Ferran Adrià: “The ability to spur action is my obsession”

The Austrian journalist Stefan Zweig once said that of all the mysteries of the universe, none is more profound than that of creation. The key to the enigma has been as sought after as the Holy Grail. However, none of those who have carved their names in the rock of the universal history of creativity have stopped to observe, deconstruct and analyse what it was that made their work so extraordinary. And if any did, they never told the world.

Ferran Adrià invented 1,846 dishes and then stopped. He felt he had created enough and that soon he would reach his peak. He had to go further, and therefore decided to close elBulli. This was back in 2011, the beginning of the second part of his life. From thereon in, he would dedicate himself to, as he says, sharing “everything we have learnt over these years regarding the creative process and its methods”. Both in the kitchen and out.

From his restaurant his inventions could be shared with 6,000 people a year. From his foundation he can reach millions. This new format allows him to spread the word concerning his research and share his knowledge in order to inspire “future generations to be more creative”. This is why Ferran Adrià’s started up his foundation. “We wanted to discover how we could help”.

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Ferran is a fervent believer in generosity. He says that this is what has moved him to pass on everything he learnt over 25 years at elBulli. During this period, years were split into two halves. Six months were dedicated to research, six months to the restaurant. Its final closure in 2011 represented his absolute commitment to investigation. “We have turned elBulli into a laboratory for the creative process”, he says. Over the past three years this has meant his dedicating his time to putting all the knowledge he has accumulated into some sort of order so that he can pass it on to the rest of the world. The aim is to reveal what led him to revolutionise gastronomy and whether this model can be applied to other industries. The idea was that what had worked for them might work for others. He has long held that this has been a “revolution”, albeit a “pacifist” one, a nuance he always adds with a knowing smile.

This revolution began back in 1987. Ferran attended a conference given by Jaques Maximin. In mid-presentation, the famous French chef suddenly said: “Creating is not copying.” This sentence hit Adrià like a bolt of lightning. As he says, still with a certain sense of awe: “A sentence that can change your life”. No need for muses or supernatural powers. Adrià believes in studying what others have done before, in research, and in stretching that work beyond its limits.

Adrià is at the elBulliFoundation. He points to a number of tables where dozens of people appear to be totally gripped by what is on the computer screens in front of them and says:

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“Do you know why these people are working 16 hours a day? Because they think they are going to change the world. They want to make the world a better place.”

Ferran believes that the most profound driving force behind creativity is ambition. This is what made a 17-year-old teenager who washed dishes in a Castelldefels hotel strive to become the greatest chef in the world for five straight years. Here we should add the many awards he has received as well as the Honoris Causa granted him by the Universities of Barcelona (2007) and Aberdeen (2008) and Valencia Polytechnic (2010). The year 2010 also saw Harvard University ask Ferran Adrià to abandon his administrative studies in order to give classes as a guest professor at its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

This ambition has nothing to do with money or ostentation. Adrià leads a normal life and dresses like anybody else. T-shirts, sweatshirts, jeans and trainers. Black, if possible. Over two decades’ work in a kitchen has meant he’s worn enough white to last him a lifetime. This ambition is all about learning, inventing, discovering and seeing life as did the 18th century explorers. “Our most important task is to find challenges for ourselves” he says. “We get up every morning with a challenge. That’s what makes us happy. And happiness is the most important thing in life.”

This ambition can also be called passion, emotion or even obsession. The history of the world is built upon such foundations. As Adrià himself has said, “A thousand passionless people achieve the same as fifty passionate people.” We can add a further adjective here: “provocative”. This is a word the ever-curious Adrià uses to describe himself. “The ability to spur action is my obsession” he says. “I’m like a whirlwind”.

It’s true. Ferran is like a hurricane. It is difficult to understand where this driving force comes from, but he is capable of getting thirty people around him down to work in under two minutes. Ferran draws them in. The continuous leaps in his conversation are at high speeds, not because of disorder, but because of a thought process that is difficult to deal with. This is not chaos. It’s just that words are unable to keep pace with the torrent of ideas colliding in his brain. Ferran Adrià is not an anarchist. He is a person with a military-like discipline, a sergeant of organisation and order.

He is striving to decode gastronomy as someone who does not believe in muses. He does, however, believe in investigation. He discovered its value through research. In the long hours in which the restaurant was empty, Adrià grew tired of playing cards during the long winter days in which nobody visited Cala Montjoi, in the province of Girona. Instead he used the time for research, creating new dishes. This time it wasn’t just a sentence. It was a decision that would change his life. Creativity at elBulli was multiplied by a thousand. And when he decided to close the restaurant for six months a year in order to research, creativity was multiplied a billion.

The meeting point was the laboratory, although investigation was taking place all around. In reality, it was an attitude. All manner of places were visited in search of inspiration. Not just markets and restaurants in other countries. He also attended trade fairs for other industries to see what machinery could be used in a kitchen. Large numbers of devices used in the automobile, textile and other industries now became potential culinary tools. Anything that caught his eye would end up in his workshop and there the experimentation would begin. This workshop was the birthplace of numerous culinary techniques which had never been seen before.

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Random events, such as power cuts, also played their part. One day the team was preparing a dish that contained orange. The lights suddenly went out and the machine they were using stopped dead. They could have thrown away what they were working on, but curiosity got between the dish and the rubbish bin. They tasted it anyway. Mmmm… it wasn’t at all bad! The elBulli team had just discovered how to hydrolyse orange.

Inventing a new recipe could even go as far as challenging fear itself. The discovery of warm mousse could well have been the day that elBulli actually exploded. In the kitchen, the team had been experimenting for some time in an attempt to raise the temperature of a mousse. It was proving difficult. They had an idea, but it seemed too risky. What would happen if a soda siphon was placed in a bain-marie? The idea was tempting, and at the same time, a risk. It was something that was prohibited by the team’s research protocols. One day, Ferran Adrià, who was travelling at the time, received a phone call. It was Oriol Castro and he had something important to tell Adrià. They had put a siphon in a bain-marie and it hadn’t exploded. The mousse, as they had hoped, was indeed hot.

In 2004 Adrià understood that research required time. “In order to make a dish of asparagus, we would dedicate a whole week to studying asparagus”, he says. This was the year that science came to the elBulli kitchen, with all its consequences. Adrià’s ambition goes way beyond the known laws of chemistry. He sought to challenge those laws, and therefore began to bring physicists and chemists into his team. Ferran wasn’t prepared to accept the idea that agar-agar could not be melted. “Nobody in the world knew that agar melted at 85º. Not even the Asians knew it. We asked manufacturers, sales people before creating a department of physics and chemistry within elBulli to discover to what temperature we had to take agar in order that it might melt. We found the answer and changed the course of science”.

Ferran passes all his ideas through a filter, a simple question: “Why?” This is the guiding principle of research, one he has dedicated almost all his life to.

It’s lunchtime and all Adrià is eating is fruit. He doesn’t have the time for any more. Or the desire. He’s too busy investigating what it is to cook, too wrapped up in working out gastronomy’s secret codes. He does this every day at the elBulliFoundation, together with his team who have spent many years at his side. Previously, as chefs and sommeliers, now, as documentalists, consultants and exhibition organisers.

In this newly-built industrial warehouse, divided into various workspaces by bookshelves, Ferran and his team continue along the path that started with elBulli. The quest for perfectionism still touches everything they do. Adrià embodies this spirit, always talking of doing everything “at the highest possible level”. His ambition to go that extra yard is insatiable. He is an adept of the culture of excellence and seamless collaboration. To this end he not only seeks to keep the nucleus of the team that has always accompanied him together.

He also seeks to surround himself with professionals he admires and who are far removed from his normal day-to-day working life, people he describes as “ten times more efficient than people from other disciplines”. These individuals are the executive vice-president of MIT, Israel Ruiz; the former director of London’s Tate Modern, Vicente Todolí; the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz; the director of the Telefónica i+D Internet and Multimedia centre, Pablo Rodríguez; and the chef Juan Mari Arzak. These men form the group that Adrià calls his ‘angels’.

Ferran says that he feels he is facing one of the greatest challenges of his life. Teaching others to invent is now as important to him as inventing itself was to him in the past. Teaching anybody. Not only a chef or someone with grand, world-changing aspirations. Absolutely anybody working in any field.

What he has in his hands right now “is a three-dimensional bomb”, he says