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Kitchen Colossus takes time out

No more "carrot air" or "liquid ravioli": Ferran Adrià's El Bulli restaurant is to close for two years.


In 1959, the jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins stunned his colleagues and admirers by withdrawing from the music scene. Popular and critically acclaimed he may have been, but the self-styled “Saxophone Colossus” was also jaded, feeling he had taken his music as far as it would go in a certain direction. For the next couple of years the only place he would play in public was on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge, where his tenor horn accompanied the sound of passing boats and trains.

Felted blueberry and mint cookies

Felted blueberry and mint cookies - an Adrià creation. Photo by Himitsu

New York’s jazz scene may seem a long way from the kitchens of the Costa Brava, but Catalan chef Ferran Adrià, for many an artist every bit as accomplished as Rollins, has just announced his own withdrawal from the high-pressure world of haute cuisine. Having taken his own craft as far as it will go in a very single-minded direction, he wants to “reflect, plan and prepare” a new way of exercising it.

Adrià’s decision to close his El Bulli restaurant for two years – in 2012 and 2013 – has stunned Spain’s gastronomic circles. The country’s chefs have fallen over themselves to express their admiration for his decision and for the man himself. But there will also be those who, at odds with his extreme approach to gastronomy and media-friendly style, will be breathing a sigh of relief.

Carrot air, anyone?

Voted the world’s finest place to eat for the last four years by Restaurant magazine, El Bulli, on the Catalan coast, has become a Mecca for foodies. About half a million of them request bookings each year, and El Bulli can only accommodate 8,000 in one season. The menu is reasonably priced for a Michelin three-star establishment (expect to pay around 200 euros a head), but what is on offer is a truly unique sensory experience.

Adrià, 47, is often described as an exponent of “molecular gastronomy,” the branch of cuisine that sees chefs behaving like scientists in a laboratory, using chemistry materials to break down, fuse and mutate foodstuffs. He prefers the term “deconstructivist.” Either way, Adrià produces dishes that you simply won’t find elsewhere. The names alone give an idea of what he is up to: “carrot air,” “Kellogg’s paella,” or “liquid ravioli.” A meal at El Bulli can involve over 20 small and eccentric dishes being devoured.

Inevitably, being labelled the world’s top chef invites intense scrutiny. Adrià, fortunately, isn’t averse to the attention. The Spanish media gives him enormous coverage, as does that of the United States where his reputation is also formidable. At gastronomic events, such as the annual Madrid Fusion, he dominates, and this year was no exception as his announcement of El Bulli’s closure hogged the headlines.

Adrià was at the centre of a less seemly episode in 2008, when the more traditional Santi Santamaría charged that additives and chemicals being used in El Bulli’s kitchen were bad for diners’ health. Adrià himself remained aloof from the ensuing war of words, which mainly saw high-profile chefs speak out to defend him. The affair was an unusual case of Spanish chefs, who in recent years have enjoyed enormous accolades after rising above the French to be considered the finest in the world, breaking ranks to air their professional tensions.

“A media snowball”

As well being a media phenomenon, Adrià assumes the mantle of artist without compunction, provoking both awe and irritation.

When he was invited to offer an artwork for the 2007 Kassel art show in Germany, the expectation was enormous. What would a chef bring to this non-culinary event? The answer was Adrià simply invited two people each day from the show to dine in his restaurant. Adrià didn’t go to Kassel, Kassel came to Adrià.

“An enormous media snowball has been created which only favours a culture of spectacle rather than art itself,” said the Basque artist Ibon Aranberri at the time. “(Adrià) gets treated like a Real Madrid signing, but his involvement should be lower key and understood in this light.”

The Cristiano Ronaldo of haute cuisine? Certainly, like the preening, self-obsessed footballer from across the Iberian border, Adrià enjoys the limelight and revels in being seen as the best. But unlike the Portuguese footballer, he never fails to praise his colleagues for their part in his success and he is genuinely generous: when Arthur Lubow of The New York Times visited him, he later emailed the journalist the recipe of one of the extraordinary dishes he had served him.

Also, Adrià may be wealthy, on the back of his consulting, catering and publishing businesses, but he has shunned further riches in order to keep his eye on the really important thing: the kitchen. While El Bulli closes down for its two-year sabbatical, Adrià  plans to keep open his Barcelona-based culinary Taller, or “workshop” (sadly, in English the word sounds unsuitably drab), where he will dream up new ways to delight gastronomes.

Fittingly, a man who derives his success from a blend of enormous drive and inspiration leads a life guided by maxims and revelations.

“With anarchy there is not artistry,” he has declared. Also: “The most important thing is to make people happy, but the second sometimes is to give them something to think about.”

His conversion to groundbreaking cuisine was Saul-like in its suddenness. While visiting Nice in 1987, the 25-year-old Adrià, recently appointed head chef of El Bulli, attended a demonstration by esteemed French chef Jacques Maximin. Someone asked: “What is creativity?” Maximin replied: “Creativity is not copying.”

“That simple phrase opened my eyes,” Adrià later said. “When I returned to El Bulli I put aside all the recipe books I had been using and I began to create my own recipes. Everything that came after came from that answer in the Cote d’Azur.”

Two years without Adrià will seem a long time. Diners will miss him – so will the media. But if such a remarkable artist can find new ways to mesmerise us it will be time well spent. More Rollins than Ronaldo, this particular chef is truly a kitchen colossus.

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Published: Feb 9 2010
Category: Culture
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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