The atmosphere inside Tickets is not what one would expect from a restaurant currently ranked No. 25 in the world. Modeled after the Broadway-style theatrics that dominated the neighborhood in the 1950s, the Michelin-starred restaurant features five chef stations with different themes and a dessert bar that looks like the set of a Tim Burton-directed Candy Land movie. Despite the playful themes, Tickets is serious about its cuisine, offering elite tapas that balance the finest seasonal produce with advanced gastro-technology. Tickets is the original star of elBarri, a six-restaurant "amusement park" started by Albert and Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame. The younger brother, Albert, takes the lead on elBarri's innovative gastronomy working with highly skilled head chefs like Fran Agudo at Tickets. While in Spain, PRØHBTD spoke with Chef Agudo about the magic that happens behind the scenes.
Tickets is a unique high-end concept. For guests visiting for the first time, how does it work?
When people come to Tickets, the atmosphere is like a circus, and it's possible to eat all the best tapas made with the best products and the best techniques. Our philosophy is a maximum respect for the product. Instead of having a huge kitchen, we divided it up into five sections throughout the restaurant. All the dishes are made at the five stations, and the food comes to the customers in a decided order. I'm in the main kitchen, and I have a big screen that shows me what's going on in all the sections. This enables me to control the different areas and send help if I see a section stuck with a lot of orders.
What are some of the playful elements you incorporate into the dining experience?
We are always thinking of new playful ways to eat. For example, we serve a [basil, pinenuts and scamorza cheese] waffle in a picnic basket over a red- and white-square tablecloth. We also serve asparagus in a cup with a stick of licorice. The guest bites the asparagus and then the licorice, which is very traditional for the kids. That said, the playfulness does not come before the taste. Sometimes you might want to make a joke, but if the joke covers the actual taste, it's not funny anymore. We want to be fun in elegant ways. Like when we decide the plating of a dish, first we think about the products and then the taste and then the elements and then the decoration, but we don't think about the decoration first and everything else afterwards. The decoration cannot be more beautiful than the taste.
You started cooking at age 12 in your family's kitchen, correct?
My father said to me, if I don't study, I will start cooking with him. I cleaned the mussels and the dishes, and I started cooking at 15 years old. The restaurant was in the coast of Girona, and we made traditional dishes like paella and seafood.
Later you were a stage (i.e., culinary intern) at El Celler de can Roca in Girona. What similarities and differences do you see between the Roca and Adrià brothers?
The similarities are the traditions and the initiative to make new dishes. The differences are the ways they work. El Celler puts more emphasis on tradition, whereas maybe Albert is more vanguard and focused on creativity and exploring new things.
Is it a lot of pressure constantly trying to be so creative?
If you want to make an impression, you need to step into the future. We have a presentation in a few days in Australia [as part of the World's 50 Best Restaurants ceremony], and Albert is like, "Don't worry, we're going to think about it." I have a lot of pressure because it is in Australia, and we cannot bring [any produce] into the country. This morning, we were like, "Okay, we've basically got everything, but we are just missing what we are going to do." Albert always says the fear is the most important thing for being creative.
The fear to fail.
You started at Tickets as a stage, and now you're the head chef. How would you describe your evolution and the restaurant's revolution during this time?
The restaurant and the chef are parallel, I think. I start every day knowing it's important. If you think of the Ferran and Albert name and the importance of the restaurant, you need to make every day the best. I don't think I changed a lot, but I have different responsibilities, and I had a lot of changes in my life. When I started, I didn't think to stand in front of 170 people to talk about Tickets.
Do you feel a strong sense of family among all the chefs in the six restaurants?
Yes. The best thing about this group is the family. Jorge [Muñoz] at Pakta and Oliver [Peña] at Enigma are like brothers. We started together in Tickets and 41 Degrees, and we made the group bigger.
It can be tough to get a reservation at Tickets. How does the system work?
The reservations open up two months before, and with only 85 places per night, it fills up right away.
Are there any tricks to getting a last-minute reservation?
I don't want to assure people there will be cancelations, but there's a strong chance people from Barcelona will cancel if there's a big [fútbol] match. You have to book reservations two months in advance, and you don't know at that time when these big matches are going to happen. Albert is so upset when there is big match on the TV because he's like, "We are going to have so many cancellations and no shows." Now we changed the reservation system to add credit card information because we really struggled with this during the World Cup. We'd have 15 people not show up. Now with the credit card details, it's harder to cancel, but if we are going to have cancellations, it will probably be on a weekday when there's a match.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Photos courtesy of elBarri.