Ferran Adria looks tired and distracted. He’s milling around Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert, waiting for his friend and former acolyte Jose Andres to arrive, so we can start our interview proper. Adria’s dress is casual, almost thrown together: a gray T-shirt and black jacket that match his thinning salt-and-pepper hair. He has a paunch that protrudes from his jacket, a professional hazard.
Adria has brought his own translator, Lucy Garcia, who speaks a crisply enunciated English, a remnant of years living in South Africa with her Spanish parents. They’ve both come to Washington for a quick 24-hour visit so Adria can speak at George Washington University. The 49-year-old master of modernist cooking is also using the opportunity to promote his latest cookbook. “The Family Meal” is a collection of three-course menus that Adria and his team created to feed the staff at El Bulli, his gastronomic Mecca in Roses, Spain, which recently told its devoted followers to seek thrills elsewhere. The restaurant closed in July.
But more than that, Adria is here to help sell his vision of El Bulli Foundation, his forthcoming think tank and research facility that will operate out of the shuttered restaurant, where the chef will continue to push the boundaries of cooking and perhaps groom the next generation’s Ferran Adria. At this very moment, however, I get the feeling that Adria’s most immediate vision involves an afternoon nap rather than trying to explain himself one more time to yet another journalist who has never made the pilgrimage to Roses.
Away from the cocoons of his kitchen and lab, Adria adopts a public persona that has left more than one interviewer puzzled. He describes his avant-garde cuisine (“cocina de vanguardia”) as a “language” and notes that he strives to tell a story with his long, multi-dish tasting menus that could incorporate everything from freeze-dried foams to olive oil cylinders. He acknowledges that people “tell us the cooking we do is pretentious, and sometimes you cannot argue,” but then performs an oral pirouette and wonders, somewhat pointedly, “But for whom is it pretentious?” Mostly, though, Adria worries that he has “not been good enough in explaining myself and explaining what El Bulli’s all about.”
Perhaps his pain is the kind unique to the pioneer. (Imagine a peer describing you as Spanish chef Juan Mari Arzak once described Adria to Time magazine: “He is the most important chef in the history of cuisine.”) Avant-garde cooking such as Adria’s is sort of like space exploration: It fascinates a great many people, due not only to its groundbreaking discoveries but also to the tools and equipment used to find them. At the same time, avant-garde cooking annoys many, who find its inflated costs unjustified and its aims unfocused. Isn’t cooking, after all, meant merely to satisfy a primal urge: namely, hunger?
Adria sometimes seems as if he cannot, or has yet to, reconcile those two perspectives on his career. To use one somewhat startling example: Adria’s cooking philosophy at El Bulli has been inspired almost exclusively by a remark that French chef Jacques Maximin made in the late 1980s. “Creativity means not copying” is a mantra Adria has repeatedly invoked to justify his aims and even the short season of his restaurant, which would open for just six months a year. But in a recent Q&A with Eater.com, when confronted with how often he uses the word “creativity,” Adria acted almost embarrassed. “It’s a pretentious, horrible word, man,” the chef said.