
Are there more self-examiners like you around lately?
It’s starting to change a little bit. It’s a young field. We live in a society where everything seems like it has to be done in two years. For instance, if you were in a university and you wanted to do a thesis on elBulli, it would take you four or five years to do that.
Are the Phaidon volumes sort of like a thesis on yourself?
Kind of. A super-thesis. Not just on me though, but the whole team.
Green almond juice with bitter almond polvorón. Photography by Francesc Guillamet, courtesy of Phaidon.
So do people keep asking if you’ll open another restaurant?
I do get asked that a lot, but right now I don’t have plans to. I have the restaurants that my brother Albert is involved with, and I have the elBulli Foundation. It’s like if a doctor decides he only wants to devote 5 percent to patients and 95 percent to research. Occasionally we will do meals for special events.
What is the breakdown of foundation’s projects?
The elBulli Foundation is the overarching umbrella, and under that we will have this exhibition space in what used to be elBulli. There’s also elBulli DNA, which is the lab part of it, where the team will be doing investigations. Then there’s BulliPedia, which is the interactive cataloging of Western cooking.
Are you sad that the restaurant’s closed?
It’s not closed; it’s just transformed. If elBulli was closed, I wouldn't be here–I’d be in the Maldives or somewhere like that.