Ferran Adria's childhood dream was not to become a chef. “A series of strange coincidences led me to elBulli,” says Adria. When asked if he thinks a different series of coincidences might have led to a different destiny, he replies, “I don't even think about it. Why would I?”
Ferran Adria says he's officially retired, but talking about the plans he has for his elBulli Foundation, as well as projects his brother Albert (elBulli's pastry chef) proposes regularly, the chef shows no signs of slowing down. The Foundation, which will have both a physical location and a significant online presence, is being developed now, and will be a laboratory for risk-taking, freedom, and creativity of all sorts, says Adria. It is expected to debut in the fall of 2014.
More than 2,000 people per day have visited the exhibit at Palau Robert since it opened earlier this year. Many, says Adria, have returned multiple times. “The amount of material here is immense,” he explains. Pointing at one video installation in the exhibit, he notes, “This video alone runs more than an hour.” The exhibit opened on February 2, 2012 and runs through March 2, 2013. Admission is free.
Adria explains the founding history of elBulli, which was originally an ultra-casual beach restaurant owned by a German couple, the Schillings. Fond of bulldogs, the Schillings named their restaurant elBulli, meaning “bulldog” in Catalan. Even after the transfer of ownership and the distancing from the casual cuisine the Schillings dished out, the name stuck.
When Adria took over elBulli, nouveau cuisine was all the rage. Though Adria conformed to the norm, he soon started questioning why he couldn't create a distinctly Catalan cuisine, rooted in local ingredients and techniques. “We spent several intense years in the 90s creating our own language,” says Adria. “Words became phrases, and phrases became texts.” This “language” introduced new concepts to kitchens around the world.
Adria believes in tasting with a sixth sense—the sense of memory, provocation, and evocation, which affects not only the taste of food, but the experience of it. His philosophy has touched many diners, including artists who have made musical homages to the experience of eating at elBulli and those who have produced documentaries about the chef. Then, there's more low-brow work, like Matt Groening's homage to Adria, who is depicted here alongside Bart Simpson.
“elBulli is not Ferran Adria,” says Adria as he stands in front of a list of the employees who worked at elBulli over the years. “It's the 2,000+ people who worked at elBulli.” The employee roster included culinary luminaries like Grant Achatz and Rene Redzepi, the latter of whom is now considered to have taken Adria's place as best chef in the world.
Since the beginning of his career, Adria has meticulously catalogued nearly every aspect of his work: the ingredients, the techniques, his and his staff members' reactions to dishes in process, and conceptual aspects of the philosophy he was developing. “I don't know why I documented everything,” he says with a shrug. “I have no idea. It's just something I've always done.”
Why did the man known as the world's greatest chef turn to the exhibition business?