Fer­ran Adrià


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THE GREAT CHEF— per­haps the great­est of all time—stands at the kitchen pass, his hair an un­ruly halo, his gaze as in­tense as ever. Out­side, the pale March sun still sets the Span­ish Mediter­ranean to sparkling; the an­cient pines still hold their ground against the tra­mon­tane winds that blow south across the Pyre­nees from France and down the head­land to the cove at Cala Mon­tjoi. But in­side there is no longer a team of 45 cooks work­ing in si­lent pre­ci­sion over their tasks, no frag­ile spher­i­fied olives be­ing coaxed onto spoons, or co­conut milk “dinosaur eggs” trail­ing liq­uid ni­tro­gen smoke. In­stead, there is only rub­ble. Mak­ing him­self an espresso from the one piece of equip­ment not cov­ered in a thick layer of dust, the chef no­tices my ex­pres­sion. “You’re emo­tional be­cause you’re think­ing about what it was,” he says. “But I’m think­ing about what it’s about to be­come.”

Fer­ran Adrià has been think­ing about what el­bulli will be­come for a long while now. When in 2011 he closed the restau­rant that many con­sider the most in­flu­en­tial of our time, in or­der to re­open it as a kind of culi­nary think tank, he could not have imag­ined the ob­sta­cles to come. It’s only now, three years late and a little bat­tered, that his vi­sion is fi­nally be­com­ing re­al­ity.

“It’s not about gas­tron­omy,” Adrià says, as he steps out­side to ob­serve the con­struc­tion that is trans­form­ing his for­mer restau­rant into el­bulli 1846, a research lab and ex­hi­bi­tion space. (The name de­rives from the num­ber of recipes el­bulli de­vel­oped be­tween 1983 and 2011.) “It’s about in­no­va­tion in gen­eral. Gas­tron­omy is just the plat­form we’re us­ing to ex­plore in­no­va­tion.”

As an in­no­va­tion lab, el­bulli 1846 will host projects that, more than sim­ply gen­er­at­ing new ideas, are in­tended to im­prove the ef­fi­ciency of the creative process. “Part of what we want to do is to bet­ter un­der­stand how cre­ativ­ity works,” Adrià says in his trade­mark stac­cato English. “Is it bet­ter to work alone or in teams? For long pe­ri­ods or in short bursts? There’s more to cre­ativ­ity than wak­ing up and say­ing, ‘Ooh, I have an idea.’”

Those projects will be con­ducted by in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary teams com­posed of a chang­ing ros­ter of ex­perts from cui­sine, the arts, psy­chol­ogy, com- mu­ni­ca­tions and de­sign—the “most creative of the creative,” as Adrià puts it. The lab will mea­sure it­self by the qual­ity of the peo­ple who come out of it. “If every five years, two or three re­ally world­class lead­ers in their field emerge from their time here, that’ll be our suc­cess.”

Although Adrià em­pha­sizes that el­bulli 1846 is not a “place for plea­sure; it’s a place for work,” it will also be open to the pub­lic as an ex­hi­bi­tion space. And about 20 times a year, the site will

host “ex­pe­ri­ences,” mostly for donors but oc­ca­sion­ally by lot­tery for the pub­lic. What’s an ex­pe­ri­ence? “Maybe it’ll be a chance to try some of the things that the lab has been work­ing on,” he says. “Maybe it’ll be about Dalí, and you’ll start at the [Dalí] mu­seum in Sit­ges, then come up here by boat and have snacks on the beach. We’ve got 200 ideas for ex­pe­ri­ences. They could be any­thing.” Any­thing, that is, ex­cept a restau­rant. Although the ex­pe­ri­ences may in­clude meals, or­di­nary vis­i­tors will not be able to pur­chase food. “Not even a hot dog. The ex­pec­ta­tions would be too high. We’d be back where we were be­fore.”

In those words lurk echoes of the pres­sures that led Adrià and his late part­ner, Juli Soler, to close the restau­rant. At the time, spec­u­la­tion about their mo­tives in­cluded ev­ery­thing from fi­nan­cial ruin to phys­i­cal ex­haus­tion, but in truth, the de­ci­sion sprang from the sense that the de­mands of run­ning a restau­rant were pre­vent­ing el­bulli from fully giv­ing it­self over to what Adrià now saw as its—as his—true mis­sion. “I never loved run­ning a kitchen,” he says. “What I thrived on was the cre­ativ­ity. But a restau­rant is about ar­ti­sanal re­pro­duc­tion—you have to do some­thing over and over. And when you re­pro­duce some­thing, the ex­cite­ment of the creative mo­ment gets lost.”

By the time of el­bulli’s farewell party, Adrià and Soler had the funds in place to launch a foun­da­tion— slated to open in 2014—that would al­low them to pur­sue that ex­cite­ment full time. It didn’t take long, how­ever, for the ob­sta­cles to emerge. The orig­i­nal blue­prints didn’t ded­i­cate enough space to house el­bulli’s ex­ten­sive archive. A sec­ond set of plans pro­voked the ire of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, who pre­sented a pe­ti­tion be­fore par­lia­ment charg­ing that Adrià would be us­ing pro­tected land (el­bulli is lo­cated within a na­tional park) “for his own per­sonal gain.” Adrià lost both his par­ents and his mother-in-law; then, in 2015, Soler died. “There have def­i­nitely been mo­ments,” he says, “when I didn’t know if we could con­tinue.”

But the de­lays have al­lowed Adrià and his team to fill in the de­tails of a plan that, if less ar­chi­tec­turally am­bi­tious, is also less vague in its goals. And the brushes with mor­tal­ity have in­duced him to think more about le­gacy. “Al­most noth­ing sur­vives more than 100 years. We’re think­ing in terms of 50. I’ll be here for as long as I live. But in 50 years, af­ter I’m gone, it will be­come a mu­seum.”

First, though, el­bulli 1846 has to open. To­day, Adrià has gath­ered for the first time his en­tire per­ma­nent team at the site, so that they might start think­ing about how the in­te­rior spa­ces should be ar­ranged and out­fit­ted. As they make their way gin­gerly across the torn-up floor of what was once the aux­il­iary kitchen, where staff meals were pre­pared, Adrià re­minds them of what lies ahead. “We closed as a restau­rant be­cause we couldn’t go any fur­ther. Here,” he says, “there are no lim­its.”

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