Try this at home

ElBulli’s food is famous for its extravagance, artistry and complicated production. So, asks Adam Gopnik, what can we expect from chef Ferran Adrià’s new cookbook?
October 19, 2011
A waiter at elBulli with one of Ferran Adrià’s creations: peach liqueur bonbons and a spoon of peach liquid on a frozen stone

Learn how to make your family’s dinner from Ferran Adrià! It’s not unlike the notion of learning to write thank-you notes from James Joyce, not unlike taking ukulele lessons from Jimi Hendrix. It is not merely that the master who is to teach you defines a certain standard of excellence, but that he defines a style of extravagant excellence, rococo perfection—overcharge is so essential to the style that to miniaturise or domesticate it seems to betray its essential nature. A uke player who is taught to play with his teeth and set fire to his ukulele is, however excellent, in a certain sense not a ukulele player at all; he is not advancing the style so much as just playing the wrong instrument. Adrià is the author of that classic plat, lambs’ brains with sea urchins and sea grapes. How do you do this at home, and do you really want to?

Adrià is, of course, the chef and patron and resident and general Willy Wonka of elBulli, the now just closed Catalan temple of what is usually called “molecular gastronomy,” even if Adrià much prefers what he sees as the simpler name of “techno-emotional cuisine.” (Though when “techno-emotional” seems the simplest label that can be applied to something it can fairly be said that the thing being labelled must not be very simple.) A marriage of the extreme edge of French avant garde cuisine with techniques borrowed from the high-tech reaches of the food industry—sort of the offspring of Michel Guérard and a mad scientist—the principles of that cooking were not just rococo but recherché. New machines and new technology, liquid nitrogen and calcium carbonate, were used to turn food from its ordinary, some might say natural, forms into foams and gels and freeze-dried powders and pure smoke. A meal at elBulli might include—indeed, the one I ate there shortly before it closed did include—a tiramisu with tofu and green tea, a corn taco with parmesan ice cream and freeze-dried fraises, and Iberian ham with a ginger and caramel reduction.

As with Hendrix, though, the pyrotechnics and fireworks of Adrià’s style were, from his point of view, merely a playful coating on what was meant to be admired as a magnificent virtuoso technique. And so the recipes and dishes in Adrià’s The Family Meal (Phaidon) are plain—really plain, much plainer than almost any cooking you will find in any other recipe book by a famous cook, a catalogue of the recipes for the cheap simple meals that were served to the staff every night at 6pm, before the service began at elBulli. One realises that, if for the ukulele student lessons with Hendrix might seem too much, for Hendrix it might seem just right—a chance to show the real basis of his style, without the intrusions of a too-big amp and a too-wailing pedal, and without trying to please anyone who wants the guitar to flame, rather than just catch fire.

The genre of the staff meal recipe book is not new. David Waltuck’s fine book on the meals served to his servers and sous-chefs at his fine, now sadly shuttered New York restaurant Chanterelle was one of the first of the kind, and Thomas Keller, Adrià’s American disciple, has published a similar account of what gets made in the back of the house at his places. But with Waltuck as with Keller, the implicit connection between the plain stuff and the fancy stuff was obvious: Keller’s chicken and sausage demanded the same close, long scrutiny style as his “French Laundry” recipes; Waltuck’s bright flavours and Asian accents ran true from the low end to the high end of his food. With Adrià, though, the plainness of the recipes—we learn from the master how to make a crisp omelette, beans and clams, cheeseburger, a Caesar salad—seems touched by the strange perversity of genius. (A thing Adrià has in long supply; I once, on stage interviewing him in New York, began with a banal question about his first food experience, sipped some water, and waited for an answer; he narrowed his eyes and then began to describe, in detail, my experience as I drank my water, and how in that sip—gulp, really—all of the secrets of cooking and taste were implicit. Forty minutes later, the audience was still watching me drink water and Ferran was still talking. I haven’t been able to drink water unselfconsciously since.)

His purpose, one senses, in offering these complete, three-course menus for ordinary weekday night dinners, illustrated with step-by-step, photo-romans style illustration, is not to spread his style but to justify his genius. The famous tricks are merely devices, he suggests, what matters for my kind of cooking is the mise en place, the habit of preparation. Adrià, with the eccentricity of genius, truly believes this: that what separates what he does from what you and I do is simply that he takes more trouble laying out his ingredients and keeping the plan in his head. (So Dante might have imagined that the difference between what he did and what you and I do was the ability to think of things in circles.) If you and I had the self-discipline to plan our meals and lay out our ingredients thoughtfully, Adrià sincerely believes, we could soon be making electric eel powder with goat-brain gels for our children.

Startlingly, though pointedly, Adrià makes nothing of the organic or the natural or the local or even the farm-raised. He more or less shrugs at the difference between farmer’s market-shopping and supermarket shopping, and offers two casual sentences about the ingredients listed in his book, that, from anyone else, would be regarded as fighting words: “All sugar is white caster sugar, unless otherwise specified; all flour is plain white flour, unless otherwise specified.” All sugar is white caster sugar! All flour plain white flour! Say these words to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse or her many spiritual daughters, and stand back as vipers rise from her head and scorpions dash from her eyes and strong men seek shelter. Adrià seems deliberately defiant of the pieties of contemporary cooking—or perhaps, deliberately subversive of them. I will confess to dancing around the room, decorously, when I discovered that Ferran admits that, in cooking for his clan, he favours frozen peas, uses canned beans, and thinks of corn starch as a good thickener—danced because in my own new book on the physiology of taste I admitted, with what I hoped was lovable candour but was prepared to see condemned as inexcusable sloth, that I believed frozen peas were just as tasty as fresh ones, that canned beans were about impossible to tell from dried ones (fresh borlottis are a different story) and that corn starch is, more than roux, arrowroot or any butter and flour mix, the ideal thickener for sauces. To find Adrià on my side on these three humble truths makes me delirious, as though it turned out that Hendrix used a capo to play in E-flat and kept strumming D and G shapes all the while, or that Joyce kept a pocket dictionary of mythology always near at hand.

So what do we make of it? In one way, Adrià is clearly in revolt against his own fame, and the complexities of the style he has fathered. (A style, which has produced in the work of his greatest disciple, the Danish chef René Redzepi, such memorable instructions as this, from his recipe for duck tongues with nasturtiums: “Combine the water and salt to make a brine… vacuum-pack the tongues with the duck stock and thyme, and steam the bag at 80 degrees for 12 hours. Remove the cartilage from the tongues while still warm.”) More narrowly, one sees that Adrià, despite his protests, really does have a view not of food-as-art but of art-as-art; that is, where most chefs, however complex their dishes, protest always that they are merely revealing the true nature of the plate, showing it off to best advantage, Adrià accepts intelligently, that nature becomes de-natured when you play with it. Complexity and creativity are the same thing. He does not struggle to serve simpler art meals to his staff; he just serves them meals, and saves the art for the dining room. This is not an hypocrisy so much as an aesthetic—it has long been part of the Spanish style, after all, to oscillate between the dry and austere, and the over-charged and overwrought. One only has to visit nearby Barcelona to see that this is so. Adrià, I know from experience, tends to deprecate the modernista connection with his work, but one suspects that this is just rejection-of-the-obvious: where the patient denies is the place to dig. (The great New York minimalist sculptors of the early 1960s, working in rusted steel and raw plywood and fluorescent bulbs, denied stoutly any connection between the work they made and the Canal Street landscape of light industry where they resided.) Catalan modernism has always made more of the dazzling facade, less of the cult of materials, than any other moment in architectural modernism. It is not the material, but the method that matters. Put simply, Gaudí believed in “creativity,” that the thing expressed purely was not thing enough. Adrià thinks that way, too. So, when the elaborate façade is too expensive to build, what we get is the plain shed beneath.

And then there is another, subtler premise to his book, which is that creativity rises from neat order. To do roasted aubergine with miso dressing is nothing special; to do sausages with tomato sauce is quite ordinary; a crème Catalan is the home-dessert of the region. But to do all three, organised and neat and at once, as Adrià’s “Meal 8” demands, does present a challenge allied to the creative impulse. In plain English, to make a simple meal with many moving parts you have to pay attention and in paying attention, you begin to think for yourself. The grave clarity with which Adrià orders it, laying out in double photo-spreads all of the 20 and more ingredients you will need—even showing you what milk in a jug looks like!—has the beautiful elegance of a table of elements.

Nor does Meal 12—potato salad, Thai beef curry, strawberries in vinegar—offer anything particularly exciting, but getting the logic right is stimulating, a challenge to the mind. Once he has gravely laid out the mise en place, followed the romance of each multiple-step, neatly photographed story, even the most haphazard, eggshells in the measuring cup and flour all over your hair cook—an order of which I am an ornament, or at least a member—feels some of the cool inner certainty of Adrià in his kitchen, the necessary inner poise that is the preliminary to steaming veal kidneys in sea urchin foam. Order before invention, as Dubliners presumably must precede Ulysses. (Or more accurately, as memorising Dubliners must precede understanding Ulysses.)

The most curious part of the rise of Adrià’s style has been that it is exactly opposed to that of the dominant, organic and “slow food” trends in the food culture of our time—this inspired Catalan Willy Wonka runs directly against the spirit of all the Hestias of the hearth. Yet there has been minimal fighting between them, and I doubt that there will be much now. What they share is a common obsession with time. The hidden subject of cooking now is time, the real scarce commodity of our day. Even the plainest of these stripped down meals takes time and though the ingredients are cheap, time is treated extravagantly throughout, as butter and cream were treated in the great French cookbooks a century ago. “One hour before”; “Two hours before”; “The night before”: so begin Adrià’s instructions. Adrià throws hours around the way Mafia judges throw around death sentences, like they’re giving away candy.

Not the classic old axes of rich and peasant, nor the more modern bourgeois ones of fancy and plain define the food culture of our time. It takes place on a simpler axis of the hours, fast or slow. It is not hard to find excellent food in every western capital now; but to find, not five hours for the once in a lifetime meal, but two hours for a humane dinner is hard. The hidden point of Adrià’s book is that the first counsel we give to children as they start cooking is the deepest counsel. Take your time. And that, while creation demands the disruption of order, order always precedes invention. It’s not a bad moral to learn from the mise en place.