“Every year we sorted through the ideas and looked at what we had done. We documented the combination of dishes in order to avoid repeating ourselves and becoming monotonous,” says elBulli member Oriol Castro. “We took a photo and made a record of all the new things we saw. We sorted this knowledge into lists and tried to improve them every year.We made a note, for example, of the combinations of flavours that were not successful, and the following season we rescued what ‘could have been but wasn’t’(as we called it).”
This information was collected each year in a different way. Sometimes in drawings or in graphs on cards or in computer files. “All these differences came from Adrià’s obsession with perpetual change,” he says.
It is all the information he wants to display in this new phase. Since its inception, elBulli turned away from the culture of secrecy. “In the past, recipes were hidden. elBulli always shared them. Adrià explained all the processes and showed reporters the new techniques.”
At the elBullifoundation we are meeting a scientist,Enrique Gracián, a communications expert,Mario Tascón, and three members of elBulli,Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Marc Cuspinera.
The mathematician asks whether, in principle, methodology and creativity are at odds with one another. Eduard Xatruch replies. “We used many elements as inspiration so we could discover new things.Afterwards, when we went to the workshop to work on them, we would play with all those elements. We also looked at what we had around us.For example, if it was pine nut season, Ferran told us we would need to make a dish with them.Although in most cases we didn’t start out with a specific product in mind”.
Oriol Castro: Or we took a pineapple, we dissected it and discovered what could be done with it.So we came across a narrative based on these tests.
We weren’t creating a method, but eventually one emerged
Castro says “the most important thing is for a chef to know how to eat. If you give, say, someone from Japan a paella and a lemon, they may not know what to do with them. They might eat them separately. Adrià, on the other hand, knows how to eat.” The diner, however, may not know. But this can and should be taught. “When you have created a dish, people allow you to explain to them how it should be eaten. At elBulli we included in the recipe the way it was supposed to be eaten. It is very different to eat something with cutlery than to eat it with chopsticks, for example. We changed the cutlery depending on each dish.”
This interest in informing the diner about the way the dish is to be eaten has a purpose. The person who eats the dish is the last one involved in the way it is cooked, and that means how much salt they add, how they cut the meat, whether they mix the foods or eat them separately…
Adrià sought perfection in everything. “There were specialists for each dish. One thing is to invent a dish and another is to recreate it. It is not the same thing to cook in the workshop as at the restaurant. It is not the same thing to cook for one as for 50. It is important to adapt the dish in order to prepare it for 50. There was a lot of work involved in adapting what had been done in the workshop to the restaurant,” says Castro. “Adrià called it buying creativity.”
Enrique Gracián: It is necessary to create areas that are conducive to creativity.How did you go about doing this?
Eduard Xatruch: At the end of each season, Adrià evaluatedall the dishes.That was when you realised the method that you had used. At first we didn’t use any techniques.We kept experimenting with new tools, using the association of ideas… We also had a meeting every day to see what had gone wrong the previous day.It was a way of building, learning and not repeating the same mistakes.
But there are also other variables that influence the creative process. For example, Adrià dislikes peppers. So there are very few dishes with this ingredient. The fact that we only opened at night was also influential (this allowed us to do our research in the mornings) or the fact we had money (that has helped us to innovate over the last 10 years).
Enrique Gracián: elBulli is a unique restaurant. Its main income does not come from the restaurant.This means that the process is more applicable to other industries than to other restaurants.
Oriol Castro: Those who have been at elBulli also try to close for a while each year to experiment.Andoni Aduriz, Joan Roca and René Redzepi are 100% committed to creativity and they seek alternative funding methods. When what is important is creativity, the restaurant disappears as a business.
Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler handled the financial matters. “They had the business vision,” says Castro. The others were dedicated to cooking and this led to something this elBullifoundation member describes as “atypical”: “Adrià has had a large core group who have dedicated their lives to elBulli. The team is very closely knit. There were times when we said: ‘Ferran, we won’t finish in time’, and he would reply: ‘What do you mean we won’t finish in time? Everyone into the kitchen to peel pine nuts!’ And there were 50 of us in there peeling pine nuts”.
The initial freedom was sacrificed as we moved from the laboratory to the restaurant or, in other words, from invention to production. At elBulli “we had to be extremely well organised,” says Xatruch. “We even had a plan for staff meal times. Everyone knew where to sit, who would set the tables, who would clear away the glasses… A lack of organisation would mean losing a few minutes. There were so many of us we needed a lot of organisation.”
The same thing happens in Japan. And maybe this quest for absolute precision, for the optimisation of time and space, had a lot to do with Adrià’s trips to that country.
Mario Tascón: To what extent were technologies important?
Eduard Xatruch: There are things that would never have occurred without certain tools. For example, the foams or the melon caviar. But it’s not just a question of technology.Tools are also important for discovering new ideas and optimising processes.
Oriol Castro: We learned spherification from another industry and brought it into our workshop. We were curious to try this method in our cooking. We placed a product in the machine, we took it out too early, it exploded, and we discovered a new way of cooking. Another time, the power went out and interrupted a process. We tried the dish, saw that it had come out well and started using this way of cooking. If the power had not gone out, we would never have discovered how to hydrolyse an orange. It is also important to know that anyone can contribute something.After the year 2000, Ferran insisted on this a lot.
Eduard Xatruch: We were aware that the ideas had to end up in the kitchen. That means being realistic. Adrià didn’t have any taboos. That’s why he considered things like hot ice cream. But we knew we had to come up with a viable end result. Our aim wasn’t to write down crazy ideas which were meaningless or impossible. We were looking for things that we thought might be achievable. We would say: ‘Someday it’s going to work’. Sometimes you know that it is missing scientific or technological support. You’re a chef and you can only get so far. But then you start looking at technology. We have continually been testing machines and designing tools to get the results we wanted.One day, for example, we asked for a nitrogen hotplate to be made for us.
Oriol Castro: Ferran did lots of courses and shared lots of feedbackwith people from other disciplines.In 2004 we did lots of courses in cooking technology, and from that point on there was a huge change.
At the heart of elBulli’s philosophy there were four main pillars. “Contribute something, learn, have fun and be different,”says Marc Cuspinera.
Contribute something, learn, have fun and be different. It’s a way of understanding life
And so the day came in 2011 when Adrià thought there was not much more to contribute by doing the same thing. “Ferran said you reach a limit and you cannot keep innovating forever. That’s why he decided to do something else,” says Castro.
For 25 years he had been sharing dishes and after that he wanted to share everything that he had learned at elBulli.