Ferran Adrià on the First Burger and the City That Made Him

The world-famous chef discussed elBulli 2005-2011 at New York's MoMA

"Every year, we would catalogue that year and do an evolutionary analysis," said the chef. "We started in 2000. It’s a 10,000 page work."

Last night, MoMA hosted the world's most famous chef to talk about elBulli 2005-2011, Ferran Adrià's seven-volume compendium of books, one for each season that the restaurant was open between 2005 and 2011. "We had to create a map of what cooking is and what were the drawers, where we could organize this evolution," explained the chef. "We’re going to put this model into the history of cooking, not into the story of elbulli.”

Those looking through the books' gorgeous photography who never visited the storied restaurant in Roses on the Costa Brava (which even when it was open was only open half the year) will only feel more jealous of what they missed out on at elbulli, which closed in 2011. But even those who did visit it will likely be overwhelmed by the creativity and scope of the years of dishes that they too missed out on. Each of the volumes includes photographs of the dishes served at the restaurant during that year and includes detailed recipes, notes on hard-to-find ingredients, techniques, plating, and presentation.

There were a few gems thrown in along the way as Adrià explained the compendium while sampling bites made in homage to him by The Modern's new chef, Abram Bissell. What did Ferran say was the compendium's inspiration? Screws. Which country most helped make elbulli? Spain? France? Not even close. He touched briefly on hamburgers, the origin of the first mousse, why he closed elBulli, and the need for everyone to be creative with their approach to their lives and their professions, "even" journalists. Read on for the full speech. 

On Which City Most Helped Make elBulli
"First I’m going to explain a little geography. The 30th of July, 2011, was the last day that elBulli was a restaurant. Everybody knows where New York is, but not everyone knows where Cala Montjoi is. It’s 6,000 kilometers [3,800 miles] from here on the frontier with France. We’re situating ourselves. I have lived in Barcelona since that date, July 30th. A lot of days have passed since then. And actually I’ve spent more days in New York since then than in Cala Montjoi. What does this mean? It's a small demonstration of all the love that New York has shown me. The first time I came was I think in 1998 or 1999. I met Marcus Samuelsson then, and there was a love story that began then, a continual love story. It’s the city that has put Ferran Adrià and elBulli on another level. People may think it’s France or Spain, but no, it’s been New York. Thank you very much. I feel like I am at home."

Explaining the Compendium
“We’re here because we’re doing a tour on the books elBulli 2005-2011 that we have done with Phaidon that we started 15 years ago. Fourteen years ago, someone was sitting on the terrace at elBulli looking at the full moon, but they wanted to understand elBulli. How do you understand the full moon? How do you understand a flower? You’re either moved or you’re not moved. But to understand it you have to study it.

I started to reflect: how do people study things? In order to study something you have to have order and structure. And to create order you have to catalogue things. If we’re in one of the world’s temples of art, we have catalogues — but just part of it. We know Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, that it started with that painting in 1907 – it’s very clear and simple that Cubism started with that painting. And then we’re going to go to Braque in 1913, and why can we do this? Why can we reflect on this? Because we know the years that these things happened. We don’t have this in cooking.”

When Was the First Hamburger?
“When was the first hamburger? We know that it’s not from Carrer d'Avinyó. But we need to know this because otherwise it’s very hard to do an objective analysis. It’s all very simple. Life can be very simple and we make it very complicated. If in our personal lives we know we have photos when we were children, we have it all organized. When we get to the birthday... or when we get to your parents' anniversary who they’ve been married 50 years, and we have the photos in order, it’s very easy to do. If we don’t have it organized, it’s a disaster. You’re spending a whole year trying to make a video of their wedding.”"Fourteen years ago, someone was sitting on the terrace at elbulli looking at the full moon, but they wanted to understand elbulli. How do you understand the full moon? How do you understand a flower? You’re either moved or you’re not moved. But to understand it you have to study it."

The Catalogue’s Inspiration? Screws
“Our inspiration was the art world and screws. Because art is not the only thing that is catalogued – screws are also catalogued. People can know the chronology of screws and the evolution of screws. We’re doing this in the year 2000. We had to look back to look at all of our earlier information and to see how we could catalogue everything since 1987, which is when we started to create at elBulli. We have documentation, quite a bit of it, and we did a ton of documentation. After 2000, it was easier because we knew it was obligatory then.

Every year, we would catalogue that year and do an evolutionary analysis. We started in 2000. It’s a 10,000 page work. I asked a curator here, ‘How many works are there of 10,000 pages in the best museum book shop in the world? And the answer is that there are not too many here. If we take the whole work of elBulli, all the books, it’s 10,000 pages. I didn’t do it on my own. It’s been done with 2,000 people who have passed through elBulli. Today, they’re the most influential chefs in the world. We started building this world little by little.”

How Do You Do an Evolutionary Analysis?
“When I started this process, I didn’t know anything about the art world — just like a fan. I decided I wanted to do something objective, not subjective. I didn’t want to know if what I did at elBulli each year was better or worse. I wanted to know if it was new. Normally, an evolutionary analysis, it has to be of something creative. You know it’s not called ‘creative’ though, because not everything that makes you evolve is yours. Not Picasso – not everything that he created was his. He took pieces, techniques, tools, elaborations from other places and he adapted them to his way of understanding art, and he created his philosophy, his way. That’s an evolutionary analysis. We had to create a map of what cooking is and figure out what were the drawers where we could organize this evolution. We’re going to put this model into the history of cooking, not into the story of elBulli.”

What Is a Mousse?
“Do you know what a mousse is? [Crowd laughs] Ha, ha, ha. It’s not so easy. When is the first time the word 'mousse' was used? When do you think 'mousse' was first used? Nobody knows, but there are a lot of people in the world of gastronomy here and nobody knows. So when? In 1740, more or less, by a chef known as Menon. That’s the first time it is documented. He made three mousses, and one of them was made with saffron. It’s a vanguard way of cooking. It’s the first documentation we have of this. Everything else is archaeology – we don’t know. On top of that, cooking is ephemeral and you can’t know. Maybe in a thousand years we can create new technologies that will help us view the past.

Did the first mousse have cream? We do an analysis and we start explaining, when was the first hot mousse? Or are we sure that the first mousse was cold? Has someone eaten a hot ice cream here? No. Has anyone eaten a hot gelatin? At elBulli. In 1998, we created the first hot gelatin. That’s an analysis of this. The question is not if the first mousse was good, it’s not a matter of whether the hot one or cold one was better or worse. It’s not a question of whether it’s better sweet or salty. The question is when this actually happened.”

Compendium as Catalogue Raisonné
“This work that we’re doing, that we’ve been doing all these years… we’re in MoMA now, it would be a catalogue raisonné, I can do that with a difference. A catalogue raisonné is subjective. This is not. This is the first catalogue raisonné, an objective one that we’ve never done, and it’s actually what happened. Incredibly, in architecture this exists. In design this exists. In fashion this exists. It actually doesn’t exist in any creative discipline that I know of. And that’s the value of this work and the past 14 years, done by normal people, cooks who started asking themselves ‘why’ about things, and asked how they could explain it, so that people could understand this.

We didn’t want to do a project that people wouldn’t understand, that they couldn’t understand easily. And for this reason we did our first reflection on what is cooking. And to do this, we had to organize ourselves. We had products, we had technology, techniques, and we made collaborations that get converted into cooking styles. And this is the history of cooking.“ 

Why We Closed elBulli
“We haven’t closed elBulli – we closed elBulli restaurant. Do you know why we closed elBulli restaurant? We closed elBulli restaurant so we wouldn’t have to close elBulli. That’s why we closed it.”

On the Creative Process
“There’s never been an exposition on the creative processes ever, not just cooking, on any kind of creative process. I’m not talking about the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit upstairs, or any of the other wonderful exhibits. This isn’t about seeing the plans or the documents. but how did he create? In the morning or in the evening? It can seem like a simple thing, but I would love to know it. Did he work alone or with his team? And what relationship did he have with his team? Was he like Steve Jobs? Or was he like the owner of the Zara retail chain? Steve Jobs wasn’t a great friend of his team and the general of Zara was a wonderful person. They’re both creative people. One changed the world with new technology; the other changed the world of fashion. They worked totally differently. Wouldn’t you like to know how each one of them thinks?”

Everyone Can Be Creative
“We were talking earlier about creativity. There is a journalist here who started the interview with a drawing. She wanted me to draw what I had for breakfast. This is a creative thing. She got me intrigued to do the interview. Everyone can be creative. Everybody has that process. It doesn’t matter if you’re Picasso or a butcher. A butcher could cut you things that maybe Picasso couldn’t do in the process himself. This whole work, we’re focusing our work on this. The world changes because of people. And everybody can be creative. We don’t have to magnify creativity, we have to magnify the result. What we’ve done is normal. We think it’s normal to have done this work. People talk about elBulli, but they don’t really know what happened there. Now they can know it. They can study. This is what’s next.”

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Ferran on Risks
“I’m moved every time I come to New York, because I feel like I’m very much at home here. We need to have a space here for the elBulli foundation, an outpost, so I can come every so often because I do feel very much at home. In this country people love risk. And the whole product of the elBulli foundation is high risk. But if you don’t take risks, it wouldn’t make any sense.”