That is how work was done at elBulli

On the walls of elBullifoundation there are small spice jars. The raw material you work with should not be stored only in the memory. It needs to be visible. Ferran Adrià believes that visualising things is important when working with them.

Perhaps this is a common trait among the most passionate and ambitious knowledge seekers. Scientists have always been surrounded by their experiments and tools. Great writers have always sought to build a huge library around themselves.

The first person to cook in what, years later, would become elBulli, was the wife of a German homoeopathic doctor, named Marketta. This Czech-born woman and her husband came to Roses in the late 1950s. Mrs. Schilling began serving meals and grilling meat in the open air. A few years later, in 1961, a mini golf course was built a hundred metres below the Schilling’s house and they called it elBulli, in reference to the couple’s dogs (French bulldogs colloquially known as “bullis”).

Adrià entered the restaurant at the mini golf course as a kitchen hand in 1984. Three years later he was the boss, and from then on he decided that he would not copy any other chef’s recipe. He would invent them instead. Three years after that he bought elBulli together with his friend and partner, Juli Soler. He read the great classics of cuisine, and of the accumulated knowledge of past eras he said: “Now I want to create my own cuisine”.He never looked back.

The summers went well but the winters proved difficult. On many cold days they would open the restaurant for nothing. Not a single diner showed up. At first they spent these nights playing cards, but Ferran decided that the time should be made useful. They began inventing dishes, and the restaurant started to gain prestige and Michelin stars.

At first, closing in the winter was a question of business or, rather, lack of business.  Later it became a necessity.  They discovered this was in fact their best investment.It was time in which they could explore and invent. “Ferran purposely closed for six months to be able to research.In day-to-day work there is no time to do this.He wanted to spend six months just creating,” explains Eduard Xatruch, member of elBullifoundation.It was the time when they were preparing the ‘new restaurant’ and spending whole days chasing down ideas and concepts, like hot ice cream, breaded tortilla, mini-tomatoes…

Each season there was a new menu, new cutlery, new dishes, new appliances in the kitchen, new flavours and a new team. Only the core staff and a restaurant where there were more chefs than diners were retained.

“The restaurant was in the same place, but everything else evolved. It was not a typical restaurant and it had an unusual structure.The aim was to open each year with a new team that would usecuisine as a language. In other restaurants you would leave and when you came back everything was the same. Here everything was new: from the tableware to the staff,” explains Xatruch.

“elBulli took shape gradually. Ferran Adrià was the driving force behind this form of evolution. In the beginning it was a French fine dining restaurant. With Adrià there was an increase in creativity. This was consciously sought. At first it was driven by economic necessity. We had to try to convince more customers to come.After that, there was more creativity for creativity’s sake”.

All this came from a feeling that Adrià had. He had a real dread of monotony

Xatruch says that “Ferran separated the creativity from the production of the dishes. In a restaurant you have different items: meat, fish, vegetables… In elBulli there was one more: creativity. In the mornings there was no production. There was creativity.” And this approach created a new school among today’s most renowned chefs. “Those who have been through elBulli also try to close each year for a certain time to do research. Andoni Aduriz, Joan Roca and René Redzepi are 100% committed to creativity and all three of them seek alternative funding methods,” says Oriol Castro, a member of elBullifoundation. “When what is important is creativity, the restaurant disappears as a business.”

Reunión BulliFoundation

One spring morning

Around a table at elBullifoundation are Xatruch, Castro and Marc Cuspinera. These three form, together with Adrià, the heart of elBulli. There is also Enric Jové, the head of their social networks. Publicists Toni Segarra and Jorge Martínez, communication expert Mario Tascón and mathematician Enrique Gracián are sitting with them. This is the first interview given by the research team at The Table. They want to figure out what happened at elBulli to reinvent world cuisine and become the epicentre around which this entire industry has evolved.

Toni Segarra: There was an evolution against the restaurant. The restaurant was what they were fighting.Everything you are describing is about breaking free of the inertia of the restaurant.

Oriol Castro: Adrià made sudden changes to break the monotony. For example, if we had been working a lot with foam for one season, the following year it was banned. We did not rest on the laurels of what we had already achieved.He did not want us to become monotonous or complacent. Being different means being in constant flux.

Enric Jové: You need to take time away from the core business unit, the restaurant, to invent things. The restaurant stops being the core business.

The desire to surprise the diner was one of the reasons for constantly changing the menu.  “We explained each dish every time we served it and thus gradually educated the customer,” says Castro.  “It was important that there be people who came by often to contribute their perspective. Diners who came back were engines of change for us. The first month of creation was very intense. Then you would fall into a kind of monotony. You could go into decline.But if a customer came every season, it would force you to change each year.You encouraged these people to want to come back and try something new.If it had not been for that, we could have stopped after 50 creations.”

That didn’t happen. Instead they ended up inventing 1846 dishes

elBulli’s creative work had no rules.  It was based on the freedom of creation. “We did not commission anything. Nobody told us what we were supposed to do. We looked for what we wanted. Ferran taught us to work like that and then we did the work ourselves. You had an idea and then the chef came along and we looked at how to make it happen. No limits. We could gut a pine nut, or whatever,” says Oriol Castro. “We were under a lot of pressure. Every day we had to create something new.But we were putting the pressure on ourselves.Quality and creativity is a job for us.”

The pressure had a purpose: a colossal ambition. “We started the season and wondered: Will we be any good this year? Of course we will be,” says Cuspinera.

Method without a method

First we had to build and then to reflect on what we had built. We set out without rules or methods in the search for ideas and proposals. “We could start with a clear idea and build on it or start from scratch to see what came out,” says Xatruch. “Sometimes it was trial and error. This is a very practical way to research. We could see what there was and what came out of it.”

The usual way was to begin a journey to find out where it might take us. We did not set out in search of defined goals. The goal was to find something along the way. “We never set out from a closed idea. Ferran really broadened our horizons,” he continues.

But distance and time shape a perspective that the present does not reveal.  What they now call‘creative method’was once done on instinct.“We would try to change spaces often. We’d visit a library, the Boqueria market or appliance trade fairs, and if we saw an appliance that we hadn’t seen before, we bought it and tried it out. We travelled, we visited shops, we looked for crockery… After a trip, they were always asking us: ‘Did you see anything new?’. And everything we learned we linked to tools, concepts, products… It was a way of finding inspiration.We did many things intuitively.We developed the methodology afterwards.”

First they made “hypothetical” dishes and menus. Then they went to the workshop and began to do research. At the outset, no possibilities were ruled out. “We never said no to a proposal. Where one person sees nothing, someone else might see something. Synergies were established.We work a lot as a team because one person’s ideas are inputs  for others.”

The process was lengthy. “A dish has a particular evolution. It starts out as a sketch. Then we make it. We taste it. If Adrià likes it, we keep going with it and tweaking things,” says Castro.

“The dish could be a combination of several ideas,” adds Xatruch. “Then we would start to prepare it and try it. To create, we had to be in the kitchen. Although, you end up developing a mental palate.”

Bullifoundation

The process lasted as long as the culture of excellence demanded. “We only did something if it was truly worthwhile. It had to be something better than what already existed, or something different. That’s why, for example, we got involved in the olive oil business,” explains Xatruch. There was just as much rigour in the kitchen. “A lot of time went by before we could say:  ‘This dish is ready’,” explains Castro. As much time as Adrià believed was necessary. “We did not create any recipes until Ferran said: ‘This is finished’. He is a very critical and analytical person. From pure invention to the moment the dish reached the table there were many filters. Ferran would kill us if there was a mistake in the end product. You cannot disappoint someone who has come from the USA to eat at elBulli.”

After final approval from Adrià, the dish could get all the way to the diner, the last filter, and still end up defeated. “If it didn’t work, we changed it. That happened with the dish based on oil and water. The first time we did it with gas. It didn’t work in the restaurant and ended up becoming a very different snack to the original idea.”

The opinion of the diner (the last person who cooks a dish, according to Adrià) “was important but not all-important,” says Marc Cuspinera. “The hot grapefruit with sesame seeds or tea with clams, for example, were creative, but not very popular. They were a provocation and they had to be in there. Ferran thought there had to be a provocative element to the menu. It was essential to make the experience complete. There were really good dishes that we knew were going to work, and others which, by changing an ingredient, would have been more popular; but we didn’t want to change them. Their role was to provoke.”