The real masterchef: Ferran Adrià is closing El Bulli's doors but has vowed to keep experimenting

I first heard about Ferran Adrià from Gordon Ramsay in 2003. Ramsay is not a man to fling compliments around, but he spoke about the Barcelonan super-chef with something approaching awe. "The man is a genius," he said. "He's got three Michelin stars, and he serves Fisherman's Friend ice cream. It's cooking 20 years ahead of its time."

Tell me more, I said. "Last year he was obsessed with clingfilm," said Ramsay, "But the clingfilm turned out to be the food itself: there was a little sachet of peas, a transparent slice of clingfilm made out of peas, and tasting of peas. Just staggering. The year before, it was cauliflower couscous, which was grated cauliflower, blast-frozen. This guy will go round the dining room with an aerosol can of lemongrass and spray it in front of your mouth before you eat. The last dish I had there was cockles and mussels and oysters with a passion fruit soup – but the passion fruit soup was made with seawater." Going to Adrià's restaurant, El Bulli, was he said, "the trip to the food Mecca of today."

Seven years later, so many people have called Adrià "the world's greatest chef" that it has become a cliché. Millions of wannabe-gourmands have tried and failed to score a table at the restaurant, which is open only for a few months a year. Scratch any award-winning, world-beating chef of the last decade, whether Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, or Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, or René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, and they'll talk about Adrià as their cher maître and El Bulli as the mother ship of their wildest gastro-excursions.

Many people call him the creator of, or mastermind behind, "molecular cuisine" – a phrase he detests. Others hold him responsible for the foams, spumes, frizzes and other ectoplasmic irritations found in so many restaurant dishes today. This is closer to the truth – Adrià, using compressed air rather than cream and egg, has contrived to make beetroot foam, mushroom foam and, indeed, meat foam – but is only a small part of the story.

Closeted with a mystic brotherhood of chefs in El Taller, the laboratory at El Bulli, he has experimented with every food on the planet, umpteen bizarre kitchen appliances (freeze-dryer, Pacojet, liquid nitrogen tank) and a private pharmacology of emulsifiers, acidifiers, galling agents and "spherifiers", to create a kind of parallel universe of food, in which melon is re-imagined as orange caviar balls, warring flavours are pulled into startling alliance (like tobacco-flavoured blackberry crushed ice) and classic dishes are "deconstructed" so that a Spanish omelette, becomes a sherry glass of potato foam, onion purée and egg-white sabayon, topped with deep-fried potato crumbs.

His cuisine has drawn criticism, on grounds both of pretentiousness and health considerations, but an army of admirers has written admiring explanations of his career and modus operandi. The most recent is Reinventing Food - Ferran Adrià: The man who changed the way we eat, by the American food writer, Colman Andrews.

As El Bulli prepares to close for at least two years, Adrià and his Boswell are in London for a rare audience with the press. We met at London's Kensington Hotel, near the Natural History Museum. Clad in a dark sweater and sheeny black jacket, Adrià is a short, stocky, strikingly handsome chap with a wide acreage of forehead, dark-brown marbles for eyes, and a fussily expressive speaking voice. Colman Andrews explains in the book that this is because his tongue has to be unnaturally large to accommodate so many taste buds. I cannot tell if he is kidding.

Adrià was born Fernando Adrià I Acosta in 1962 in the city of L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, south-west of Barcelona. His father, Gines, was a plasterer; his mother worked in a beauty salon. As a child, his favourite food was disappointingly mundane – steak and potatoes, tortillas, liquorice and Twinkie choc bars. Did he recall vivid dishes his parents enjoyed? "You can't remember what you ate when you were six. I have a special memory about my mother's Spanish omelette, but if I had to give her a technical exam, I'm not sure she'd pass. But she's still the best mum in the world." At school he played football to a high level, and considered making a career of it. But when he had to choose between spending Saturdays on the pitch or washing dishes in the kitchen of the Hotel Playafels, he plumped for the latter. There, he was handed a copy of El Práctico, the Spanish bible of international cooking. He still has it: "I learned from it to respect history. And that you cannot move forward if you don't respect the past." At only 22, he took the rocky road to El Bulli, then a respected but scarcely avant-garde Catalan restaurant, to work as a line chef. Among his influences was the French chef, Jacques Maximin, "the Bonaparte of the ovens," whose dishes included duck mousse inside turnip-petal ravioli. Adrià relished his dictum "Creativity means not copying." But hadn't he borrowed some of Maximin's ideas?

"One has to be honest with creativity," said Adrià. "Because everybody is susceptible to influence. The most important thing is creating that first omelette, not making 10,000 different kinds of omelette. Maximin's character influenced me, especially conceptually. His recipes weren't actual recipes, they were conceptual. For example, in his book there was asparagus ice cream. But it was a concept. He didn't see it as a dessert. He thought: this is an ice-cream made with vegetables." Adrià's first great period of experimentation dates from this period when, with El Bulli shut for six months, he closeted himself away with a battery of machines and processes.

He would try anything. There's a charming vignette in the biography, about him standing in the kitchen with a bowl of almond-milk gelatin in his hand, and looking at a pot of boiling oil on the stove. One by one his comrades realised what he was planning and shouted, "No, Ferran, don't!" But he did. He spooned the gelatine into the boiling oil and it exploded all over the kitchen.

Among the 1,200-plus dishes with which he has amazed diners over the years, some have failed to find an appreciative audience.Even Adrià's biographer draws the line at his "Sea Anemone 2008", which combines sea anemone, raw rabbit brains, and oysters in a lukewarm dill broth. "I found it so utterly unpleasant that I wondered whether Ferran had gone off the rails," writes Antony. Did Adrià believe he had a faultless palate?

"It's a very good question. If we like our meat medium-rare or practically raw, is this right? Does that mean that people who prefer their meat well done are incorrect? If I create a dish, I love it – otherwise I wouldn't cook it. But I know some dishes will create a debate or be challenging."

Was it his intention to combine flavours in a divine harmony? Or to stun people, by putting together completely alien flavours? Adrià thought about it: "It depends. A menu is like the script of a film. There are moments of love. And there are moments when you want to kill someone."

Do his lunchers and diners ever want to kill him? He smiled. "People who come to El Bulli sometimes find it difficult to say there's something that they don't like. They usually say such-and-such a dish was 'strange'. But if you eat 40 things and don't like three, that's not a bad strike rate."

His main devotion is to the utmost enhancement of flavour. His gazpacho ajo blanco comes as a white, shaved-ice granite but gives you the purest belt of summer gazpacho, garlic and almonds you'll ever taste. "His spherical olives," says Andrews, "taste more like olives than olives do. Because he's taken out the pith – which, if you isolated it in the laboratory, wouldn't have much olive flavour."

Some might say Ferran Adrià has been taking the pith out of the gastronomic world for years; but he's robust in rejecting criticism that his experiments put diners' health at risk. "In November, I will be presenting a book about health and nutrition with one of the world's leading cardio-logists," he said, with indignation. "Do you think if my cooking wasn't healthy I would be asked to collaborate? Do you think Harvard would invite me to lecture? Would I have a laureateship in chemistry [actually an honorary degree from Aberdeen University] if I didn't know about all these things?"

One doesn't want to tangle with the maestro. One just wants to try his food. Regrettably, El Bulli is about to shut up shop for at least a couple of years, while Adrià and his team take stock and consider the future. The restaurant laboratory will meanwhile become "a centre for creativity", and its experiments will be monitored by a science foundation, which will post its findings online.

The actual restaurant may not be open for business again until 2014. I'm already trying to book a table for two on the first night. "The mission," says Ferran Adrià, "is to be creative. It's like investigating new material for chairs. Asking who's going to sit on them isn't important. What's important is to keep on researching."

'Reinventing Food – Ferran Adrià: The man who changed the way we eat' by Colman Andrews, £19.95, published by Phaidon Press

El Bulli – surrealism ina Catalan kitchen

El Bulli is indisputably the most controv-ersial and experimental restaurant in the world. Each year it receives a colossal 1m requests for a reservation, but a mere 8,000 lucky people get the chance to dine here.

Ferran Adrià is widely regarded as the best chef in the world, and has a "scientific" approach to cuisine. He joined El Bulli in1984 and was put sole in charge of the kitchen in 1987.

The restaurant, in the resort of Roses on Spain's north-eastern coast, has a limited season, which doesn't help ease the pressure on reservations. The 2010 season runs from mid-June to 20 December, and the restaurant then closes for at least a couple of years.

Restaurant Magazine voted El Bulli number one on its list of the world's 50 best restaurants a record-breaking five times: in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. This year, though, René Redzepi's Noma restaurant in Copenhagen pipped it to the post.

Dishes served at El Bulli include deep-fried rabbit ears, a caramel made of virgin olive oil in the form of a coiled spring, an orange "caviar" made from melon juice, and white asparagus with hot mayonnaise.

The average cost of a meal at this three-Michelin-star restaurant is €50 (£44).

El Bulli serves only dinner, and has fewer than 50 seats. The tasting menu consists of around 30 dishes eaten with fingers, forks and spoons (no knives).

Racquel Stewart

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Arts and Entertainment
Ella Henderson's first studio album has gone straight to the top of the charts
music
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

Life and Style
fashion
News
Paul Nuttall, left, is seen as one of Ukip's key weapons in selling the party to the North of England
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand labelled 'left-wing commie scum' by Fox News
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000
TV

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow

News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Sport
Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
football
Arts and Entertainment
artKaren Wright tours the fair and wishes she had £11m to spare
News
i100
Life and Style
Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh been invited to take part in Women Fashion Power, a new exhibition that celebrates the way women's fashion has changed in relation to their growing power and equality over the past 150 years
fashionKirsty and Camila swap secrets about how to dress for success
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past