Ferran Adrià will forever be celebrated as a pioneer of molecular gastronomy. A serial experimenter, the Spanish chef’s groundbreaking inventions such as culinary foam and spherification aimed to change the form of ingredients, while enhancing their flavour. But they also changed the entire culinary landscape at the turn of the 21st century.
His El Bulli restaurant was widely regarded as the best in the world for many years, winning a plethora of awards and titles, and since its closure in 2011, Adrià has continued his research at the non-profit El Bulli Foundation in Barcelona. The Catalonian chef has been described as the Salvador Dali of Spanish gastronomy, and his highly scientific approach has often courted controversy. But as one of the greatest innovators in contemporary gastronomy, he remains one of the most influential chefs in the world.
Never one to follow a conventional path, Adrià dropped out of school at the age of 18 and began washing dishes in a hotel restaurant. He was called up to serve in the Spanish navy, where he naturally gravitated towards the kitchens. Upon leaving, he agreed to undertake an apprenticeship at a little French restaurant in the town of Roses on the Costa Brava. That restaurant was El Bulli. He rose through the ranks, and within three years he had become the head chef.
El Bulli was known for its solid classical French food and occasional forays into nouvelle cuisine territory. But Adrià had other ideas. He began experimenting with techniques for preparing and presenting food that would eventually lead to a complete departure from traditional forms of cooking. The kitchen at El Bulli became part laboratory, and the restaurant would close for six-months each year to conduct its research. Adrià’s ‘technical-concept cuisine’ was grounded in science, and it sent shockwaves through the restaurant world.
Some of Adrià’s most iconic dishes showcased the revolutionary techniques he had been experimenting with. His ‘white bean espuma with sea urchins: the first foam’ presented culinary foam, which by spraying the essence of an ingredient through a nitrous oxide gas canister, created a texture lighter than mousse, but with a more intense flavour. Adrià was to play with notions of nature in dishes like ‘The Thaw’, which presented an infusion of green pinecones frozen into powder with a Pacojet and made into a sorbet. Another new technique went on display in his cantaloupe caviar dish, which used sodium alginate and calcium salts in a process called ‘spherification’ to create tiny balls of jellified melon juice. While the science was lost on most diners, they simply revelled in the sensation of sweet melon caviar popping in their mouths.
El Bulli was awarded three Michelin stars and was voted the World’s Best Restaurant a total of five times, which is more than any other restaurant in history. Critical acclaim was universal, and a reservation there was like gold dust. But its highly intensive methods of food preparation meant it operated at a loss, and it eventually closed in 2011. Adrià set up the El Bulli Foundation, a kind of cultural institute dedicated to innovation in food, art, business, marketing and research, which keeps the El Bulli name alive and takes the mercurial chef’s work into uncharted territory. February 2020 will see the opening of El Bulli 1846, an exhibition lab intended for ‘pure experimentation’ and the testing of new and ever more inventive recipes.
Whatever form the future incarnation of El Bulli takes, we should expect new ground to be broken. For a chef like Adrià, boundaries are simply there to be pushed back and overcome. In a career that has been defined by constant innovation, he has already changed the way chefs and diners think about food. His inventions have infiltrated the menus of high-ranking chefs around the globe. And his inquisitive approach continues to inspire new generations of young chefs. None of them, perhaps not even Ferran Adrià himself, knows what he will do next. But the whole world of gastronomy is watching and waiting to find out.