If the culinary world had a "Three Tenors"-like tour, it couldn't do much better than chefs Ferran Adria, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Grant Achatz — and the music likely would make your head spin.
Adria was the chef of Spain's El Bulli, which topped Restaurant magazine's "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list a record five times before he shuttered it in 2011. Aduriz worked in El Bulli's madly innovative kitchen in the early '90s before opening Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, in 1998. (It's No. 4 on the 2013 Restaurant list.) Achatz was at El Bulli for a much shorter time, five days in 2000, yet the Chicago chef credits that experience as a transformative one, unlocking his creativity and putting him on the path toward his envelope-pushing Alinea (No. 15 on the 2013 Restaurant list after peaking at No. 6).
Since closing El Bulli, Adria has stepped up his work on the El Bulli Foundation, a culinary/creative think tank, as well as the Bullipedia, an attempt to do nothing less than codify the history of cuisines. Last Friday and Saturday he appeared at numerous events in Chicago, culminating in a presentation and signing of his new massive seven-volume set "elBulli 2005-2011" ($625, Phaidon) Saturday at Balena.
Aduriz, who was in town to participate in a couple of events with Moto chef Homaro Cantu, and Achatz sat down with their mentor/friend before Achatz introduced Adria at Balena. New York-based food writer Sofia Perez translated for Adria and Aduriz. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What has each of you learned the most from each other?
Adria: I learned about the passion and (belief) in a project. They're two of the few chefs who put the project ahead of the money. It's very rare. The only other project I knew that was like that was El Bulli, where the project was more important. It's magical that there are people that think that way.
Achatz: For me it's having the opportunity to be a part of gastronomy at a time when it is at its most creative. Whether it be music or painting, you go through long periods of a plateau, but it's very rare that you're in the moment where you're a part of or being influenced by something so significant. Like 20 years ago, people were cooking all the same, for the most part, but then along comes this shift and this super-creative moment where it fuels all the young cooks that were influenced by it, and it changes gastronomy significantly. It's really awesome to be a part of that period and to get the confidence watching people be so successful at taking risks and literally changing a field.
Adria: El Bulli was created by 2,000 people that passed through it. And we didn't know that something big was happening. It was like a game in a way. You didn't really know how it was going to end up, and people who would leave, they would take a piece of it with them, but they would leave another piece behind.
Aduriz: From Ferran I've learned everything. For me El Bulli was a school for talent. And if you look at the list of the most influential chefs in the world today, the ones that are doing different things or are trying to do different things, they're all sons and daughters of El Bulli or in some indirect form. If I didn't pass through El Bulli, I wouldn't be doing what I do today.
Adria: These are two of the chefs I admire the most in the world. Everybody knows it. I admire them for what they do because each day they try to create their own style. It's very difficult, very difficult. What we did among all of us together at El Bulli is be ethical, honest, share and take risks and have passion. They represent that as well.
Aduriz: I need references in my life, people that help me to be better. I value not just the creative part of him; he's someone who brings a lot to the world personally. I think what I most value is not just what he does, which is very important in his own right, but the way he does it. It is incredible to me. I value the way he is even-keeled, looking at the long-term picture. That's incredible for me. He's number one for me, not just for what he does, but because of this crazy profession, we need people who are whole and grounded.
Adria: Some of the young people are worrying me. It's the best generation in history because they have training, but the values that I listed before, it's hard for them, and it's not entirely their fault. It's the system. …People today want to be Grant and Andoni in two years. They want to reach that level (quickly), and that's not the way it is.
Q: How important is to pass along the knowledge of how and why you've done what you've done?
Adria: We opened El Bulli; there were no secrets there. The recipes were not secret. Anybody who came, the recipes were there for them. This was unthinkable then.
Achatz: I remember all of my meals at El Bulli and Mugaritz definitively. They were career-changing for me. I feel like the media focuses on certain things like techniques. I remember eating at Mugaritz last time and the dried fern that looked like a vanilla bean, right? Mind-blowing. The techniques that El Bulli established and created — mind-blowing. But it's not about those things. The bigger picture is how it's influenced the world of cooking. Tonight if you ate at Boka or if you ate at Naha or even if you ate at Publican, they're utilizing influences from these guys. It's trickled all the way down to gastropubs, which is amazing.
Adria: Egotistically what you've done yesterday is no longer important. You can share it. There was a part of it, a will to share, but then you say, "Well, it doesn't matter because it's already past." We created a philosophy that was transmitted to share.
Q: What can food still do that it's not doing yet?
Adria: (Get) organized — to order things. More has been created in 20 years than in all of history. Who knew Peruvian cuisine outside of Peru? Who knew Japan 20 years ago outside of Japan? In the last 20 years, new techniques, new concepts, new elaborations, styles — a lot of it's not documented. ... We have to also order instructions. If we do that, and we understand what we're doing, we're going to create differently. Maybe it opens our minds to do it in a different way because our generation, we had the good luck and the misfortune to take cooking to the limit. To go to Alinea or Mugaritz, it's an experience. It's not about just going to eat. This experience is on one side. If you go off the edge, it's not cooking anymore, so you have to push it to the limit....What are the limits?"
Achatz: Right, what are the limits?
Aduriz: Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist, one of the most important ones in the world. He said, "You people are very creative, but the most important thing about your work is that you make the diners creative." What that means is through an activity, the person who receives that activity develops a value like creativity. ... It makes you much more conscious to other attributes, more aware of other values and attributes. Eating, you can be very, very aware of many things. The value of sensibility, the value of sustainability, in many different forms — you cultivate that in people. Those are frontiers that I'm interested in.
Achatz: The exciting thing is that we know that because of the steps that have already been taken, there is no ceiling. Again, 20 years ago we would have never thought that we could do what we're doing now, and that fuels the confidence and the thinking to do other things. I don't know what they are, Andoni might not know what they are, but the fact that the potential to get there exists is exciting.
Adria: The person who's receiving the food cooks as much as the chef. They have a very important role to play. When you get to a very high level of cuisine, it's really emotional….Unless you have incredible works of art that stand on their own, the most experiential place for a person who receives is a restaurant, like Mugaritz and Alinea. And it can seem pretentious to say that, but it's true. There's no other activity that the person who receives it can destroy the work, can participate in how it's being done. It's emotional. Sometimes journalists are going to have to start talking more about the diners than the chefs.
(Achatz and Adurizi laugh.)
Adria: It's true. I've seen very few interviews of diners, people who eat, in this particular context. When they bring the dish, why do they eat it a certain way and not another? And they listen to what's being told or not. This is the path that started 20 years ago. But we didn't really know quite well. We didn't realize it. We're doing it every day; we're creating every day. We said it, but the relationship with the diner, with the chef, it's the great revolution.
Q: Is it important for diners and everyday people to receive this knowledge that you're passing on?
Adria: No, no, no, no, no. The diner has to be moved. And then they will decide how much knowledge they want. You can go to MOMA. I can go and study Cubism. And when I see (Picasso's) "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," I can get on my knees. Or I can go there and look around and walk in front of it. You might not stop in MOMA for that painting because you might not know what it signifies. But you're going to decide, an individual decides, not because of whether you know it or not. So the diner doesn't have the obligation to do this. Emotions they can say what they want, but if they opine on this, on their knowledge, that's when problems start. (laughs)
Q: Do you think where food goes will be more about discovering new techniques or new ingredients?
Adria: New products will be easier. There are a lot of products still to be discovered in the world and experimentation, for example with seafood and fish. There are thousands of products that we're not eating right now that maybe will be cultivated in a good agriculture situation, a sustainable, ecological way. Maybe there will be textures or flavors we hadn't even thought of. In the Amazon there are 400 fruits that are not cultivated right now. They're just incredible fruits. Textures, tastes that we don't know right now. New basic techniques are going to be harder to create. We can create techniques, but it will be a sum total of previous techniques that already existed, so there'll be new combinations, but a new basic technique is going to be very difficult because this generation has done so much. ….If you look at painting, in the last 50 years, there's hardly been any new technique. There's thousands of painters in the world that have all the time in the world thinking about these techniques.
Aduriz: Asking the necessary questions, that's what I want. For the same result, a different way of seeing it changes the whole perspective….We have to intend to ask the right questions, understanding that there will be some techniques that are new. We might see them as if they are new letters to write some stories, tell stories. If you allow me the metaphor, it's what kind of discussion do we want to have? ...We need to start asking the right questions over the same subjects. Suddenly it's a disruptive discourse.
Adria: For example this is very important what we're doing now. There's no model to get together. Knowledge at this level is in few hands. We have to look for a model, so we can have a few days together, because imagine gathering 20 people at this level. There's no model for it now, because conferences are kind of passé at this point.
Achatz: We talk about this all the time at Alinea. Imagine if you had the group of the right people in the room talking about this. You'd further it so much. We just don't have that opportunity. Maybe with the foundation that will become possible.
Q: Will you reopen El Bulli or cook again?
Adria: I cook every day. If you understand cooking only as a physical process, then you don't understand cooking.
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