World reknown chef Ferran Adria (el bulli) was in town last night promoting his new book, “The Family Meal.” He spoke for 75 minutes to a sold out crowd at the Harold Washington Library Center Cindy Pritzker Auditorium. Adria was introduced last night by his Chicago contemporary, chef Grant Achatz. Achatz likened his first time entering el bulli as if he were landing on Mars. At the time, he felt he knew everything there was when it came to cooking and then el bulli changed all that. Achatz went on to say, “You don’t have to be a chef to understand the impact Ferran Adria has had on cooking. The closing of el bulli isn’t the end; it’s the beginning. Chef Adria will go on to inspire for many years to come.”
As Adria took the stage with his interpreter, his enthusiasm for the moment was palpable. He spoke solely in Spanish throughout the evening with his interpreter conveying his message to the crowd in rapid fire English. A short video montage of pictures told the story of el bulli. With the background music set to David Bowie’s, “Space Oddity,” the audience caught glimpses not only of the food, and the restaurant but Ferran as a chef and man.
Adria launched in to his thoughts on answering the questions, What is creativity? He said, “If you think well, you’ll cook well.” The gathered foodies were able to enjoy a glimpse into the method he uses to create food - from natural to elaboration to conceptualizing dishes and how ingredients work together. He spoke often of Escoffier and his bible of cuisine - the detailing of recipes and conceptualizing of other new dishes. He used Picasso during his cubist period as an example. “People say he copied African art; maybe, but what he was doing was conceptualizing it differently,” said Ferran.
Throughout the night Adria used humor to convey his points. His blend of sarcasm and allegory had the crowd laughing. The cuisine of el bulli is humorous, provocative and brings irony to cuisine. His mother told him as a child, “Don’t play with your food.” He joked, the break for 6 months that began in 1987 wasn’t a strategy but because people weren’t coming to the restaurant or the Costa Brava. In 1993, they began constructing the new kitchen. This new workplace was envisioned to have space for 45 chefs when at the time only 12 were currently working. 2001 saw the end of lunch and the a la carte menu at el bulli and a warning from Michelin this wasn’t a good idea, but Adria knew it was right for the restaurant and seemed to shrug off the advice.
His sudden announcement to close el bulli in 2010 brought about wild speculation of money woes and fights with his brother but they were all wrong. The world went crazy and at one point Adria thought of giving everything up completely. His wife told him, “He was a coward?he couldn’t give it up after all of the philosophy he spoke of.”
The el bulli Foundation came from that decision and was publicly announced so he couldn’t change his mind. This utopian think tank will share everything on the internet. He commented, “No one understands what we’re doing. That’s good. Everyone’s interested in taking part.”
The book tour, which seemed at this point to be an afterthought to the evening, was to promote, “The Family Meal.” With recipes broken down for 75 and 2, mere mortals can create at home what took 2 years to catalog. He joked, “I don’t understand why all cookbooks are for four when 54% of the western world is a household of 1-2 people. If you have children, they still don’t eat that much.” The recipes are inexpensive and quick to make, just like family meal. He challenged his creative team to shop and see how difficult it was to cook their smaller recipes.
One of the interesting thoughts Adria shared was on cooking shows, websites, and magazines?with all of that talk about cooking. Why are people still not cooking at home? He sees this as a failure and thinks it may be due to organization. The biggest difference amongst professionals and the home cook is the lack of organization at home.
During the Q&A, he was asked if he could ever have predicted his fame and notoriety when he was younger. In a very humble way, he told the crowd, “I am a small town boy who aspired to be a good chef. It’s easy to say work hard and be happy. With prizes come consequences, it will be hard for this to happen again. None of this has been easy. I have done good things but I've also made mistakes.”
It was an inspiring talk from a humble chef many would call genius.