Ferran Adria and cooking at home – El Bulli style

Ferran Adria has been in my world a bit in the last few weeks. Last week it was in San Sebastian for the film about, well, him – El Bulli, Cooking In Progress and now at a talk about his new book The Family Meal at Vinopolis in Borough Market.

I didn’t know what to expect initially. After all, the reputation of the high pressured kitchens around the world are volatile to say the least. But in both situations, Ferran comes across as a focused, curious and determined individual. But not scary. Although he hasn’t children himself, he does have a fatherly manner. You listen to him with attention, and he teaches you like you are his child.

The talk is in Spanish, and his translator and he are like a double act. Even though I don’t understand a word of Spanish, I laugh along when he makes a joke, and then the joke comes later. He is terribly likeable. The story has been told a thousand times, for it is such a great story of passion overtaking financial motivation, of good and evil – It is a fairytale of sorts.

El Bulli is a story that starts in 1954 and ended (for now anyway) in 2011. It didn’t start out as the innovation hot-house it is today but with most good things, it was a slow morphing stemmed from curiosity and the desire to always improve. In 1997, the morphing took a great leap and the restaurant closed for a period of time and they renovated the kitchen to make it one of the best kitchens in the world. From there, they began the process of 6 months in production the following in research, and this went on until recently.

The film Cooking In Progress, tracks this process, from the last service in the restaurant through the 6 months of development to the re-opening of the restaurant the following summer. Although I think the movie doesn’t do the story justice, the process is fascinating. I have worked in many a restaurant and I have never seen this much attention spent on the creative process. Most chefs are stuck behind the stove and aren’t allowed the time to play and to innovate.

But this talk is more about the ability to cook well than to innovate. The process that he and his army of chefs went through to write the book began also many moons ago. When he first took over the helm of the kitchen at El Bulli, he found the staff food an afterthought. And he thought, rightfully – how come these chefs care more about the food that goes to the customers than they think about themselves. If these chefs are eating poorly, then their attitude and mood will reflect this. So, with the same attention as he gave the dishes that left the kitchen, he began to fine tune the staff meals. What you have in this book is the smaller version (for 2) of these meals. Wholesome, flavourful, and simple.

‘Who knows about food?’ Ferran asks.

The audience murmurs but no hands go up.

‘Who knows about wine?’  There is silence.

The comparison of food knowledge to wine – for which most of us are humbled by, is a good one. If a grape is one fruit and there are a thousand varieties and a thousand terroirs and a thousand makers and a thousand drinkers then the variety is endless. And the same is about food. But with food there are a thousand fruits, a thousand vegetables, a thousand grains – then apply the grape process with each of them. The truth is no one can truly know. Ferran believes we all should be humbled by this infinite variety of choice. And if Ferran is humbled, then I am obeisant.

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