At one point in my interview with Ferran Adria, the chef decided he needed a visual aid to explain a point, so I gave him my notebook for him to doodle on. (And, yes, that piece of paper is now tacked up in my cube, signed by the chef — an acknowledgment of the fanboy hiding inside this reporter.)
It’s hard to tell from Adria’s crude, cave-dweller-like drawings (see photo, at right), but he was explaining the various stages of an ingredient, from raw form to highly manipulated restaurant dish. His two examples were a tomato and a cow (That potatolike figure on the left side of the notepad, with the stick legs protruding from it? Adria’s “cow.”)
The point Adria was trying to make — as best I understood it via the chef’s interpreter — is that most of the innovation in the culinary world has come from the highly manipulated side of this equation. What’s more, he noted, this over-manipulation of an ingredient sometimes inspires critics to accuse chefs of debasing an ingredient, even if the criticism is woefully hypocritical.
“Someone comes to the Minibar and has the asparagus sorbet and says, ‘Oh, this is scandalous. Natural asparagus is great. Why do this?’” Adria said. “But then that same evening, he goes to another restaurant, and he orders a strawberry sorbet and says, ‘It’s the most wonderful thing.’”
Adria’s commentary clearly struck a chord with the chef’s former student and now fellow culinary celebrity, Jose Andres. The Washington chef-restaurateur says Adria does not receive enough attention for the techniques he pioneered that don’t require dehydrators, thermal immersion circulators and vacuum sealers.
“Some of the most amazing techniques come from Ferran at El Bulli. They’ve been probably the techniques that no one has ever talked about,” Andres said. “You know the best dish at El Bulli? The best technique of El Bulli ever? To me? It is a clam.”
Andres explained that at El Bulli, the cooks simply dunked raw clams in a pot of boiling water for three seconds before serving them. The technique takes the raw, chewy edge off the clam, Andres pointed out, while “maintaining perfectly its form and its look. I have to show it to you for you to really understand the difference.”
“He improved the clams and the mussels and other bivalves,” Andres added. “That’s one of the most powerful techniques. Everyone concentrates more on the foams and that sort of thing because that’s more showy. But those are the techniques that really made El Bulli . . . . Those techniques are sometimes the best contributions of El Bulli to the world, and sometimes they are completely under the radar. ”