José Andrés isn’t shy. The Spanish chef is a big, boisterous presence—friendly, exuberant, a natural entertainer. He’s a culinary celebrity with bona fides, but last Thursday he wasn’t the one putting on the show in the back room of Bazaar Meat at the SLS. In front of a suited crowd of Southern Wine & Spirits invitees sipping Estrella Damm beer, Andrés introduced a man who gives him “the chills when he comes to the restaurant.” A man who makes the veteran chef nervous in the kitchen. Not a critic but a mentor, a chef widely regarded as one of the greatest culinary minds of the current era: Ferran Adrià.
You’re forgiven if you don’t know that name. While Adrià is at the top of the A-list among food circles, he doesn’t have the vast empire of Nobu Matsuhisa, the branding of Gordon Ramsay or the IMDb resume of Tom Colicchio. He’s never owned a restaurant in the U.S., and his Michelin three-star El Bulli on Spain’s Costa Brava was only open six months every year, despite endless requests for tables and its designation as the No. 1 restaurant in the world for five years between 2002 and 2009. “Was” is the operative word here, because Adrià closed the restaurant in 2011 to start a foundation under the same name dedicated to the exploration of creativity and the study of food. During an hour-plus lecture translated from Spanish last week, Adrià gave us a peek into that project, the restaurant that made him famous and his far-wandering mind.
He started with the basics: what El Bulli was and what it wasn’t. It was opened as part of a mini-golf course and named after the original owners’ French bulldogs. It later became a destination for haute cuisine that played freely with texture and flavor for an experience that was as much interactive theater as it was dinner. “It wasn’t a restaurant,” Adrià said. It was a place to “look for the limits of food.”
Every year, he explained, they started from scratch, with new recipes, concepts and preparations. When El Bulli was open, 75 staffers served 50 people per night. “We never tried to be a business,” he said. “We tried to be a vanguard, and a vanguard shouldn’t make money.”
As Adrià continued, white-coated chefs from Andrés’ kitchen gathered at edges of the private dining room, stealing a couple of minutes to listen to the renowned chef muse on the changing face of fine dining, his many projects and his fascination with the history of cuisine.
“When did it start?” Adrià asked the crowd, segueing into human evolution, agriculture and early man’s cooking skills.
Soon he was rubbing tomato on and drizzling olive oil over a piece of bread to make us reconsider what cooking really is. “Pan con tomate is one of the best things in the world. I like to go home and make something simple,” he said, before pointing out the complexity behind even this typical Spanish dish—the work of making the olive oil, baking a loaf of bread, growing a luscious tomato.
“Who cooks?” Adrià asked, suggesting that in some ways, we all do, whether we’re channeling the olive into an encapsulated liquid or creating the perfect bite of tomato and bread.
Even with the sentence-by-sentence translation it was an engrossing evening, part anthropology lecture, part culinary school, part history lesson. But what resonated most wasn’t the musing over what makes a vegetable (in Colombia, the chef said, avocados are considered fruit) or the visions for Bullipedia (a digital encyclopedia of modern food knowledge). It was the master chef’s sheer enthusiasm for the creative unknown. His persistent wonder in even the smallest details of the culinary world.
Adrià held a small bowl of honey up to the light. “Honey is magic, because the animals make it for us,” he said.
Sweet, delicious magic.