When he gets on the subject of creativity Ferran Adrià is keen to demystify. The culinary legacy of his world-wowing restaurant El Bulli rests on a creative process where ideas materialise, not by divine inspiration but from hard work: torturing a yam or teasing the skin off boiled milk. We’re with the world’s best chef in his workshop on C/Portaferrisa, ground zero of Adriàtic ideas; it’s a lot more like an enormous kitchen spliced with a library than Walter White’s laboratory. We settle in to talk about the secret to coming up with ideas that change the shape of modern cuisine.
El Bulli: part restaurant, part thinktank
‘The most important thing is that we are the first cooking workshop in history,’ says Adrià. Until the opening of this space, he says, the creation and production of the food was done exclusively in the restaurant’s on-site kitchen. ‘It’s as if you were to take a designer and make him work on the assembly line every day,’ he says.
And it’s essential to keep the ideas flowing in order to stay fresh. Long ago Adrià had an idea that has become fundamental on the practical side of his business: closing the restaurant for six months of the year, from October to April. ‘We don’t close for lack of customers,’ he explains. ‘We do it to have time when we’re not in the restaurant. You can do business, earn a living however you can… And what’s more important than all that? That you take a break from your routine. I’m one of those who thinks if you don’t take a break, it just gets stale. The two times in our career that we didn’t close, it got stale.’
The hiatus, he says, ‘is like the beginning of a new year, or setting up another restaurant. And this break, as far as innovation goes, is very important. Fashion is rough: just when you finish one season you have to start another, and another…’
Bottling the creative process
Efficiency, according to Adrià, is achieved by ‘identifying the DNA of the creative process and optimising it to be more efficient’. The enemy, on the other hand, is when creativity itself becomes a neurotic fetish: ‘A space doesn’t have to be amazing. We idealised companies like Google, but the offices of Nobel Prize winners at Harvard are smaller than this. Spaces don’t need to be incredible – that’s not mandatory. What is the best timetable for working? Weekly? Every five days, two days? If you approach creativity like a job, you’ll never produce anything.’
That said, he’s utterly conscientious about his work. ‘I dedicate every day of my life to thinking about cooking because I like doing that. If you work only eight hours a day, and I work 15, then I will be more efficient,’ he says. The impressive quantity of dishes created in the history of El Bulli, according to Adrià, was not the product of being smarter or better than anyone else. In fact, the key to this spectacular efficiency was ‘having done everything to produce more than anyone else – having more time to plan, getting more resources, putting together the best team… It’s like launching a magazine; if you have all that, you’ll have the best magazine in the world.’
From master chef to magister
Even though El Bulli closed its doors back in July 2011, there’s lingering controversy surrounding its flamboyantly avant-garde, ‘deconstructivist’ gastronomy. ‘Well, imagine how it was 15 years ago! When people went there to eat smoked mousse [El Bulli’s notorious tobacco-flavoured foam]. What did we do? Opened doors. The smoked mousse was the paradigm of innovation – pure provocation, the incorporation of a never-before-used characteristic of food.’
Adrià is now working on BulliPedia, a virtual cookbook library. ‘At the moment I’m structuring the map of Bullipedia. To do this I need the DNA of the creative process. Answer this: What is cuisine? I think I nearly have the answer. Not in a philosophical sense, but in a scientific one.’ The purpose of Bullipedia, Adrià says, is to help chefs. It’s not so much an itinerary of ingredients but a resource simplify the conceptual clutter of cooking. ‘Our intention is not to put all the recipes together, but to clarify how many concepts of pies that are and have been important throughout the history of pies.’
This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Time Out Barcelona.