STORIES

From elBulli to elBarri: PRØHBTD Interviews Albert Adrià

By David Jenison on July 5, 2017

Earlier this month, famed chefs José Andrés, Albert Adrià and Ferran Adrià announced a 35,000 square-foot Spanish culinary experience in NYC that will open in late 2018. Andrés, who famously waged a legal battle with President Trump, might be the more recognizable name for the average American, but the Adriàs brothers' involvement is what made food enthusiasts lose their minds. As the culinary press and other elite chefs can attest, the Adriàs are arguably the most important gastronomic minds of a generation.

For the uninitiated, elBulli spent nearly half a century in a coastal town north of Barcelona pushing gastronomy into the 21st century. The restaurant already had a 20-year history in 1984 when a young chef named Ferran Adrià started as a line cook, and in the 18 months that followed, Ferran became the head chef, and his 15-year-old brother Albert joined him in the kitchen. elBulli regularly earned three stars in the Michelin Guide and topped the World's 50 Best Restaurants list a record five times. The hyper-modernist chefs split the year between dinner service and an R&D kitchen in Barcelona, and by the time it closed its doors in 2011, elBulli had millions of requests for the 8,000 reservations available each six-month season. 

The year elBulli closed, the Adriàs announced a tapas bar called Tickets in Barcelona's Poble-sec neighborhood, but this time Albert would take the lead. David Chang of Momofuku noted, "If Ferran is God, then Albert is Jesus," while Ferran himself called his brother "the best cook I've ever known." More restaurants followed, and Albert currently runs the six-restaurant elBarri with skilled head chefs—Fran Agudo (Tickets), Jorge Muñoz (Pakta), Ferran Soler (Bodega 1900), Oliver Peña (Enigma), Paco Méndez (Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa)—helming each kitchen. PRØHBTD spoke with chef Adrià to learn more about his creative culinary vision.

You, your brother and José Andrés recently announced a massive new gourmet food court at Hudson Yards in NYC. How did the project come together, and what makes this the right project for your U.S. debut?

It's a project that José Andrés wanted to share with us. We are united by a great friendship for more than 30 years, and we are sure that he is the ideal person to tackle a project as well. New York is very complex, and José knows the American market. We are very happy to collaborate and develop a project so ambitious.

Your latest concept, Enigma, encourages diners to experience the restaurant without any preconceptions about the cuisine or prior knowledge of its different stages. How does this structure change the dining experience, and in what ways does it inspire you to take bold new chances?

We understand Enigma as an open project that will modulate and modify with time. We want to explore the possibilities of understanding gastronomy and that's why we have surrounded ourselves with a space that allows us this polyvalence. The challenge is important, but we are looking forward to it with humility and hard work.

Top chefs tend to be very competitive, but your five head chefs all describe elBarri as a family. What are the keys to fostering a community vibe within the kitchen?

I think, in general, the attitude in the industry is changing: The relationships are more relaxed, and there's a tendency to take care of the human relationships. In our case I understand that this is one of the keys to success, and we try to promote this work psychology with the rest of the team. As we know, in the kitchen, one works a lot of hours, and it's normal that there are conflicts, but our work is to minimize them.  

I believe Pakta was your first restaurant to focus primarily on the cuisine of a specific country elsewhere in the world. What about Japanese-Peruvian fusion appealed to you in terms of flavor, technique and creativity?

It was the first one, although the Mexican restaurant was on my mind first. After visiting Peru, I found the possibility really exciting to combine the quality and techniques of Japanese cuisine with the colors and the flavors of Peruvian cuisine. I don't view it as a fusion but as an example of how styles of cuisine can change and evolve. I imagine how a second-generation Japanese person embraces family recipes with Peruvian products, and I think that's really exciting. 

Mexican and Peruvian cuisine emerged in Latin America after the Spanish colonists arrived with new products and techniques. Three of the six elBarri restaurants bring the Latin American dishes back to Spain and elevate them with modern touches. How would you describe the beauty in bringing the culinary culture full circle back to Spain?

 I think it is like what I previously mentioned with Nikkei cuisine: At the end of the day it's all about good and bad cooking. South America is rich in delicious produce and recipe books, and it was just matter of time until Spain and the rest of the world would put eyes on these different cuisines. 

What are the Aztec, Maya, Inca and other Native American influences inherent in Mexican and Peruvian cuisine that you wanted to highlight at the three restaurants?

I honestly don't think that's our goal—that would be work for talented chefs that study Mexican or pre-Columbian cuisine—but we wanted to show the authenticity, quality and richness of Mexican cooking, understanding also that we are in Barcelona thousand of kilometers away from Mexico and that the cuisine is very much undiscovered in Spain still. The information we have here is nothing close to the real Mexican food, and as a result, people think that Mexican food is spicy, greasy and must be cheap. 

What elements of Asian cuisine do you see yourself incorporating more into elBarri in the future?

Besides at Bodega 1900, which is 100-percent Spanish cooking and not a drop of soy sauce is used, I don't really have prejudices—always taking into account the respect for the produce and the recipe book—to include recipes that can be from China, Japan or other parts of Asia. The world has become globalized in this sense, and I don't believe there's a step back. I don't understand, however, how there can be a real invasion of other cuisines that can end up with our traditional recipe book, but I understand that it might change it. In Barcelona, it's common to find places where you can eat ceviches, tacos, nigiris or dim sums. 

You are considered one of the all-time great pastry chefs. What skills do pastry chefs develop that make them better at crafting savory dishes?

Everyone knows that, in order to do pastry, it's necessary to have a lot of technique and knowledge, and in this case, the pastry [person] of the restaurant must have a mentality as a chef. In fact, I've always thought of myself as a cook, and now more than ever, although I've been a pastry chef for 21 years, and I am aware that's a lot of years. The difference is that most of the time, in savory cooking, you always have a main product as a starting point—it can be a vegetable, meat or fish—and it will mark the aesthetic, the conceptualization of the dish, but in the case of the pastry, the possibilities in creating a dessert are infinite.

Your first elBarri restaurant, Tickets, has an atmosphere that recalls fun childhood memories. To what extent was this a reaction to the seriousness of modern gastronomy, and to what extent was it a proactive desire to insert playfulness into the dining experience?  

If Tickets must be remembered for something, I hope it's for how it has socialized fine dining. We managed it so that a lot of people who were not interested in fine dining would lose the fear and preconceived ideas—far away from the truth, as for example, that you leave still hungry or that dishes are small. Nowadays, there are a lot of restaurants with very similar profiles such as Tickets that offer fine dining in a very informal ambiance. 

In each of the past three years, Tickets moved higher on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. How much focus should a restaurant put on these types of lists, and what are the risks of giving them too much focus?

One works not to get prizes but to have the restaurant full. It is obvious that when you get the recognitions, the restaurant gets full, but it's important to give to prizes the right importance they deserve, not more, and to accept your position in the game, which represents the Michelin [guide] or the 50 Best. Like it or not, these are the world references nowadays. 

During the latter years of elBulli and the early years of elBarri, social media like Facebook and Instagram became a dominant force in creating so-called "food porn." At what point did your team recognize the value of social media and take advantage of its influence? 

It happens as in all recognitions and prizes. I understand its importance, but at the same time, I try to relativize, not only with Facebook and Instagram, but also with websites such as TripAdvisor and so on. 

When a music artist creates a massive global hit, it can be difficult to get fans to focus on current and future songs as many are still focused on the past hit. You were part of what many called the biggest culinary hit in modern history. How do you strike a balance between honoring your past accomplishments and pushing forward with new ideas and concepts?

Trying not to repeat the same song. After doing elBulli, there was not much left as in fine dining, but at a global level, it was possible to do a project like elBarri, which I understand is still under construction. Time will tell and will put us [in the proper] place. 

In the end, what stories do you want to tell and what messages do you want to convey through food?

To be happy and make other people happy. 

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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