Ferran Adrià: The Magician in the Kitchen

Chef José Andrés, Me, Colman Andrews & Chef Ferran Adrià (from left to right)

Last week, I was privileged to sit in on an invitation only event at the French Culinary Institute in NYC that featured one of the world’s greatest chefs, Ferran Adrià.  Ferran hails from Catalonia in Spain.  He is the head chef of the Michelin three starred restaurant elBulli.  This is probably the hardest reservation to acquire in the entire world; especially since it is only open about 6 or so months of the year. 

Ferran was the guest of honor at this event at the FCI because of the recent biography about him by Colman Andrews that was released on October 7, 2010 entitled Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food.  Colman, who started Saveur magazine back in the early 1990s, is an authority on Catalan cuisine.  In fact, he has written a book on this subject called Catalan Cuisine.  Colman conducted a “conversation” with Ferran by asking him questions.  Since Ferran is not fluent in English, Lucy Garcia did the translating.  (You might remember her from a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.) 

Dorothy Cann Hamilton introducing Ferran Adrià & Colman Andrews.

The event started with a cocktail reception replete with an array of tasty Spanish tapas that were to be washed down with sparkling wine as well as a Spanish red and white wine.  Slowly but surely, the International Culinary Theater started to fill up with people, including a who’s who of the NYC restaurant scene.  Such notable chefs and restaurateurs as José Andrés (one of Ferran’s protégés), Mario Batali, Jonathan Waxman, Alain Sailhac, Drew Nieporent, André Soltner, Jacques Torres, Nils Noren, Michael Lomonaco & Michael Laiskonis were in attendance to listen to and learn from a revered culinary master in Ferran Adrià.

The event was prefaced by a warm welcome and introduction from the founder of the French Culinary Institute Dorothy Cann Hamilton.  Dorothy then turned the floor over to Colman and Ferran.  Colman gave a brief description of the book and how it came to be.  He thanks Chef José Andrés for this book coming to fruition because Chef Andrés harped on Ferran to do the book.  Initially, Ferran had said he was too young to have a biography written about him.  He said that was reserved for older people.  Ferran obviously gave in and decided to do the book to finally set the record straight on elBulli.  Ferran said that he is proud that someone has taken the time to do this book.  Colman invested a lot of time in writing this book.  He said he spent about 30 days at elBulli observing the day-to-day operation.   

Ferran talked a little bit about the restaurant itself.  He said that it was born as a miniature golf course but grew into a fine restaurant even before he took over the helm as executive chef.  He said that if it wasn’t for the Spanish Navy, he wouldn’t have been in that room that evening.  In the navy is where he became a more refined chef.  And it was through the navy that he met a friend that led him to elBulli. 

Colman popped a question on Ferran that elicited a good chuckle from the audience and that was what the biggest misconception of elBulli and him was.  Ferran quickly answered by saying, “Everything!”  Ferran very humbly said that he knows nothing about food and cuisine.  He said that he just knows a little bit more than most.  He said that there is just so much to know that it is impossible for one person to know everything.  And when you come to think of it, it’s amazing how true that point is. 

Ferran Adrià & translator Lucy Garcia

Ferran moved on to talk about growing up, life, being happy and taking risks.  He said that he always reminds his staff that they should never forget where they came from.  It is imperative to stay true to your roots.  Interestingly, when Ferran was born he was actually christened Fernando because at the time under Franco’s Spain it was illegal to give babies names in dialect.  He grew up wanting to be a footballer (soccer player) not a chef.  He said that his first job in the kitchen was washing dishes. 

To Ferran, the most important thing is life is to wake up in the morning and to be happy.  He said that we should all try to be happy as much as possible because we all know there are difficult moments in our lives.  He said that his philosophy to his chefs is to be excited about what they do.  Ferran said that he lives simply.  He said he would rather spend money on a bottle of champagne than a pair of shoes because he will remember the bottle.

Ferran also made a point of talking about taking risks.  To him, risk means that 99% of the things you do will be failures.  But if you are always cautious and never take risks, you will never grow.  He said that he is proud that he has stimulated people into taking risks.   

elBulli was the next topic of discussion and they was a lot to be discussed, especially with all the speculation swirling around that Ferran would be closing the restaurant forever.  Ferran explained that working at elBulli was very hard work especially for only being opened six months of the year and that there was no real reward (monetary or otherwise) for his staff and himself.  In 2009, he resolved to close elBulli for 2 ½ years at the end of the 2011 season.  He decided that this was the best prize for all his staff’s hard work.  He feels that these 2 years off will allow his staff to learn and travel the world.  When he made this announcement at a televised press conference in Spain, everyone thought he was crazy.  By doing this, he is also reinventing elBulli.  He is also planning on constructing a center for creativity on the grounds of elBulli.  But to be honest, he never actually said whether or not elBulli the restaurant will be back at the end of this hiatus. 

The Magician in the Kitchen Ferran Adrià

The floor was opened to questions from the audience.  The one question that struck me was about the future of food and cooking.  Ferran said that the future depends heavily on whether or not we have cooking and nutrition offered to our children in school.  He believes that education is fundamental to our future.  This leads me to conclude with a quote that Ferran said at the end of the evening.  He said, “No one knows what will happen to us in the future because it’s the future.”  In other words, we can speculate on what will happen, but we will never know for certain.  Such poignant and eerily true words professed by a magician in the kitchen.  Enjoy!

Living to eat,
Tony Mangia


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