The year’s hottest ticket — in the food world, anyway — was arguably last Friday evening’s talk at the Minneapolis Institute of Art with world-famous chefs Ferran Adrià and José Andrés.
The topic? Creativity.
Adrià was the intellectual and philosophical force behind Spain’s avant-garde elBulli. The hugely influential restaurant, a global epicenter of molecular gastronomy, closed in 2011, and the ever-innovative Adrià now devotes his energies to the nonprofit elBullifoundation, a knowledge-obsessed, technology-driven think tank.
Andrés started working for Adrià when he was a teenager, and he now heads ThinkFoodGroup, which operates nearly two dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and Washington, D.C.
The following comments, culled from last week’s talk, which was moderated by Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” were condensed and edited.
On Adrià’s outsize role in contemporary gastronomy:
José Andrés: He was in the pharmaceutical business; he was in the research of medicine. He has always been so generous with his knowledge. If he was a doctor, if he was an investigator curing every single sickness in the world, today there wouldn’t be sick people. If he had never shared his knowledge with anybody, cooking for the last 30 years wouldn’t be what it is today.
On the difficulties of operating on the cutting edge:
Ferran Adrià: Avant-garde is never a good business. We spent 14 years — 14 years — without making a penny. But I never cooked for money. That’s the difference. We would wake up with the same thing: What are the limits? Are we opening paths? That’s what elBulli did, but hardly anybody understood this. People thought they were going to a restaurant. And that’s the issue. We think that the avant-garde gastronomical experience is to actually eat. And it is not. It’s to eat knowledge. It’s to eat creation. The physical part of it? That’s the minimal part of it.
On challenging expectations:
Adrià: No doubt whatsoever, a gastronomic experience is the best one there is. There is no other. Not even sex. It’s the only one where we use the five senses. It’s definitely sensual. The physical part is also very important. The psychological part has participated in a very relative way; the emotion, the memory, the love, the affection, they all participate in it.
For millions of years, we have been cooking. In all of human history, cooking has been done so people would like it. That’s logical, right?
So elBulli — not Ferran Adrià — but elBulli — was the one who violated this rule. We were not cooking so people would like it. We were cooking so you would reflect on it. ElBulli is the only restaurant in the world that people have hated. But how could you ever hate a restaurant? You like, you don’t like, period. But people would hate it because it was so shocking. We would provoke. That’s what we would do; we would make you think.
However, we did want people to have fun. When you go watch a scary movie, you’re like this, right [makes a face]? You don’t like it, but you do like it. It was very important for us to understand that we wanted people to be happy.
On having Ferran Adrià as a mentor:
Andrés: Creation and creativity happen when you are hard at work. This man [Adrià] creates because he is hard at work.
The liquid olives [a signature Adrià dish], everyone knows there isn’t a tree that has liquid olives. It’s a technique that he perfected that came from the pharmaceutical industry; we call it reverse spherification. But the liquid olive, it changes your life. You put it in your mouth, it’s the best olive you will ever have. We sell millions of them, millions more than the man that created it. I think it now belongs to me. I stole it. But I have the decency to have his name [on the menu] next to the liquid olive.
Some chef — whose name I’m never going to pronounce again — asked me, “Are you not feeling guilty because you are stealing your mentor’s dish? And technique?” And I thought for a second, and I told him, “No. In your restaurant, do you fry? Do you chop? Do you roast? Do you bake? Which one of these techniques did you invent, you moron?”
Someone creates techniques, and these are highways to better things. We have always done that. In our history, we are always coming up with things that others will take further. This is what Ferran has done, better than anyone.
On the world’s next radical food innovation:
Adrià: If we knew that, it wouldn’t be avant-garde.
On an indelible lesson learned while working at elBulli:
Andrés: It was a very cold day in April, and there were no reservations. It didn’t look good. I was helping on the pastry, and we’re getting ready to prepare the cart for service. The pastry chef went to Ferran and said, “Today we’re not going to do the cart for service,” and he said, “Why?” The pastry chef said, “Because no one is coming,” and Ferran goes, “Today, I would love to see the best dessert cart.”
You see, that answer didn’t make any sense. You could argue that we would be wasting food. But actually, what he was doing was making sure that, for all of us working there, on a rainy day, on a very windy day, with no reservations, that we all had our hopes up. If you see his success, his success has always been looking beyond the horizon.
This was very important in our profession. That day, that was a big lesson. That day, we had the best dessert cart in the history of elBulli.
On the importance of knowing the history of cooking:
Adrià: It was the first discipline by man, and thanks to the fact that we started cooking, our brains became bigger. If I were to ask you, “What is cooking?” it’s going to be very difficult for you to come up with an answer. Because very few of you know how cooking, how cuisine, started. If you do not have this context, it will be very difficult to understand that something that can be very simple — such as ceramic — was the major culprit in the way we cook nowadays. What could we do without pans? We’d do stuff on the grill, or raw things. But without context, we could ask millions of questions.
Who knows about the evolution of dishes? Do you know what a vinaigrette was in 1350? It was a soup. We think that things have not changed, but everything has changed, always. It’s clear to us that an organic tomato is a natural product, and that we’re supposed to eat natural products. That’s a lie. An organic product is the least natural product in the world. “Natural” would be something that the human does not touch.
A natural tomato does exist, in the Andes. It’s a plant that gives you a fruit, and it’s horrible. The worst tomato out of the worst grocery store is better than the natural tomato. Ninety-nine point nine percent of plants that are out in nature are not edible for humans. When we created our culture, we made it possible to make a lot of plants edible. Laugh all you want, but you live in an imaginary reality.
On the importance of fearlessness:
Andrés: I was 16 or 17 — we’re talking 27, 28 years ago — and we’re frying artichokes. I could see that Ferran was looking at gelatin, and seeing that he was thinking of putting the gelatin into the oil. He was like a fish, going back and forth, his eyes going between the gelatin and the oil. All the cooks were looking at him and thinking, “This guy is nuts. He’s going to put the gelatin in, and it’s going to explode.” Of course, it made a big explosion. If you use logic, you would never do what he did. But many years later, he created the liquid croqueta.The lesson there to learn is to never be afraid to look like a fool, never be afraid for thinking the impossible. Never be afraid of failure, because when you lose that being afraid, that’s when amazing things happen.
On the path to creativity:
Adrià: It’s simple: Just ask yourself, “Why?” Ask yourself “why” about things.
Creativity is something cognitive. You can learn creativity, you can acquire creativity.
A technique is a group of procedures to get to a purpose, a goal. It’s as simple as that. So, in order to get to a goal, we have to use a technique. Do you know what the first technique in history was? It was 2½ million years ago. Homo habilis grabbed a rock and rubbed it against two rocks and created the first tool, ever. With this first tool, he created the first technique, the ability to cut meat.
For cooking, you always need technique. It would be impossible to cook without technique. But not create, though. You can create without thinking about it. You can have the idea in the shower, right? Or you can do it consciously, which is how we do it most of the time.
Many scientific advances are very complex, but they’re also just the right idea at the right time. We spent thousands of years but have not been able to make the pill to cure the flu. So there is not one way of doing things, there is not one truth.
Everything we look for is different and it will depend on the time and the place. It took 6,000 years so that people would realize that a miniskirt on a hairy man in ancient Egypt, or Greece or Rome, was very different from a miniskirt on a young lady. Mary Quant in 1960 conceptualized the miniskirt. It’s silly, but it’s an idea, and it took 6,000 years. She was the one who thought of it, and that’s what it’s all about in the end.
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