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What Is Ferran Adrià?

A culinary great gets deep with his latest projects
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Ferran Adrià in front of his wall of photos of El Bulli dishes

Posted: Feb 26, 2018 12:00pm ET

Nearly seven years after Ferran Adrià shuttered his famed El Bulli restaurant on Spain's Costa Brava, the location is set to reopen as early as next year. Not as a restaurant, but as an incubator for inspiring top chefs and other creative types. 

Because it is Adrià's project, called El Bulli 1846 (for the number of recipes created at the restaurant), expect it to be wild—the living equivalent of his signature culinary foams, solid cocktails and general gastronomic wizardry.

"Our system will be no system," Adrià, 55 and crackling with energy, tells me at his Barcelona-based El Bulli Foundation, housed in a converted parking garage. "Every year it will change—like at El Bulli. It will be a lot of order in chaos."

El Bulli 1846 expands on the original restaurant space with a small spherical building that looks like a giant piece of coral. Here, Adrià says, the foundation will invite chefs, philosophers, musicians, artists, designers and journalists for paid sabbaticals. 

"Their job will be to learn how to be more efficient with creativity," he says, wide-eyed.

His foundation resembles a tech startup, with a dozen young people in jeans working on computers, overflowing idea boards and a main computer screen projected on a front wall. There is no actual food in the place, other than a pair of raw sea bream fillets being photographed by a food stylist.

Since hanging up his chef's whites at what was arguably the world's most creative restaurant, Adrià has spent years thinking about the creative process. The result is an analytical method he calls "Sapiens," which connects interdisciplinary knowledge and research.

"What is a tomato?" Adrià asks as an example. "There are 10,000 varieties of tomatoes. Are they natural? Is a tomato a plant? Then, what do we use the leaves for? What do we use the roots for? And if we don't use the roots, why not?"

Such questions are typical here. Adrià, a self-taught chef, seems to have reinvented himself into a professional culinary philosopher. His foundation is funded by deep-pocketed corporate and private sponsors.

Last year, the foundation completed a study with Moët & Chandon on a private project called Decoding Dom Pérignon. "We analyzed what steps at Dom Pérignon were creative and what steps were not," explains Ferran Centelles, the foundation's 36-year-old sommelier and El Bulli veteran.

Adrià says the foundation is working on no less than 50 projects. At the top of the list is BulliPedia, which Adrià hopes will become the ultimate gastronomic reference for schools and chefs. BulliPedia is planned to take two forms, to be completed over the next five years: an online reference for Western gastronomy and a series of about 35 reference books.

In late 2017, BulliPedia released its first physical book, a seven-pound, 564-page tome on beverages that takes 70 pages to arrive at a contemporary definition of "beverage."

This year, the foundation plans to release eight more books, including its first of three on wine (all in Spanish, though Adrià plans to seek a partnership with an English language publisher).

"What is wine? What is natural wine?" Centelles asks.

He shows me a book called "Vinos Naturales" published in Barcelona in 1904. It not only discusses classic "natural" winemaking but also gives blending recipes for "artificial wines," imitating French crus by blending traditional Spanish wines into vinous cocktails.

Also close to Adrià's heart is a project called LABulligrafía—the collecting and cataloging of all things El Bulli, from the restaurant's edgy serving plates and cutlery to its bold menus, recipes, experiments, books, archives, memorabilia and multimedia collaborations. With all of it, Adrià hopes to create the first museum of its kind.

"There is no museum about a single restaurant in the world," says Adrià of his collection, which he estimates will require 50,000 square feet and will take at least four more years to catalog. "Some city in the world with an interest will take it. … It is for the new generation."

Listening to Adrià tends to make you light-headed and hungry. And I wondered, will Adrià ever cook again?

These days, Adrià sticks to a regime of mostly fruit during the day, usually going out to dinner to one of his brother Albert's six restaurants grouped in one Barcelona neighborhood.

As for his own restaurant, he dismisses the question with a wave of his hand and looks around him.

"This is a restaurant!" he protests. "A restaurant is not just making food …. Cooking is not the most important thing."

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