Bulli for him: Ferran Adria on why he's the world's greatest chef

Pioneer, genius, magician. Even among the world's elite chefs, Ferran Adria is pretty special. But what gave him the idea to encase egg yolks in caramel? What does he make of Jamie Oliver? And can Susie Rushton manage to jump the 125-year queue at his restaurant, El Bulli?
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Ferran Adria, the world's greatest living chef, is relaxing with an espresso in the expensively twee Georgian Restaurant on the top floor of Harrods. British restaurants, he allows, are not only no longer embarrassingly bad, but "Fantastica – haute cuisine in London is now on the same level as New York and Paris. And casual types of dining out here are also interesting now. I don't mean the top end. I mean, you know, very casual places, like Roka."

The young Spanish PR who is interpreting the words of this legend of gastronomy raises her eyebrows. The £65-a-head (without wine) Japanese restaurant to which he refers isn't exactly Kath's Caff.

But this is the proprietor of ElBulli talking, after all. El Bulli – or elBulli as he prefers to style it – has been voted the best in the world three times, including this year and last, in Restaurant magazine's Top 50 poll. If every one of those half a million would-be diners who try to make a reservation at the restaurant in the village of Roses on the Costa Brava actually got their table, it would be full for the next 125 years. It is already booked out for every sitting in 2008. Every October, during the tiny window of opportunity when the electronic reservations list opens, foodies around the globe cross their fingers and press "send". Even Adria's own amigos can't jump the queue.

"I have to say the same thing to all my friends," he ruefully admits, palms open, "Ask of me whatever you want but one thing: a dinner in El Bulli. And you cannot understand how sad that makes me. You could ask me why we don't increase the prices, but I don't cook for millionaires."

The few who do get their once-in-a-lifetime table at El Bulli don't go to spot celebrities or admire the decor. They pay £125 to eat, or perhaps to submit to, a 32-course menu de dégustation that has been described as by turns playful, amazing and frightening. For six months during the winter, Adria and his team close the restaurant and shutter themselves up in his gastronomic workshop in Barcelona, the El Bulli "Taller", or atelier, where they experiment with liquid hydrogen, candy-floss machines, chemical baths. The resulting innovations have over the past decade continually confounded expectations of what cookery, or indeed food, can be. "I want to make people think and reflect," he states, sounding more like a conceptual artist than an effing chef – and indeed Adria has blurred definitions of both.

So what is dinner at El Bulli like? Like most of us, I'll probably never get to find out, but it is said to begin with a glass of pine tree water, or perhaps a margarita that is served in a block of carved ice containing shards of frozen cocktail with a blob of olive-flavoured foam. With stately pace, the dishes appear, small tapas-sized portions of green pepper nougat, or a single egg yolk cased in caramel, cherries dipped in what appears to be white chocolate but is actually ham fat. Many of the courses are designed to be consumed in a single mouthful, or slurp. Some are composite dishes are served with instructions from the waiter: eat the scampi, while sniffing this piece of rosemary. Slivers of tuna that have been dried and cured using the same method as jamon iberico are eaten with specially crafted tweezers tailor-made for the dish by an in-house industrial designer. Then there'll be a plate of spaghetti formed from Parmesan cheese and popcorn foam accompanied by a caramelised ball of liquid pumpkin, a small grilled fish swaddled in white candy floss, apple-flavoured "caviar" served in a Beluga tin, coffee and lychee marbles floating in chocolate soup. Ingredients might be utterly transformed by unexpected colour, texture and temperature, but they can be quite humble – Adria doesn't rely on hunks of truffle to amaze his diners or hike up prices. He assigns value to foods that are normally underrated. Over the past 12 years he and his dedicated "development squad" have invented thousands of such dishes that sound counterintuitive but are said to have clean, clear and, usually, absolutely delicious flavours.

"El Bulli is not a restaurant," declares Adria gravely, fixing me with an intense brown-eyed gaze, "It is not a business. It is a place where we push the limits of the kitchen – and we happen to share the results of that with the people that go there."

Adria is routinely described as the chef's chef and the most influential cook since Escoffier. His style is widely imitated. It was Adria who first used a soda siphon to make cappuccino-like foams that taste of carrot or popcorn, "Which is a relatively bog-standard thing now," says the chef Heston Blumenthal, "But when he started that – it was groundbreaking."

Blumenthal and Adria are close friends – despite the fact that it was the former's Fat Duck restaurant in Bray that was knocked off the Restaurant magazine number one slot in 2006. "Ferran has done more for world gastronomy than anyone else in the past 10 years," he says. In return, Adrio says of Blumenthal, "Mi amigo," and punches his heart, " we are close. There's no rivalry."

The two men, along with Thomas Keller of French Laundry in California, are popularly considered to be the foremost proponents of "molecular gastronomy". Up until now Adria, composed and good-humoured, hasn't played the part of the prickly chef. But mention those two words and his smile melts faster than a heap of his frozen foie gras powder.

"Look. The way I cook was born in the mid-Nineties. And the term molecular gastronomy was used from 2004. So it looks like the way we cook was born in 2004 – but it wasn't. And a VERY IMPORTANT POINT TO MAKE," he instructs, holding one finger in the air, "Is that science is really important. And you've got to respect it. Sometimes there is a lack of sensitivity and it can look like a puppet show, not serious. So the image that the public has of molecular cuisine is a bit like a puppet show. I would stress that it needs to be taken seriously.

"I have a lot of respect for the science world. And when Norman Foster works with the world of science, or when Phillippe Starck or Steven Spielberg do, nobody talks about them making scientific buildings or scientific movies. It's just normal that science helps and supports disciplines. It's never become normal in the kitchen. But that doesn't mean it is a type of cookery."

Out of his customary whites and sitting at our table in a black leather jacket, Adria looks like a regular 45-year-old Spanish guy. He met his wife, Isabel, in Roses 20 years ago. They have no children; he tries to make time for his old friends even though he's invited to fancy events and is stopped in the street for autographs. Yes, he has enough money, he says, but doesn't own a car. He insists he lives "a normal life. Everything that's special is connected to my work."

Ferran Adria Acosta was born in a suburb of Barcelona in 1962. Restaurants are traditionally a family profession in Spain. But Adria's father was a painter and decorator. "I grew up eating normal food, of course. French fries. Just like any other kid in Spain. I started being interested in food purely by accident." He has a brother, Albert, who is seven years younger and who now also works with him, as a pâtisserie chef. At school Adria studied economics but at the age of 18 decided he wanted to go " partying in Ibiza. Raving. My parents were OK with it. But they did say, 'If you want to go on holiday, you have to pay for it yourself." Adria's father found him a job at the Hotel Playafels in the town of Castelldefels where a friend was head chef. "I washed dishes for six months. Then I started to prepare salads."

After a period of military service when he cooked in the navy, at the suggestion of another recruit in 1984 he got a job as chef de partie at El Bulli. At the time it served a seafood tourist menu influenced by French haute cuisine. When the head chef left six months later, Adria and fellow cook Christian Lutaud were put in charge. The manager, Juli Soler, gave the young chefs freedom to visit other restaurants in Spain and France to get ideas for new dishes.

"I never had any teachers, but I was somebody who always asked 'why?'" says Adria, "I was always questioning myself. If you are instilled with everything from the very beginning you don't ask any questions yourself. I keep asking myself now – what's the point of going to restaurants? Why do people go? What motivates them? And it's from asking those questions that I started."

In the late Eighties the food at El Bulli was a synthesis of classical French cookery and nouvelle cuisine; dishes included oyster stew, and scallops with ceps. In 1987 Lutaud left and Adria was in sole charge. Every afternoon, between the lunch and dinner services, he and his kitchen began to experiment freely with new techniques – but progress was slow. "It was gradual," he says now, "It's taken us 25 years to find our common language." In 1990 he and Soler bought El Bulli, "and that's when I became really committed. I wasn't really certain until I actually bought the restaurant."

In 1994 Adria abandoned classical cookery techniques altogether. He wanted to discover new ways to transform food, without necessarily serving the results of those experiments as meals. "That was important. We wanted to push the limits – whether people liked it or not. I am happy when people enjoy my food. But it's not my first priority."

He has called this research process "technique-concept cuisine". It begins with Adria and his team analysing the way different ingredients behave. Everything is noted down with all the conscientiousness of a medical research lab. Over the years, the Taller has developed its own system of symbols and classifications for products and procedures: what Adria terms, "whys of things". Power tools or crushed-up peach-flavoured Smint might be found on the work surfaces as often as a pear or a fish. After revisions, failed trials and dead ends, the results begin to appear, including the famed "foams, new pasta, new ravioli, the frozen savoury world, new caramelisation... It's about always trying to innovate and looking for new things."

In the late Nineties the accolades began to arrive. The superstar French chef Joël Robochon declared Adria "the best in the world" and the Michelin Guide awarded his restaurant the maximum three stars. By 2004 Adria was there, in his whites, on the covers of Time and the New York Times magazine. Though he achieved mainstream fame, he's never been a telly chef. "I didn't play it like that. I could have used TV as a launch platform but I didn't – although I have a lot of respect for those that do. I really like Jamie Oliver. I like him because he's very 'close' to the people and he has created his own language. It's got nothing to do with top-end, but it's actually wonderful."

Today his cuisine – whatever name you give it, although he prefers "nueva cocina" – commands reverence in his diners. One reviewer of El Bulli even nervously wondered when might be an acceptable moment to get up from the table to use the lavatory – so as not to disturb the choreographed tempo of the courses.

It hasn't always been so. "There's an element of Ferran that is still quite guarded, possibly because he's had to become like that," says Blumenthal, who says he communicates with his friend in a mixture of pidgin English and pidgin French, "But I heard stories that years ago when they'd just [introduced his new style of cuisine] there were four days when they had nobody in the restaurant. But he stuck to his convictions and didn't bend. Thank God he did, really. I think it was quite bad for him in the beginning, though."

Blumenthal remembers how both he and Adria experienced hostile critical reactions before so-called molecular gastronomy became fashionable. Convention had it that food in its natural state was good, and anything processed was bad. The chef who noisily cooks meat and sauces over flames had (and still has) an appeal more visceral than the idea of chef-technicians in lab coats making blobs of liquid peas in baths of calcium chloride. Adria's conceptualisation of cookery has been seen as deeply threatening to the old school. And not everybody has found dishes like cherries in fat particularly tasty. As recently as 2003, one reviewer in a British newspaper described her dinner there as " unpleasant...urrgh."

What does he think now if people find one of his dishes unappetising or even disgusting? "Well, I think that lacks respect," he says, and there's an embarrassing few seconds while the translator tries to reassure the world's number one cook that I don't mean to insult his food. But Adria, who is sometimes painted by the Spanish press as a mad professor, a figure of fun, doesn't like any implication that his food is in any way " strange". "If there was a sculpture that I didn't like, I wouldn't say it was disgusting, I'd just say I didn't like it. So long as there is freedom for people not to go to a place, then there is freedom for the cook to do whatever he wants."

Adria doesn't deny that his style of cookery has been contentious. That, he says, is the price of being at the cutting edge. "I don't say that all restaurants should be like mine. But there are places in any discipline for the ones who are pushing boundaries." Controversy still surrounds him: this year he was the first ever cook to be invited to take part in the five yearly Documenta contemporary art show in Kassel, Germany. "Adria is not Picasso," fumed José de la Sota, art critic of El Pais, " Picasso did not know how to cook but he was better than Adria [at art]. What is art now? Is it something or nothing?" Adria smiles. "That was interesting." Anyway, he says breezily, when he was having lunch the day before with Vicente Todoli, the new director of Tate Modern, he was told that the painter Richard Hamilton is a fan of El Bulli.

Although happiest when in total control of his kitchen (not to mention his diners), Adria is not possessive of his culinary discoveries. Blumenthal freely admits his famous liquid nitrogen technique – where waiters spray green-tea syrup, freezing it into lozenges - was an adaptation of the Spaniard's pioneering use of the soda-siphon. Adria sells cookbooks, gives demonstrations and even sells chemical kits so that, in theory at least, any cook in a provincial brasserie can try sphericalisation. "Part of the reason why Ferran's been so influential on world cookery is because he's very open," suggests Blumenthal, "Back in the Eighties the chefs doing modern French cooking wouldn't divulge their recipes. Or if they did, they'd change a technique so you couldn't really make it. They thought, 'It's mine, it's mine'"

His collaborative spirit extends to the way in which he works with his team – not all of whom are cooks. As there were no utensils on the market to make his dishes, since 2002 Adria has also worked with the Swiss industrial designer Luki Huber who either makes specific instruments from scratch – such as those angled tuna-ham tweezers – some of which are newly available to us amateurs as part of Adria's Faces cutlery collection. Huber has adapted gadgets such as a candy-floss maker or the electric screwdriver – the latter now used to make the spun-sugar rings made from olive-oil caramel. To make Adria's fruit caviars, tiny capsules of gel, Huber created a rack of syringes that simultaneously release tiny drops of fruit liquid into the chemical bath. "It's a very intense relationship," says Huber, "The interesting thing is that they think like cooks and I think like a designer. We're not able to see the same things, apart. But we work very well together."

Staffed with 55 cooks for its nightly 55 diners, El Bulli itself is now "a perfect machine" and Adria beams when he says that he says he now has complete creative freedom. "If you want new emotions, and really big emotions, you need new techniques," he says. Does he agree that food can be a substitute for sex? "Well, why do you have to choose?" he booms, "I want both! Eating is a wonderful experience and at El Bulli that experience is five hours long. If after all that you are still able to have five hours of sex, or even one hour, well... In the end, the El Bulli experience is about pleasure and reward. Sometimes I listen to painters and they seem to be saying that there can't be any pleasure in art. I don't understand that, why not? When I see a painting by Miro or any other great painter, I get pleasure out of that."

The biggest creative challenges he faces now, he says, concern not what we eat – "although we will keep pushing those barriers" – but how we eat. "A gastronomical experience is not a social event," Adria says sternly, "No! You have to be radical. If 10 of us go for dinner, it's not a gastronomical experience. Understand, though. There are different ways of eating. Each of them is great. But there is one which is above the rest. And here, the concept of restaurant as we understand it now – will die. We will reach the limit."

And what is the limit?

"The limit would be one table. Six people. Where you will live in the strongest way possible."

What does the restaurateur with the longest waiting list in the world want to do? Slash the number of seats in his restaurant. He's the greatest living chef – and when it comes to confounding expectations, too, Ferran Adria is the world's number one.

The Faces by Ferran Adria cookware range is exclusive to Harrods

By the book: Adria in his own words

Browse Ferran Adria's books for inspiration, but don't expect recipes for rustling up a quick after-work supper. There are no cosy photos of the chef entertaining improbably urbane friends. Instead, his 16 books are serious, expensive and a must-read for professional cooks. The most recent volumes, bound in black, are detailed accounts of the investigations. Simply titled elBulli 94-97 or el Bulli 2005 and so forth, they are a blend of philosophy, scientific manual, and gastronomic porn.

Mango fries and caramelised spherical ravioli

There were two [...] preparations in the caramelisation world in 2003. Firstly, we had always wanted to make a preparation that looked like potato chips, but using fruit; first we tried with peach, but because of its size, we opted for mango. We carried out several tests with [...] dehydrated and deep-fried mango, but it did not work out. The solution was to [...] griddle the mango and then caramelise it with our own [...] technique. As far as spherical ravioli were concerned, we once more came up with a unique preparation, because while it was hard to tell how they were made, by serving them caramelised, the sensation of surprise was all the greater. Even so [...] the result was almost better when they were not caramelised, as the sensation [...] when putting a spherical ravioli into the mouth and letting it melt was magical. However, to enable the diner to make a comparison, we served a caramelised and non-caramelised ravioli together.

Iberian sandwich and air-baguette

Our inflated pizza dough comes from a traditional Sardinian recipe [...] in which the dough is taken out of the oven before it is fully done and opened up [...] to get two thin wafers. The first application of this technique in El Bulli goes back to 1999, when we made our "air bag", [...] which in 2003 gave rise to [...] an Iberian sandwich and [...] our air-baguette. Like our frozen airs, this air-baguette [...] was an example of our "gigantism" style, since [...] it seemed impossible that two people would be able to eat a full-sized baguette, especially after the 25 dishes of the menu of dégustation. But the air-baguette is a light and extremely airy bread, weighing barely 25g [....]

Reproduced from "elBulli 2003-2004" by Ferran Adria, Juli Soler and Albert Adria, published by Ecco

Knives out? What his rivals say

'Ferran's a genius. Without a doubt, he's had the biggest influence on modern gastronomy of any chef alive'

Heston Blumenthal

'Señor Adria is a kitchen genius'

Raymond Blanc

'The whole idea of experimental "molecular gastronomy", for example,is a phenomenally male concept. It reminds me of those Transformer toys: "Can I take all these elements and turn them into an aeroplane, or a fast car ...?"'

Skye Gyngell

'He's doing the most exciting things in our profession today'

Paul Bocuse

'Ferran is the best cook in the world for technique'

Joël Robuchon

'Ferran is the most imaginative cook in all history'

Juan Mari Arzak, 'father of Spanish cuisine' and holder of three michelin stars

'He is stratospheric, a Martian'

Sergi Arola, celebrated Madrid restaurateur

'Aside from what's coming out of the kitchen, the whole experience, from setting to service and wine list, is world class'

'Restaurant' Magazine's 50 Best Restaurants 2007

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