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‘’What is cooking?’’ It turns out, is not as easy as lighting a fire and that’s just what acclaimed chef Ferran Adrià wanted to discuss on an usually warm autumn afternoon in Italy. Adrià, who rose to fame at the now defunct elBulli, traveled to a small town in Piedmont called Pollenzo. It is there, on the site of ancient Roman ruins, that the University of Gastronomic Sciences stands. Founded in 2004 by the Slow Food Organization, the university doesn’t teach cooking at all. Instead it shapes students to become 'gastronomes' who explores the philosophical aspects of gastronomy and topics like technology, production and sustainability. It seemed befitting then that Adrià would come here to give a speech about the meaning of cooking.
“I always thought that cooking had to involve fire. But if you make a raspberry sorbet with sugar then are you not cooking because there is no fire?’’ Adrià told the hundreds of eager students who had assembled to hear him speak, many of whom took notes and photographed his every move. The chef explained that the problem with cooking begins with language. At its bare essence, the word ‘cooking’ is defined as preparing food by combining, mixing and heating ingredients. Peak inside any culinary text book and you’ll notice that cooking is categorized by different techniques involving heat: boiling, simmering, roasting, baking, deep-frying, braising, steaming, broiling, grilling, sautéing, pan frying and (gasp!) even microwaving. Herein lies the problem for Adrià who believes we shouldn’t be confined to those notions of cooking. To him, there is a clear distinction between cooking techniques, such as grilling ham, and manipulation, like making guacamole.
¨But if something is fermented or distilled what is it called? It’s not a cooking technique and it’s not manipulation. So how do you define cooking? It’s a serious problem.¨
Adrià confessed that he himself had sought the answer to this question in countless books including Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s iconic The Phisiology of Tastes. He got bored of cooking, he said, until he slowly stumbled upon creativity and his life ¨started to make sense.’’
While hearing the chef talk so passionately about the essence of cooking, one begins to realize the extent of his insatiable curiosity. During his two decades at elBulli, Adrià rose to international fame by creating dishes that seemed to defy gravity and any pre-existing notions of cuisine. ¨Each of the 2,000 people that passed through elBulli contributed their grain of sand. elBulli wasn’t just a restaurant, it was a way of looking at life. Passion. Freedom.’’ Adrià reminds the audience that many of todays great chefs trained there: Grant Achatz, René Redzepi, Joan Roca and Alex Atala to name a few. What made them all want to work at elBulli? Creativity and innovation. Those two words are what define Adrià’s career.
¨When I teach at Harvard, I don’t teach cooking, I teach innovation,’’ the chef told the press before his speech. Since innovation is dear to his heart, Adrià thought it best to transform his old restaurant into the grounds of The elBulli Foundation, a think-tank for culinary innovation. The chef has also undertaken the paramount task of building the world’s first online culinary encyclopedia to be called the BulliPedia. Even out of the kitchen, Adrià continues to shape it. His accomplishments are easy to admire, but he himself warns against it.
¨You shouldn’t want to be Ferran Adrià. Just be happy. Don’t make that your challenge because no one gets there. The happiest cooks I know don’t run three Michelin-starred restaurants.’’