Chef Ferran Adria of Spain talks about his new book and the closing of his famous restaurant "ElBulli". He was interviewed at the West End Bistro in Washington DC September 29, 2011. (John McDonnell/TWP)

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.”

Defining ‘creativity’

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, when confronted with how often he uses the word “creativity,” Adria acted almost embarrassed. “It’s a pretentious, horrible word, man,” the chef said.

There’s no question that Adria set the bar high for himself throughout his 27-year career at El Bulli, particularly from the mid-1990s on, when he was dedicated to discovering new ideas, techniques and dishes every single year (save for 2002, when he took the season off to reflect, offer a greatest-hits menu and “determine the future direction of El Bulli,” according to his 2008 tome, “A Day at El Bulli”). Across a mostly empty table inside a mostly empty dining room at Westend Bistro, I ask Adria point-blank whether he decided to close El Bulli because he could no longer live up to Maximin’s definition of creativity.

Perhaps he had started copying himself?

“Not exactly,” Adria says through his interpreter. “But I could have gotten to that point. I decided to change the situation before I reached that point. . . . It wasn’t so much about the dishes but the dining experience. I felt that we reached a limit as far as a dining experience. We couldn’t give people more dishes. Not just physically but psychologically, people couldn’t absorb so much. You couldn’t absorb more than 45 dishes” in one sitting.

How El Bulli Foundation will continue Adria’s traditions, and whether it will prepare meals for public consumption, have been subjects of some debate in the media. That might be a function of Adria’s own open-mindedness about the project.

When I wonder aloud about the foundation’s mission, Adria explains that it won’t be “too different from what we’ve been doing up to now.” He describes the mission as, simply, to “create and show.” The latter term is somewhat ambiguous and apparently means the foundation will show off most of its work online, where chefs around the world can draw cutting-edge inspiration.

Redefining the chef’s role

But as he did with cuisine and cooking, Adria also wants to blow up preconceived notions about being a chef.

“Chefs have only been able to work in restaurants, high-end cuisine. Why? Why haven’t they been able to find other scenarios? For those chefs who want to do avant-garde cuisine, should they be finding their income in a restaurant?” Ferran says. “These are the kind of questions we are asking ourselves. So the new scenario will allow them to do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it.”

As arch and theoretical as that sounds, it’s firmly rooted in practical matters, Adria says. El Bulli’s full-time staffers, for instance, have grown older and have started families; they wanted a more stable life away from the late-night, high-anxiety, hard-drinking world of restaurant kitchens. But Adria also saw other problems starting to bubble up.

“If we hadn’t created the foundation, we wouldn’t have been able to continue. As a restaurant, as the existing model, we would have probably lasted another couple of years,” he says. “The system couldn’t stand El Bulli’s success. . . . So we had to find a scenario that was acceptable to most people, which allowed them to continue to do what they like doing, which was to be creative.”

It’s important to remember when contemplating El Bulli — and the experimental dining rooms that followed it, such as Grant Achatz’s Alinea, Rene Redzepi’s Noma, Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 and Andres’s Minibar — that these kinds of restaurants spin in a rarefied orbit. Their aims are markedly different from those of a more traditional restaurant. I was reminded of that when I introduced the subject of art and food, and whether an operation like El Bulli ever feels a responsibility just to satiate a diner’s appetite.

“In an avant-garde cooking restaurant, it’s the experience,” Adria says. “That’s the difference.”

At this point, Andres decides to chime in. Once he joined the group, about 15 minutes into the interview, he assumed a role somewhat surprising for Washington’s hyperkinetic chef: He sat still and remained mostly silent, occasionally picking lint off his mentor’s jacket, like a manservant. But if anyone at this table can discuss the difference between high-volume and high-concept cooking, it’s Jose Andres, whose ever-growing empire embraces everyday eating and modernist experiments.

The standard restaurant “is a function of having a good time,” Andres says. “We’re going to have a good meal. We’re going to have a good time, good food. But there’s this other restaurant [where] they achieve the kind of moment of perfection, of reflection, of thinking, inner thinking. Of, like, ‘Wow!’ ”

Minibar the next El Bulli?

Andres’s own commentary seems to generate further self-reflection, as though he has started to compare himself against his mentor and found himself coming up short.

“The difference with me is that I began feeding the masses,” Andres continues. “Ferran began feeding the few. Everyone knows that my heart always was with the philosophy of Ferran and the philosophy of El Bulli. It took me longer to dedicate myself, and still I’m far away.”

Andres then immediately mentions plans to expand Minibar once his pop-up restaurant, America Eats Tavern, finishes its run in the former Cafe Atlantico space on Eighth Street NW. He indicates that he has been talking with Adria about the project.

“One of the things we are really [talking about], back and forth, is, ‘Jose, exactly what do you want Minibar to become?’ ” Andres says. “What am I willing to give? How many hours am I willing to do? How many days am I going to open a year? What’s the creative team? How am I going to keep up the many hotels around the world and the restaurants around Washington but keep the Minibar ‘Minibar’?”

Does that mean the expanded Minibar might adopt El Bulli’s model and close six months out of the year to devote time to pure creativity?

“That could be part of . . . .,” Andres says and then wanders into another thought. “If not, he kills me. “

“He” would be Adria.

Andres’s joke has taken on more pathos since the interview. I learned after the fact that Adria had fired Andres from his post at El Bulli in 1990, prompting the student to pack his bags and move to America, where good things were waiting. When the three of us sat together, however, Adria had nothing but praise for Andres, although he indicated that El Bulli’s kitchen team wasn’t always so focused in those days.

“He was very passionate about what he did,” Adria says about Andres. “It wasn’t just work. That was the bohemian phase of El Bulli, in which we were partying wildly.”

“Sunglasses in the morning,” Andres adds.

“The most amazing thing is how we actually were capable of working after all that,” Adria continues. “We were partying every day, maybe, but we still were working hard at our jobs. At that time, we had no idea that we ever would reach where we did.”