They needed cheap staff. That’s how he got the job at elBulli. Ferran called him. He was his brother. He was 15 and the idea really excited him. This would get Albert Adrià away from home and bring him to Cala Montjoi.
That was in 1985. Then, “elBulli was nothing like it is now”. It already had two Michelin stars, but when Ferran came in as head chef, one was taken away. People still saw a young 23-year-old guy with those two great accolades.
It was a time when, according to the chef, “gastronomy was not a social phenomenon which was talked about on television. The fact that someone was a chef was not celebrated. The atmosphere was very naïve, innocent, with a hippy vibe.” At the end of the 80s, “we were completely penniless and we lived in a ramshackle caravan which we didn’t even lock, as there was nothing in it to steal. We all lived together. We had no TV or radio. We got a video player four years later. The only thing there was to do was to listen to cassettes or to read comics which Juli brought us from France.”
The Table is investigating the creative process of elBulli. Today we focus on Tickets, one of Albert Adrià’s restaurants.
Jorge Martínez: Does Ferran Adrià like cooking?
Albert Adrià: It’s his passion. It’s similar to what happened with Guardiola. It looked like he was going to make history as a great player, and he ended up being a great coach. The same thing’s happening with Ferran. He might make history as an ideologist rather than as a chef.
Toni Segarra: Ferran says that he likes creativity and that he cooks because he likes to eat.
A.A.: I’m less sophisticated. I love cooking. We got our passion for cooking from Ferran. He cooked from the time he got up to the time he went to sleep. Later on, he could no longer cook with such zeal.
T.S.: Does there come a point where something clicks and you decide to start being creative?
A.A.: Ferran never gave up on the idea of making the customer happy. At first, we only worked weekends and there was a regular clientèle. Ferran was committed to customers, each time they came back, they would eat something different. The winter months were very hard. Hardly anybody came, but even so, he always wanted us to do things better.
At that time we only closed for two months a year. Then three months, and so on until we ended up closing for six months a year. That year he prepared a work plan for the time the kitchen would be closed. And we always relied on books. It was very different then to how it is now. To create something, you need to be inspired in some way. Information is vital. But then we only had a few books and some photos. Nothing else. To know what another chef was doing you had to have a friend who had gone to their restaurant, or you had to go yourself.
Later, we had a new kitchen put in, but we never thought of setting up somewhere to work on our creations. Soon we realised that we needed somewhere like that. We had no time and nowhere to work on our creations, but we started to have money. I always say that to be creative you need three things: money, money, and more money. With money you can buy somewhere to work, time, and a team.
T.S.: Where did the money come from?
A.A.: From the first contracts we signed with companies for external consulting and catering. In 1997 Oriol (Castro) and I went to do the catering for an aquarium. The great merit of that decision was sacrificing two creative people and getting them out of the restaurant.
J.M.: How did creativity start to come into your work?
A.A.: We started creating a dialogue between ourselves and the restaurant. We would start constructing a dish and Ferran would finish it off. We would write down good ideas and he would perfect them. Afterwards, he would give us assignments. For example, making hot jelly or hot ice cream. The first one worked, and as is almost always the case with us, was a stroke of luck.
That led us to discover what our work really was. We were conceptual technicians.
“To be creative you need three things: money, money, and more money”
That discovery led us to another. This one: “We saw that in general, the best way of working was with water. It’s the best thing for modifying textures because its pH is neutral.”
Albert Adrià decided to demonstrate 25 different textures of water alone, and, according to him, this ended up being one of the best ways to explain to the world what they did in the elBulli workshop. “They invited me to a patisserie conference in Las Vegas and I demonstrated it there. They asked me what ingredients I would need and I said:
“Yes, 25 litres every day of the conference.”
They were so surprised that they called the organisers who came and asked me what I was planning to do”.
What the chef did was to show that “you can be creative using only water. You can change its temperature, play with its density so that you have a glass where half the water is cold and half the water is hot… This makes people reflect on your work, as well as making you think about your own work. Conferences and courses really helped us to progress in our work as every year we had to present something new. The best thing that has happened in this country is that chefs now have a dialogue with each other, and share their work. When we started out, chefs didn’t go out, and they would hide their reservation books.”
For Albert Adrià, attitude plays a big part in being creative. “You start to question everything. We’ve just been to a cocktail event in London and the first thing I asked myself was ´what is a cocktail?´. You then ask yourself what you need: in this case a glass. The most important things really are the container, the ice and the liquid. You keep going and ask yourself, for example, what happens when an ice cube is osmotised? Does it melt first?”
Adrià says, “It’s also very important to gain knowledge. Reading, reading, and more reading. We would spend four hours reading for every hour we spent in the kitchen. When you’re working towards being the best, there’s no time to celebrate your successes. That success requires an even greater level of demand.”
“The best thing that has happened in this country is that chefs now have a dialogue with each other, and share their work.”
But there’s something else. “What really motivates a creative person is fear. At least, that’s what motivates me. It’s a basic drive. You start to channel this fear into something positive. I’m not talking about a dramatic or self-destructive fear.
T.S.: What’s the difference between elBulli and Tickets?
A.A.: elBulli was like being in a car which was going at full speed even though it was on fire, and now, with Tickets, I’m aiming to go at cruising speed. I’m inspired by memories and I’m bringing back a lot of dishes that made that extra difference at elBulli, like cauliflower couscous. But now I prepare them in a way that is much more down to earth. I no longer have that pressure of having to revolutionise cooking with every dish.
Enrique Gracián: To create something like elBulli, does the car have to crash eventually?
A.A.: Yes. Closing down was the best thing we could have done, and we did so at at the best possible time in our professional careers. In a conference in Vitoria, Ferran, who was then thirty-something, said he would retire when he was 50. People thought he was crazy. They thought he was a chef who would work for the rest of his life. Coincidentally, Ferran was 50 when he closed elBulli.
J.M.: Did the team burn out too?
A.A.: No, but we had all had children. Working flat out meant not seeing your family five days a week. To get to that point you need to make big sacrifices.
J.M.: What made people like Marc Cuspinera or Oriol Castro stay with Ferran and what made you embark on your own path?
A.A.: I don’t feel like I’m on another path. I’m continuing elBulli’s path. We’re each doing our own thing but we’re all part of the same story. We’ve inherited the same style: honesty, passion, humility… If you don’t have the humility to get up every day and know you have everything to learn, how are you going to keep on learning?
T.S.: I’d like to talk about the relationship with the diner. At elBulli we didn´t really care if they would like the dish or not. What was important to us was that they try new things.
A.A.: Customers valued our rebelliousness. If something was done in one way, we did it in another way, and that was what the customer was looking for. There was little discussion about dishes which nobody ordered. They had to be on the menu too.
J.M.: elBulli was unprofitable. Was it because you weren’t able to make it profitable, or because you didn’t want to?
A.A.: In the last few years we made a bit of money. The Spanish are very good at haute cuisine, but we’re not so good at creating models which can be replicated. I don’t think there are any Spaniards in the list of the top 100 earners. We weren’t the only ones who didn’t know how to make money. Also, being in Cala Montjoy isn’t the same as being in London. Ferran wanted to be in elBulli every day that it was open, and that too had a price to pay.
If your aim is to make money, you can end up with a feast today and a famine tomorrow. I have a long term goal. What’s for certain is that the more honest you get, the less you earn.
J.M.: Did Ferran work towards creating the elBulli brand?
A.A.: Ferran became aware of the importance that the brand had. Sometimes he would do six or seven interviews a day. He would perfect what he was going to say, and the act of reflecting on his answers meant that he would also perfect his cooking. You even realise you can go 20 years telling the same lie. But it works (he laughs).
J.M.: Do you think that the creative process of elBulli can be replicated?
A.A.: Yes. I’m lucky enough to work with all types of creative people. Designers, interior designers, architects, photographers… I look at their work processes and I look at ours. You realise that there are a million ways to do a good job: And also that you have to be quick. At elBulli we only had the winter to create the menu for the next season. That’s why we were very pragmatic and efficient when it came to deciding on new crockery, products… We never had long meetings. Whatever you say after half an hour or 40 minutes is unnecessary.