Ferran Adrià: “Avant-garde is not business”

Behind the streets we walk along every day, through those alleyways you never go down, the city hides hidden landscapes and unimaginable scenes. That’s where creativity is found. In that uncertain detour that Ferran Adrià took.

Behind the streets we walk along every day, through those alleyways you never go down, the city hides hidden landscapes and unimaginable scenes. That’s where creativity is found. In that uncertain detour that Ferran Adrià took.

His trade always walks along that same asphalt. Behind the streets we walk along every day, through those alleyways you never go down, the city hides hidden landscapes and unimaginable scenes. That’s where creativity is found. In that uncertain detour that Ferran Adrià took. “The aim to make things which have never been imagined before”, says Toni Segarra. “That’s what Arzak always says that Adrià achieved with his gastronomy”.

Today’s path leads to the elBulli foundation, in Barcelona. Ferran is waiting, and as he waits, he works, as always. Waiting on a thousand things at a time.

Toni Segarra, Jorge Martínez and Enrique Gracián are investigating what happened at Cala Montjoi which turned a place where they killed time playing cards into the best restaurant in the world.
Adrià threw the cards out of the window and decided that they wouldn’t kill time any more. Instead, he would take advantage of it and make it his ally. It would become the detonator which triggered the mutation of the restaurant into an “R+D department”, as Ferran would call it.

The four of them sit around a table. Toni starts with some conclusions. And they go wherever the discussion takes them. Moreso when Adrià is there, a man who walks ten kilometres behind a brain which moves at the speed of light.

“elBulli is is a radical exercise of freedom. A freedom which is almost disobedient. It’s a constant exercise which can’t be repeated. It’s the search for what others do but never do again”, says Segarra. “The interview with Vicente Todolí shed a lot of light on the subject for us. He said: ‘The creative process can’t be made into a method, which then develops into a formula and takes away the freedom to create’. Todolí thinks that the creator works to construct that freedom for himself, and that research is a fundamental part of that free space. This is clearly seen at Tickets and at Bodega 1900 You laugh at convention. ‘Auditing the creative process’ would then be something like the posthumous exhibition of a Ferran who doesn’t, created by a new Ferran.’

“elBulli is a radical exercise of freedom”

“The exhibition is a reflection on the creative process”, explains the chef. “It’s an exhibition which encourages people to reflect on what they do. From this starting point, the project changes by the minute. The first reflection is that there are thousands of millions of creative processes. But without freedom they have no purpose. Freedom is used to change them into something useful”.

“Within the realm of creativity, thousands of classifications can be made”, continues Adrià. “The creative process forms part of the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, and why). Business is something else entirely. That’s where marketing comes into it… Today the elBulli foundation’s aim is to create a business school where the creative process is the only thing that is studied. In the case of Apple, for example, you need to look at how Steve Jobs worked. Each year 30 people would come and study creative processes for eight months”.

Regarding the commissioner’s statement he adds: “Vicente Todolí comes from the art world but we work from the entrepreneurial side of things. Sometimes both worlds will have to mix, but art is completely different”.

Jorge Martínez: Did elBulli come out of the method or out of the freedom?

Ferran Adrià: We used the methodology that we wanted to. We had a method which consisted of continuously changing our hours and schedules. That’s what freedom is, and it becomes an organisational resource. Continued change is our methodology.

T.S.: What would happen if the 1988 Ferran, the one who had just started working in a restaurant, visited this exhibition? What would he think?

F. A.: The 1988 Ferran would flip out. At that time the word creativity wasn’t used in the kitchen. In the Robert Laffont collection, written in the 70s and considered the bible of nouvelle cuisine, there was no book called: ‘Creative cuisine’. That term wasn’t used until we did a study at elBulli on creativity in the kitchen. In 1987 I wasn’t aware of this.

J.M. Do you not think that making this content into something to be studied takes away the freedom to create?

F.A.: No. Sharing changed the history of cooking. The elBulli generation of chefs has been revolutionary. Sharing and opening knowledge works. It’s a tool, just like a book, a master’s degree, or an application.
Enrique Gracián: The drive for creativity and the passion for cooking are two different things. It’s probable that that Ferran had the drive to create, and afterwards he discovered his passion for cooking. Has that passion gone now?

F.A.: I felt passion for creativity. I cook at home because I like to eat, not because I like to cook. I could have lost my passion, but I changed so that that wouldn’t happen. One of the most important things that we are seeing in this audit is the capacity that elBulli had to not get stuck in a routine. That’s the most difficult thing in life: maintaining the illusion. How did we do it? Change, constant change. Changing our own ways of doing things because the concept of change is very different for each person. Ask, for example, the painter Antonio López.

Also, there are many people who work with no passion. A great many. In 99% of restaurants there is no passion. It’s not a criticism. They’re professionals who do things well. Passion is a plus. Do you think that I work? No. People work for money. Or for their ego. But I don’t do it for that either.

E.G.: Vincent van Gogh ended up being really unlucky, both economically and socially. His life was adisaster but he kept painting until he died. Eventually elBulli became an international benchmark, but that might not have happened. If it hadn’t happened…


Ferran interrupts him. He is a man with boundless energy. “My personal creativity says: ‘Don’t worry about what you can’t change’. I never dreamt about being on the front page of The New York Times. We’ve never celebrated our success. I didn’t care about all of that. I used it to gain freedom. A lot of people use it to have Porsches, Ferraris… That doesn’t mean that they value their rewards. I enjoy it even though it’s a small prize.

T.S.: We were talking about the difficulty of creating after Marchel Duchamp. It’s very difficult to create after someone as groundbreaking as that. Do you agree that a piece of work like that wreaks havoc and makes it more difficult for those coming onto the scene afterwards?

F.A.: I can’t speak about other people. The last revolution in gastronomy was a cultural one. Western cuisine looked towards America and opened new roads from there. It’s a cultural disruption. It’s nothing conceptual. You can be innovative with techniques, products, methodologies, styles… Nouvelle cuisine, which was very innovative, was incorporated at elBulli. It’s very strange for two innovators to appear in one disciple within just 30 years. elBulli explored the limits of business. There are two important moments in my career.

One was at Documenta (where I contextualised creativity in the cuisine) and this work that I’m doing now to deepen my knowledge even more. It was then that I understood that cooking is cooking, not a performance. In 1997 we were already making dishes that we know no one would like, with the aim that eventually people would grow to like them. At that time, doing that was very innovative. Now you have to go beyond those limits, or you will just be making variations on what has already been done.

T.S.: There is a theory which is being talked about at the moment called momentum. In every discipline, there are some steps which are more conducive to evolution than others. And there are aspects which cause a progression to occur. We were wondering if photography changed your profession.

F.A.: No. Photography didn’t, but the internet did. Making a dish look beautiful for a photograph is a new aspect of cooking, but it hasn’t changed it. The internet didn’t change the result but it did change the way people work. elBulli would not have existed if the internet was around at that time. The web would not have given us the 14 years that we had to research and create in peace.

“elBulli would not have existed if the internet was around at that time”

E.G.: When innovative cuisine comes onto the scene, it also causes the consumer to innovate.

F.A.: But the consumer doesn’t know that. The first person to try hot jelly didn’t know that this had never been done before. I’ve always said that the Bullipedia is a project for professionals.

T.S.: The consumer learns something, and their learning process has resulted in our creativity being able to improve. That’s another thing the consumer isn’t aware of. You’ve shown the diner a lot of things.

F.A.: It’s a predisposition, more than a learning process. To make something that is avant-garde you can’t take into account what each person likes. You have to experiment. It’s not something that can be created through study. elBulli is an R+D department. And it’s not me saying that. That’s how a business school would classify us. Only people capable of making economic sacrifices are capable of being avant-garde. Avant-garde is never a business.

Ferran takes a step back in time and leads the conversation towards elBulli DNA. He says that “it’s an observation of the creative process in the world of entrepreneurialism and innovation”. It’s one of the pillars of his new project. “We’re going to look for formulas for small businesses, or indeed anyone, to learn how to be more efficient. There is already a team called elBulliDNALab working on this. It’s one of the new teams at our future business school in Barcelona, together with elBulli1846Lab and BullipediaLab. Our effectiveness was extraordinary, and we want to share it however we can. The first piece of work that we did as part of this project was organising the exhibition ‘Auditing the creative process’ “.

He laughs, excuses himself, and tries to bring the conversation to a close. “One of the characteristics of a creative personality is challenging yourself. There has to be a ‘what next?’. If you don’t keep asking yourself this question, the passion can fizzle out.”