When Ferran Adrià announced last week that El Bulli would not reopen at the end of a two-year hiatus in 2014—or, if it did reopen, it would not be in anything like its present form — we wrote to Grant Achatz for his reaction. Mr. Achatz worked at El Bulli for a few weeks in 2000, and what he saw there shaped his career. Now the chef at Alinea in Chicago, Mr. Achatz wrote back with this reflection, based in part on an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir “Life, On the Line.”
I arrived at The French Laundry early one night so I could get some prep done for a VIP table when I saw Thomas Keller gliding through the kitchen toward me. Every morning he would greet each cook with a handshake, and depending on the time, a smile. As he approached on this day, I noticed something in his hand. He placed the October 1999 issue of Gourmet on the stainless-steel counter in front of me and asked me to open to the page marked with a yellow sticky note.
I thumbed to the page, finding an unfamiliar, gruff looking chef surrounded by floating oranges. Who is this guy, I wondered…and why is he juggling citrus fruits?
In a short time, that guy would become known as the best chef in the world. His name was Ferran Adrià.
Chef Keller looked down at the magazine and spoke softly: Read this tonight when you go home. His food really sounds interesting, and right up your alley. I think you should go stage there this summer….I will arrange it for you.
Seven months later I landed at the Barcelona airport. I had not planned very well and had neglected to make arrangements for traveling to El Bulli, two hours north by car. My stage started the next day. As luck would have it, while walking through the airport I ran into a group of American chefs. Wylie Dufresne, Paul Kahan, Suzanne Goin, Michael Schlow and a couple of journalists had been brought over by the Spanish Tourism Board to promote Spanish gastronomy. We talked for a bit before I asked where they were headed. A restaurant called El Bulli, Wylie said, have you ever heard of it? Needless to say I hitched a ride with them on their posh tour bus.
When I arrived with the American chefs I felt a bit like a leech. After all, I was just a sous chef at the time, they were all established chefs on a funded trip. None of them knew me, and furthermore I was there to work. When we arrived at El Bulli the co-owner and maitre d’hotel, Juli Soler, welcomed the group at the door, and the Spanish official who was leading the tour pulled him aside and explained my story. I was prepared to put on a chef coat, right then and there, and start working. Juli walked off to the kitchen, and when he returned he said, “Ferran wants you to eat with the group.” Well, now I really feel like a parasite, but if you insist…
I was a 25-year-old sous chef at what most considered, at the time, the best restaurant in the world. I had grown up in a restaurant since the age of 5. I graduated with honors from what most considered the best culinary school in the world. I thought I knew food and cooking.
I had no idea what we were in for. Honestly, none of us did.
When the dishes started to come I was disoriented, surprised, amazed…blown away and to my dismay, blind to what was happening. Trout roe arrived, encased in a thin- perfect tempura batter. I shot Wylie a skeptical glance and he immediately returned it. We bit into the gumball-size taste….there was no apparent binder holding the eggs together, and the eggs were still cold, uncooked! How did they hold the eggs together and then dip them in a batter without dispersing them into hundreds of pieces? And how are the eggs not totally cooked? This is cool…
A small bowl arrived: Ah, polenta with olive oil, I thought. See, this food isn’t that out there. But as soon as the spoon entered my mouth an explosion of yellow corn flavor burst, and then all the texture associated with polenta vanished. I calmly laid my spoon down on the edge of the bowl after one bite–astonished.
What the hell is going on back there, I thought. I know cooking, but this is the stuff of magic.
And on it went…..pea soup that changed temperature as I ate it; ravioli made from cuttlefish instead of pasta that burst with a liquid coconut filling when you closed your mouth; tea that came in the form of a mound bubbles, immediately dissolving on the palate; braised rabbit with hot apple gelatin… Wait, how is this possible—gelatin can’t be hot!
The meal went on in this fashion, for 40 courses and five and half hours.
Still, I walked into the El Bulli kitchen the next day expecting some familiarity. A kitchen is a kitchen, right?
I was ushered into a small prep room with 7 other cooks, one of whom was Rene Redzepi of the now famous restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen. He was my ears and voice during the stay at El Bulli. See, he spoke French, and I do not speak any Spanish. Listening to the El Bulli chef de cuisine, an Italian chef would translate to the French guy and he would pass on the instructions to Rene, who would then translate into English for me. The group of 50 cooks was incredibly international. Chefs were coming from all over the world to learn this new style of cooking, yet it did not feel like cooking at all. “Concepts” better describes the dishes. There were no flaming burners, no proteins sizzling in oil, no veal stock simmering on the flat top.
Instead I saw cooks using tools as if they were jewelers. Chefs would huddle around a project like wrapping young pine nuts in thin sheets of sliced beet or using syringes to fill miniature hollowed out recesses in strawberries with Campari with precision. Everything was new and strange to me: The way the team was organized, the techniques being used, the sights, and even the smells. To me it was proof that this was a new cuisine, because none of it was routine.
I have returned to El Bulli to dine twice since the summer of 2000. Each time I was in a different state of maturity as a chef and a diner, and each time Ferran managed to make me feel a childlike giddiness. He evoked a sense of wonder and awe in the medium that I know best.
People often ask me if the style of cooking he pioneered is a trend, fad or flash in the pan. My belief is that every 15 to 20 years, with an obvious bell curve of energy, most professions change. Technology, fine arts, design and yes, cooking, follow the same predictable pattern. A visionary creates the framework for a new genre, others follow and execute, and the residual effects remain, embedded in the cloth of the craft. If we look back to nouvelle cuisine, founded in the early ’70s by Bocuse, Chapel, Troisgros, Guérard, Vergé and Oliver, we see the pattern clearly. Protégés of great chefs eventually forge their own paths to help create a new style. This lineage carried us into the Keller, Bouley, Trotter and Boulud generation in the United States, and subsequently chefs like Wylie Dufresne, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Homaro Cantu and myself forged our own paths.
Normally the evolution is gradual and seamless, and subtlety rules. Very rarely, a shift turns a profession upside down. The most notable and widely recognized example of this in cuisine is Auguste Escoffier. Nearly every chef cooking today knows who Escoffier is and respects how he changed the way generations after him cook. Culinary school textbooks are based on his works, and his cooking has been the foundation for every professional chef over the last century.
As Wikipedia puts it, “Three of Escoffier’s most noted career achievements are revolutionizing and modernizing the menu, the art of cooking and the organization of the professional kitchen.” These were game-changing developments that shaped an entire era of cooking. All of these Ferran has done. One could easily argue that we are in the midst of one of these shifts now, and Ferran Adrià is the modern Escoffier.
It requires a great thinker to inspire more great thinking. Whatever he decides to do with El Bulli, the most powerful thing that Ferran Adrià has done is not what he himself has accomplished, but what he has inspired.
What Grant Achatz Saw at El BulliBy THE NEW YORK TIMES