Raw Rabbit Brains in Dill Broth
The new Ferran Adrià biography, reviewed.
I remember the first time I heard the name Ferran Adrià, probably in 1999. I was working at Alice Waters'Chez Panisse, sharing a staff meal with the other cooks, when someone mentioned a Catalonian chef who served fake pasta—tagliatelle made not out of flour and water and eggs, but gellified consommé. Chez Panisse was (and is) the American temple of the minimally manipulated ingredient, but this guy was trying to mystify the diner—to maximally manipulate ingredients, if you will. The concept made me laugh—why shouldn't chefs recognize and celebrate what a weird ritual fine dining really is?
Of course, Adrià, who announced recently that he will shutter his famous El Bulli restaurant in 2011 and convert it into a foundation, did more than amuse an aspiring cook in Berkeley, Calif. Over the past 25 years, he has shifted the energy in international cuisine from France to Spain. He has passed along the idea of eating in tapas style with a seemingly endless array of small plates—something that was not even wildly popular in Spain (outside of Andalusia) when he started off. He has pushed chefs around the world to blur the line between savory and sweet food. And, of course, he has embraced technology (including, controversially, borrowing food additives and methods from the processed food industry) as a means to achieve novel textures and temperatures. In a world of post-nouvelle cuisine that seemed to be running low on ideas, Adrià recomposed the edible landscape with bubbly froths, frozen powders, jellied spheres, and crystalline wafers. In doing so, he put pop into a once rarified world.
There has been no shortage of printed matter about Adrià and El Bulli. For one, Adrià is a frenetic archivist of his own creative process. His El Bullibooks (like this one) provide detailed catalogues, including complex diagrams and recipes, of his menus from 1993 onwards. A Day at El Bulli, released in English in 2008, offers a scrupulous photo account of the living gastronomy engine that is El Bulli—from early-morning deliveries to late-night cleaning. For diehards, there is the 8-hour documentary on the life of the restaurant, a shorter version of which, directed by Adrià's brother, Albert, is also screening on its own. Adrià has vehement detractors too, like fellow three-star Catalonian chef Santi Santimaria, who criticized Adrià, and particularly his ties to food-processing companies, at length in his 2008 book La cocina al desnudo.
What has been missing, until now, at least in English, has been a major written work on Adrià that emerges neither from his own brilliant but self-aggrandizing workshop, nor from his enemies. And so Colman Andrews' biography, Ferran, enters the picture at this major turning point in Adrià's career.
Andrews may seem like an odd fit for an Adrià biographer—he was cofounder and, until 2006, editor-in-chief of Saveur, a magazine best known for its promotion of noble rusticity in food, not whiz-bang haute cuisine novelties. But Andrews was also the author of an important book on Catalan cuisine before Adrià's ascendancy, and, as a longtime gastronome, he has an enviable number of Michelin-starred meals under his belt.
Andrews is an eater of the first order: pleased with simplicity when done well and not impressed with novelty that lacks a raison d'être. When he writes about a meal, you feel as if you've somehow shared each mouthful with him. For this quality alone, I'm grateful that he has written about Adrià. Much of the rhetoric about El Bulli reaches beyond the diner's experience, but Andrews responds to the food itself. In one chapter, he provides a description of each of 40 courses he consumed at El Bulli one evening in 2008, taking the discussion of Adrià out of the realm of ethics and hype, and planting it, for a moment at least, firmly back at the table.
At the 2008 meal, Andrews was seduced by a pork-tail dish, with its "sweet meat, mahogany in color, crunchy and superb, alongside a ham soup with melon, cilantro, jasmine drops, and carnation flowers." But he offers no excuses for pretty sounding dishes that do not make the grade, such as the "Flower canapé," which he describes as "neither refreshing nor very flavorful." Certain courses are worse than forgettable. Andrews pitches "Sea anemone 2008," dryly, as "Just your everyday mix of sea anemone, raw rabbit brains, oysters, and calamondin (a sour-sweet Southeast Asian citrus) in lukewarm dill broth." There is something touching about reminding us that El Bulli has been not just a touch point of culinary debate, but an actual restaurant, where people are served food; a hyperbolic form of food, but food nonetheless.
In Ferran, Andrews does more than critique a single meal, of course—this is a biography; he brings us back to the origins of El Bulli. The seaside cove Cala Montjoi, where El Bulli now stands, was originally a Mediterranean retreat for a German doctor, Hans Schilling, and his Czech wife, Marketta. In 1961, they opened a mini-golf course on the property, but after the couple split, Marketta started a beachy cantina, which eventually became a gastronomically ambitious, French-influenced restaurant. It's not just El Bulli itself, but its prestige, that predates Adrià's involvement: The restaurant claimed its first Michelin-star under Jean-Louis Neichel, in 1976.
Adrià started cooking at El Bulli in 1984, and in 1987, at the tender age of 25, became the sole head chef. In 1990, he bought the place with the restaurant's manager, Juli Soler, and in the '90s, Adrià embraced an avant-garde aesthetic. Andrews, echoing Adrià himself, makes the point that isolation and strange happenstance have shaped El Bulli as a restaurant, and have perhaps contributed to Adrià's iconoclastic approach to food. "I'm pretty sure," writes Andrews, "that the easygoing 'hippie de luxe' beginnings of El Bulli—its beach-bar origins—had at least some residual influence on the eccentric and unfettered creativity that have characterized its later years."
As Andrews organizes the patchwork history of El Bulli, he also does a fine job of positioning Adrià in cultural and gastronomic history. Adrià may be an alchemist in the kitchen, but he is not an alchemist without any precedent. Andrews can see continuity between, say, the iconoclasm of Jacques Maximin, and Adrià, who met the firebrand French chef briefly in his early days at El Bulli. Maximin's ravioli, made with shaved turnips and duck mousse, for example, presaged the many tricky "pastas" that have been served at El Bulli, like those made from paper-thin slices of pineapple or translucent sheets of jellied broths. Andrews also notes the strains of unconventionality that have long marked traditional Catalonian cuisine—the chocolate in the savory dishes, and the juxtaposition of seafood and terrestrial foods in a range of surf n' turf dishes called mar i muntanya (sea and mountain).