The Taste of Success

Those of you live in Spain probably heard the news a few weeks ago that Ferran Adria, legendary chef of El Bulli who had just announced his decision to close his restaurant, will front a seven-million-euro international ad campaign to convince potential customers of Spain inc (ie tourists), that it’s not just about beaches (those that haven’t been washed away, anyway) and cheap plonk. Ferran’s fairly unremarkable face will be appearing in the about-to-be-launched campaign, across 40 countries including China and India, with the tag line ‘I need Spain’, alongside the Spanish basketball team, Spanish MotoGP riders and Liverpool FC’s Spanish players. For anyone who hasn’t heard of him, Adria has been variously described as the world’s best, most exciting, innovative and technically avant-garde chef, pioneer of foams and caviars, inventor of ´molecular gastronomy` and creator of other clever chemical-culinary creations using encapsulating machines and the like. He is the chef’s chef, a guru who is held in the highest esteem (unless you’re a French traditionalist, of course) for bringing a mind-blowing combination of food, technology and art into the 21st century. His restaurant was voted best in the world four years running by 800 chefs and restaurant critics, though some fellow kitchen gurus baulk at the use of such ingredients as gelling agents and laboratory emulsifiers in his cuisine, one Spanish competitor responding sniffily to the news about Adria´s restaurant that `the temporary closure of El Bulli seems to be of very secondary importance`. Sour grape, anyone? El Bulli, which has three Michelin stars and a six-month waiting list, has long been feted as the best restaurant in the world, with Spain boasting a further three in the top eight. It is an area in which Spain, currently more embattled than most by economic woes (recently grouped with the EU’s other current financial black spots - Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Greece - under the unfortunate acronym `PIGS`), can hold its own as a world leader and show off its positive side in these dark times – more than 10 per cent of Spain’s 52 million annual visitors come to Spain for its food and wine, while Ferran’s name guarantees media coverage worth an astonishing 300 million euros annually. The new ad campaign’s tag line is, at least, a vast improvement on the previous, `Smile, You are in Spain` (not even ´you’re` - who on earth says `you are` unless they're talking to a small child? `You are going to eat your dinner!`). This time the various print and TV ads are aiming to get across the emotions evoked by a visit to Spain, as much as show the cities and monuments themselves - very Spanish - feelings rather than specifics. It is about Spain as country of cultural tourism – architecture, art, flamenco - less Benidorm, more Barcelona. The print ad featuring Adria is actually rather well-done – he is pictured looking deadly serious, juggling fruit and veg (orange, lemon, aubergine and pomegranate, if you must know), surrounded by grapes, fish, bread, carafe of wine and other biblical foodstuffs arranged in the style of a 17th-century still-life painting, with the caption, ‘Ferran Adria, most influential chef in the world’. But let us look more closely at exactly what Ferran did at El Bulli with such phenomenal success – what was he trying to achieve? What does he consider most important in cooking? What about the ingredients? In a document entitled ‘Synthesis of El Bulli cooking’, his religious zeal for his subject shines through. Point 1: `Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.` Point 21: `Decontextualisation, irony, spectacle, performance are completely legitimate, as long as they are not superficial` and point 23 `Knowledge and/or collaboration with experts from different fields (gastronomic culture, history, industrial design, etc.,) is essential for progress in cooking.` Yes, this is food we’re talking about, not abstract literary criticism. See what I mean about the sheer passion? Very Spanish. But it all begins to makes more sense when we move from theory to practice – I was lucky enough to eat once, not at El Bulli itself, but at its Andalucian outpost at the Hacienda Benazuza, in Sanlucar la Mayor near Seville. I had the 24-course tasting menu (Synthesis: The menu de dégustation is the finest expression of avant-garde cooking), each of which was, it has to be said, a work of art, exquisitely presented and painstakingly introduced by the waiters (explaining what it is, how it’s cooked, which part to eat first) and clearly much laboured over (three to four chefs to each dish, I wrote in my notes). Categories included snacks, tapas, dishes, pre-desserts, desserts and petit-fours. I worked it out at about one dish every ten minutes - the whole meal took four hours. The ones that stand out in my memory are the parmesan ice cream (snacks 1997, as listed in the El Bulli General Catalogue), sandwiched between wafer-thin parmesan biscuits – sounds bizarre, but it was a mastery of flavour and texture, with creamy cold against crunchy warm; spherical clouds of yogurt with scallops (tapa 2005) - foam is now a fixture of avant-garde cuisine, and any contemporary restaurant worth its nitrous oxide has already been featuring it on its menu for years (come on, keep up). One of his other signatures is to use ingredients for a traditional dish deconstructed, ie presented in a completely different way, with tastes introduced separately (Synthesis: although the characteristics – temperature, texture, shape - of the products may be modified, the aim is always to preserve the purity of their flavour) – a tortilla of shrimp with a glass of strong, fishy consommé (tapa 2007). For the spherical raviolo of peas and mint (snack 2003), the famous ‘liquid raviolo’ was a green jelly-like dollop - looked dodgy, tasted divine, sharp and refreshing - served on a spoon (eaten first), with the mint salad served on another spoon (eaten second). One writer’s reaction to this extraordinary culinary experience, a feast of tastes and textures, eloquently and succinctly expressed, appeared in The Times in 2003: `Our senses of smell and taste do not connect to the part of the brain that likes to play fast and loose with reason. We take in art through our eyes and ears. Not our tongues. Ferran Adria knows this. Ferran Adria shows your eyes one thing and gives your tongue another, then sits back and watches your head fall off.` Quite. If Ferran’s burning creativity, wild, out-of-the-box imagination and vanguardista culinary experimentation can draw more appreciative gourmet-tourists to Spain, then good. For if anyone can convince the more middle-class tourist (they are the target audience of this new campaign) that Spain has more sophisticated fare to offer than calamari and chips, even tortilla and jamon (sacrilege!), it is he.
Blog published on 22 March 2010