Ferran’s Accent

It was the kind of morning where you count the number of minutes you slept rather than the hours, and pretend that one coffee is going to be sufficient. I stood in the hotel lobby with a desperate latte still in one hand, when a man approached to firmly shake the other. “Ferran,” he said. No last name was needed.

We piled into a black SUV and the pinstriped suit in a backwards Kangol cap began to drive. “Es como Roses de Barcelona,” remarked Mr. Adrià. Our two-hour journey from Manhattan to Hyde Park felt like the one that gastrotourists fresh off the BCN tarmac used to make to visit him at elBulli, traffic and terrain excepted. That restaurant is now closed, of course. But since the last dinner service — el último vals — on July 30, 2011, both Ferran and elBulli have evolved. I needed to find out how.

Our destination that morning was the Culinary Institute of America, where Adrià would stand before 800 students packing the theater in the school’s new Marriott Pavilion. On the inauguration day of that 42,000 sq ft facility, he would speak about his new projects back home: elBulli 1846, elBulliDNA, and Bullipedia. An interviewer’s dream subject, he would answer nearly all of my questions, with questions.

I audaciously introduced myself as “Aaròn,” so Ferran spoke candidly and very quickly. The basic problem, in his eyes, is that there is documented history and undocumented history — and he refuses to become the latter. He calls the last day of elBulli as a restaurant the happiest of his life, as it marked the beginning of the elBulli Foundation, the sort of thought collective under which his new ventures will operate. It is this expression of elBulli — not the restaurant itself, not the 10,000-page book series Adrià and his team produced over the years nor the 1,846 recipes there within — that he intends to be his legacy.

When speaking of that last number there is a certain gleam in his eye. 1846 was the birth year of Georges Auguste Escoffier, the chef to whom elBulli’s very last serving — a variation on Peach Melba — was an homage. It also refers to the first tier of the Foundation’s initiatives, which Adrià is calling elBulli 1846. The physical space in Roses, Spain that housed the restaurant will be repurposed and expanded as a museum on the history of cuisine and a kind of culinary think tank for research, experimentation and academic discourse. It will be like an evolved version of elBulli’s former taller, the Barcelona workshop in which Ferran and his team conducted R&D during the restaurant’s off-seasons.

Working within the elBulli 1846 compound and at a separate space in Barcelona will be what Adrià calls elBulli DNA: a multi-disciplinary crop of chefs, sommeliers, designers, philosophers, architects, writers, and… well, let’s just call them all thinkers. “All revolutions have started with people thinking about things,” says Ferran. And if that is true, then this particular revolution will be about the creation and dispersion of a taxonomy. Right now we don’t have the mental framework to process what is happening in places like Mexico or Peru, where ancient products and techniques are reworked, adapted, and understood in different ways over time. So the elBulli DNA team will work to create a codified language to understand the history of these and other cuisines around the world. This research will be catalogued in an online tool known as Bullipedia, and the resource will be free and available to everyone.

Many things impress me about Ferran but foremost among them is his openness. Yet sharing the wealth of knowledge that he and his team toil to uncover is “a decision,” he is quick to clarify. “Not an obligation.” He chooses to put this information out in the open because he longs to see the profession of cooking held in the same regard as medicine or law. He makes it his mission to feed the creativity of a more knowledgeable generation of chefs than the world has ever seen. And if the bags under his eyes are any indication, he won’t sleep until he achieves that.

This past May brought the establishment of a Bullipedia lab in Barcelona. Next month, Adrià is to launch an exhibition on the creative process in Madrid. And coinciding with that opening, the Foundation’s preliminary research will be released online, a sort of prologue to what he hopes Bullipedia will eventually become. Construction begins soon on elBulli 1846 and they hope to see it completed by sometime in 2016.

Meanwhile on stage that morning, Ferran confused us all with his musings on deconstruction versus construction, and the rather mystifying differences between what he considers to be tools, techniques, products and elaborations. To listen to a man so energetic, so passionate and so utterly intelligent is like trying to sip water from a fire hydrant. I struggled to translate, not from Spanish to English, but from Ferran’s brain to the rest of us. What should an interviewer be, after all, if not an interpreter of the interviewee’s ideas?

Attendees queued up in the lobby after his lecture for signatures and smiley photographs. Sheepishly, a young student approached just as Adrià’s actual translator had stepped away from the table. She appreciated Ferran’s message, she volunteered, but wondered about its practicality. What did this chef, this Foundation actually mean to people her age? I fumbled a half-answer about Adrià merely providing the tools and the framework to think about cuisine in a different way. Like any knowledge, what people choose to do with it is up to them.

Feeling unsatisfied, I posed the student’s question to Ferran on the way back to the city. It is a mission of sharing, he says. The spirit of my answer had been right. Of my “translation” of his ideas and projects, I asked him also. He laughed, patted me on the back and assured me that he and I had quickly come to understand each other better. “In one day,” he joked, “I already lost my accent.”

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3 Responses to Ferran’s Accent

  1. adrian says:

    Why am I just starting to read your blog now?

    • aaron says:

      Adrian, I don’t know how you stumbled upon it today but I’m glad you did! I’m surprised we have never crossed paths in person, actually. I also wonder how similar your first book project and my first book project (still ongoing) might be…

      We should link up soon. You coming to New York anytime in the near future? I may get over to Paris again in the late winter / early spring.


  2. Adrian says:

    Drop me a line!

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