October 21, 2008

Ferran Adria - A day at elBulli

On Sunday I saw Ferran Adria give a talk about his new book 'A day at elBulli' at his sold out appearance at Hamer Hall. Ferran Adria is of course the head chef at the world's number one restaurant, elBulli. His talk covered a range of topics, his views on molecular gastronomy, developing new and creative dishes by inventing a new language in cooking and he also demonstrated some of the techniques used at elBulli through film.

My copy of 'A day at elBulli'


For those who don't know about elBulli (a google search will tell you everything you need to know), it is the worlds number one restaurant located in Roses on the Costa Brava in Catalonia, Spain. Ferran Adria has been head chef there since 1984 and is regarded as one of the most influential chef's in molecular gastronomy. Throughout his 24 years at elBulli, he has spear headed many cutting edge techniques, some of which are now seen commonly in restaurants around the world.

I had purchased a ticket to the talk which included a copy of his new book. When I walked into the foyer of the building a bunch of people had already collected their copy's and were eagerly flipping through the pages of the very thick book. When I picked up my copy, I couldn't resist doing the same myself. I found a small secluded spot and flipped to the very first page. I almost screamed with excitement when I noticed I had an already signed copy in my possession.

Ferran signing someones book and lastly the signed page in my book


I had about an hour to go before the session started. So I made my way down to the door I was to enter and read as much of the book as possible. I say the word "read" very loosely, the book consists of a photographical documentary of a typical day at elBulli. Starting from the very early morning, and ending way after the last guest has left the restaurant. The pictures are beautifully shot and truly capture the atmosphere of the restaurant and the artistry of Ferran's dishes.

The majority of the dishes at elBulli are completely new, where even the very basic technique of preparing them has been completely invented. It is not just a matter of putting two new flavours together, for example squid and raspberries (I hope no one has done this before, it sounds awful!) Its more like putting two new flavours together and doing so in a way that has never been thought of before. Previous techniques seen at elBulli include, foams, flavoured dusts, spherification, airs, freeze drying and the list goes on and on.

For me, there were two stand out moments in his talk. One where he picked up a loaf of bread and described it in a new and eye opening way and the second being his use of liquid nitrogen as a cooking technique.

Lets start with the bread. Ferran was quite adamant in dispelling the notion that the dishes he delivers are centered around chemistry and fake flavours. He used bread as his example. He began to describe that there are scientists trying to come up with the very best flour or the most efficient way of proving bread, and in a way this is all experimentation. Where these individuals are using techniques or substances which have not been used in bread making before. So his message was that the humble french stick might not be a basic as we all think, and his quote was "the next time you go to the bakery, you might want to ask for a loaf of the molecular bread". I was always very careful of the use of the term molecular gastronomy, but after Ferran's very interesting analogy, I will be even more aware of the term 'molecular' in regards to food.

Now onto the liquid nitrogen. Having a scientific background, the notion of using liquid nitrogen to cook your food is a little unsettling to me. Yes, I can understand using it to persevere something for a very long time, like storing embryo's or at sperm banks , possibly cooling something very quickly, but to make my lemon sorbet.....hmmm thats different. Speaking of sorbet, one of the dishes explained was a pistachio ice-cream, where the only ingredients used were crushed pistachio's, water and plenty of the nitro. A nice dollop of a pistachio syrup was carefully dunked into the liquid nitrogen, the result was a spherical green lump, once it was cut open it had a wonderful crusty shell with an oozy middle. I must say, it looked divine.

The fact that food was prepared with liquid nitrogen was not the unsettling part to me, it was watching the vision of the chefs using the stuff with no protective gear (gloves at least) and splashing it about like it was water. I guess Ferran did have a point, "You wouldn't put your hand in boiling water, so you wouldn't be careless with liquid nitrogen". I guess I could get used to the idea of a couple of chef's losing a finger or two just to make coconut cream moulded in the shape of a flower.

There was a brief interval which included a glass of Freixenet Cordon Rosado and/or Cordon Negro. The second session was a Q&A with a panel which included Vue de Monde's head chef Shannon Bennett. A couple of things were asked;

If he thought the reservation system at elBulli was adequate? His response was that this was one aspect of the restaurant that they were not proud of, and that if someone could come up with a better system he would be more than willing to implement it.

His involvement at
Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. Documenta being a exhibition of modern and contemporary art.

The Q&A session. From left, Lucy Garcia (Ferran's translator), Ferran Adria, The MC (cant remember his name), ABC radio/television presenter Virginia Trioli and Shannon Bennette.


But my favourite was a question from the MC. He started with a statement about Ferran's youth when he played football (soccer), similar to Gordon Ramsay who at one point played for the Glasgow Rangers. If he and Ramsay were to play off against each other, who would win? Ferran went on to describe a particular night in the 90's when Gordon came to visit elBulli with a college. Apparently they got up to no good and the whole event had been filmed. Ferran has a copy of this video in his possession, so Ferran's answer to the question....who would win? "I would, because I would blackmail him". Now the interesting thing about this is that last night while watching an episode of 'Beyond Boiling Point', I noticed that next weeks episode is about Gordon going to Spain and eating at elBulli. I'm sure I'll get an idea of what happened that night from watching that episode.

The talk was not only interesting, but also inspiring. It was nice to see that Ferran Adria, undoubtedely the worlds best chef, had a sense of humour and was not totally engrossed by his own talent, despite being continuously reminded of the fact.


Anonymous said...

Check out the video footage from Ferran Adria’s “A Day at elBulli” book tour in NYC - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_osiPxpXDNE

Maria said...

Great video, short but sweet.