Spanish chef takes creativity to dizzying heights

By Sarah Andrews, Associated Press Writer

Innovative Spanish chef Ferran Adria examines ingredients in his kitchen workshop in Barcelona, Spain.
Bernat Armangue/AP

 

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Waiter, there's coconut milk and ginger in my squid ravioli!

That is one of the delights served up by award-winning Spanish chef Ferran Adria, who spends half the year tinkering in a workshop that's as much science lab as kitchen, and who has become an idol to gourmets worldwide.

The menu at his restaurant El Bulli has also featured Parmesan ice cream sandwiches as hors d'oeuvres, and main courses of yeast soup with cream, cinnamon and lemon sorbet or freeze-dried foie gras.

Dessert? Try some white chocolate wafers marbled with black olive puree.

Adria's goal is to break molds - the ones that determine what food should look or feel like. He takes dishes apart, or 'deconstructs' them, as he puts it, and reassembles them with an unexpected texture or temperature.

Take Adria's trademark foams, airy reincarnations of solid food that were initially made with help from a bicycle pump. One was born of tea and seaweed. Copied techniques can be spotted in restaurants in New York, London and San Francisco.

''Ferran is certainly the most innovative and revolutionary chef working today, and to some extent he will influence the thinking of many contemporary chefs,'' said Lidia Bastianich, last year's James Beard chef of the year and owner of the New York City restaurant Felidia.

Adria's restaurant two hours north of Barcelona is a mecca for epicureans worldwide and Adria is credited with introducing modern Spanish cuisine to the rest of the world.

Behind all the creativity is hunger for knowledge and the joy of eating. ''For us, investigation is all about giving pleasure. Until now, not much work had been done to find out the 'why' behind out food. But that's changing,'' Adria said in an interview.

''For example, there are 50 different forms of gelatin, but traditional chefs use just two of them. Why don't we learn what happens with the other forms?''

Proof of Adria's reach is the international recognition he attracts. In November he was awarded the ''Silver Spoon'' by the prestigious magazine Food Art, and the New York Times Magazine ran an extensive cover article about the chef in August.

The self-taught chef dismisses the hype as ''an atomic bubble that's going to explode one day.'' He's eager to share the accolades with colleagues and sees himself as just part of a movement shaking up Spanish kitchens and earning Spain the label of ''the new France'' in culinary circles.

''There are many great chefs in Spain, many. When so many chefs are all working toward the same thing, that's a movement,'' Adria said. Wearing a plain gray sweater, he chatted comfortably in his Barcelona workshop, where he experiments with new dishes and techniques six months a year.

For Adria it's important not to copy his past work or that of others. So every year he develops an all-new menu for El Bulli, working with his team of chefs from October to March, when the restaurant is closed. At the workshop, new techniques are developed and perfected. Chefs toy with processes like ''centrifugation,'' a way of separating the solid matter out of liquids, and practice quick-freezing foods with liquid nitrogen. They burn rice, curdle milk, put slivers of dry ice inside food, all just to see what happens. Everything is documented.

Adria isn't talking about what this year's diners should expect when the restaurant reopens in April. But his final menu will features dozens of tiny dishes that are served one after another in a parade of texture and flavor that lasts hours. Adria controls the process carefully, timing each dish and telling diners - who have no say in what they're served - how to eat each one.

''It's impressive,'' said Miguel Torres, a Spanish winemaker and repeat customer at El Bulli. ''Thirty-some plates went by in a symphony of aromas and tastes. It showed so much imagination, but everything was linked together. They started with light dishes and moved on to more powerful ones. By the end, I couldn't eat another bite.''

Adria can't avoid comparison with other Spanish greats. He's been called the Dali of the kitchen and a modern Picasso. Some say he's done for cuisine what director Pedro Almodovar has done for Spanish cinema.

Adria says he doesn't like comparisons, but he recognizes relating his work to art, film or fashion is sometimes the only way to make it understood.

''Only time will tell how important we've been,'' Adria said. ''But the fact that one way of measuring the modernity of Spain is by its cuisine is, for me and for our profession, very important. It seemed like cooking couldn't be culture, but it's in the mainstream now.''
By SARAH ANDREWS
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