InterviewsThe Collection

Ferran Adrià and the evolution of El Bulli

When the best restaurant in the world shuts its doors, only to open them again a dozen years later as a museum tribute to itself, people take notice. Rafael Tonon speaks to Club O guest editor Ferran Adrià to get the inside track

Words by Rafael Tonon

Photography by Irene Fernández

ferran adrià posing with bulliano sculptures outside el bulli 1846
The Collection

‘Wine remains the quintessential beverage to savour alongside food,’ says Ferran Adrià, who is sitting in his office at home in Barcelona, clad in his signature long-sleeved black T-shirt – something of a uniform now that he’s out of the chef’s whites. ‘No matter how many concoctions emerge, there’s an intangible quality unique to wine – its soul, cultivated over the years,’ he adds. Voiced by today’s foremost culinary innovator, always with his eyes on the future, this look to history and heritage takes on an added significance.

As a chef, Adrià pioneered an entirely new culinary lexicon, revolutionising the practices in kitchens worldwide and cementing his status as the pre-eminent figure in gastronomy to this day. As put by The New York Times in an iconic cover story from 2003, Ferran Adrià is the ‘Picasso of food, having transcended classical cuisine into another realm’.

However, there are aspects in which the chef is more of a traditionalist, which becomes clear as we discuss his association with fine wine. In the Spanish tradition, Adrià is a fan of aged reds – ‘at least 20 years old’, he says – and also delights in other varieties where time bestows almost transcendental qualities on the liquid at hand, such as Port, Madeira and Sherry. The latter is one of his greatest passions. ‘I also indulge in Champagne, and I’ve savoured many Cavas, each experience surpassing the last, as they get better and better,’ says Adrià. ‘I appreciate quality. Call me a bit of a snob [but] if I’m going to drink a wine, I prefer it to be something good,’ he adds with a chuckle.

ferran adria posing with bottles of spanish wine

To Adrià, wine is primarily for enjoyment. ‘If you were to ask me about the composition of the blend of grapes of a Dom Pérignon, I wouldn’t have a clue. My focus has always been on food,’ he says. ‘Fortunately, my partner [Juli Soler, who passed away in 2015] was a wine enthusiast. He handled all of that – I just admired.’ Speaking about Soler is an emotional subject for Adrià. Partners for almost 30 years, they constituted the formidable duo at the helm of El Bulli, the most influential restaurant of recent decades, which famously closed its doors at its height in 2011.

Thirteen years on, visitors navigating the winding paths through Catalonia’s northern mountains to the fabled white house of Caja Montjoi in Roses may find themselves surprised by the sparkle in Soler’s eyes as he discusses wine once more; or by Adrià convening with his team of dozens of cooks to meticulously review the evening’s preparations. Amid the ambient sounds emanating from the iconic kitchen speakers, one could easily imagine the restaurant operating at full tilt. This illusion is made possible by the transformation of El Bulli – ‘The restaurant that changed everything,’ as stated on its website – into a museum. Or rather, a cultural centre boasting 68 installations dedicated to honouring the restaurant’s unparalleled legacy.

chefs inside el bulli kitchen in 2007
Moments captured in the fabled kitchen of El Bulli in 2007, three years before the restaurant's closure (Photo: Archivo elBullifoundation - Bob Noto)

Dubbed El Bulli 1846, the museum represents ‘the most complex project I have ever done’, says Adrià. It’s a space that documents his storied career, the curation of which he has tirelessly laboured over for more than a decade. It represents a fresh challenge for a man whose career until now centred around the kitchen.

When Adrià first arrived at El Bulli in 1984, at the age of 22, the culinary scene was dominated by French restaurants offering menus of four courses, or at most six, often served in half portions. During his years running the El Bulli kitchen, he challenged himself to change the menu yearly, creating hundreds of new dishes to delight his guests from all over the world. Adrià pioneered the concept of longer tasting menus, demonstrating that small bites and highly conceptual dishes could be found in fine-dining establishments. These steps led to three Michelin stars and saw the restaurant top the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list on five separate occasions – but they also revolutionised the industry, putting Spain on the map for food lovers worldwide and taking the concept of the celebrity chef to an international level. ‘Ferran was Frank Zappa,’ Soler was quoted as saying of his friend’s rock ’n’ roll narrative arc in Colman Andrews’s biography Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food.

Establishing a space to honour a restaurant’s legacy is unprecedented in the culinary world

The chef’s influence has extended from pop culture to academia: in 2009, Adrià was the first celebrity chef to appear in an episode of The Simpsons. One year later, he teamed up with Harvard University to offer an undergraduate course in culinary physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; he also has four honorary degrees awarded by the universities of Aberdeen (Scotland), Barcelona, Valencia, and Montreal. All of these achievements and the fame that came with them are documented at the latest incarnation of El Bulli.

There’s still much ground to cover. We welcomed our first visitors last year, fine-tuning as we went along,’ says the chef, who, from 1999 until its closure, meticulously documented every dish crafted and served at the restaurant – from snacks and tapas, to main courses, desserts, and petit-fours – a total of 1,846 recipes, the very number referenced in the museum’s name and which also happens to be the birth year of Adrià’s hero, restaurateur and culinary writer Auguste Escoffier.

The inclusion of Soler’s wine discourse via video marks a fresh addition to the 2024 season, beginning in May and extending through to October. ‘After reviewing other archival footage, we felt compelled to showcase Juli’s profound passion for wine,’ says Adrià. Yet there’s much more to behold within these hallowed walls.

inside the museum at el bulli 1846 with views of cala montjoi at the window
El Bulli 1846 comprises archive footage from the kitchen, visualisations of some of its most famous food creations and documents and memorabilia from the restaurant’s heyday

The museum comprises two distinct spaces: an expansive outdoor area spanning 2,500 sq m (27,000 sq ft), offering a series of installations backed by breath-taking views of the sea; and, within the iconic whitewashed house, a grand hall measuring 1,200 sq m (13,000 sq ft), home to another portion of the collection. Featuring artistic, conceptual, and audiovisual installations, El Bulli 1846 tells the restaurant’s rich history. On display are the notebooks once wielded by renowned chefs who worked there, such as Andoni Luis Aduriz (of Mugaritz), as well as 114 drawings of dishes meticulously crafted by Adrià himself from 2012 onwards in his Barcelona residence, to keep his creative mind engaged, using paints and cotton swabs.

The museum also displays the pioneering utensils first utilised by El Bulli – items such as siphons, dehydrators, and freeze dryers that have since become commonplace in professional kitchens the world over – accompanied by technical manuals detailing their usage. Additionally, visitors can delve into the restaurant’s use of the innovative techniques that revolutionised haute cuisine.

displays and installations inside el bulli 1846 museum

One of the most thrilling moments is visiting the former kitchen area, where a sizable screen transports visitors back to the bustling atmosphere of the restaurant’s operational years. Visitors can watch in awe as cooks craft dishes under Adrià’s watchful gaze. Alternatively, venture into the main room, where a meticulously arranged table showcases the crockery and cutlery once employed in the restaurant, with iconic dishes like The Soup, a revered recipe from 2004, recreated through the Japanese art of shokuhin sanpuru (food model-making) and placed in tantalisingly lifelike form on the table, as if awaiting eager diners to savour the flavours once more.

el bulli 1846 dining room with original tables
The museum also takes visitors back in time on a tour of the dining room staged as it once was

‘We have explored numerous ways to enhance interaction with the public,’ says Adrià. That includes the exciting news that, this year, one fortunate couple will have the extraordinary opportunity to spend a night in the kitchen where, as the chef fondly recalls, ‘the revolution in world gastronomy took root’. In collaboration with Airbnb, this exclusive experience features a specially crafted bed intricately designed under Adrià’s guidance and supposedly inspired by the renowned spherical olive technique pioneered by the El Bulli team – an innovation that encapsulates the essence of food within a delicate capsule. The mind boggles. Additionally, guests will enjoy a guided tour led by Adrià himself, exploring all the enchanting settings of El Bulli 1846. Although the kitchen remains closed, the experience culminates in a delectable dinner at one of Adrià’s preferred restaurants in Roses, completing a memorable journey through the culinary world of El Bulli.

The concept of transforming El Bulli into a museum first began to take shape in 2012, when the El Bulli Foundation team, responsible for overseeing all aspects of the restaurant, curated an exhibition at Palau Robert in Barcelona. Drawing nearly a million visitors, the exhibition prompted Adrià to extend its reach to other global metropolises, including London, New York, Madrid and Mexico City. ‘The emotional response from visitors was overwhelming, sparking the idea of creating a tangible, permanent space,’ says Adrià.

While Barcelona, with its influx of tourists and vibrant gastronomic scene, seemed like an ideal location for the museum, it couldn’t capture the same magic as returning to the restaurant’s site, according to the chef, whose aim was to provide a space where people can have a great time, feel excited and interact with the surroundings. ‘We’re confident that it’s a wonderful place. I was there yesterday [for the photos for this article], and it truly felt like paradise.’

ferran adria inside el bulli 1846 with sign 'crear es no copiar'

Illuminating the entrance wall of El Bulli 1846 is a sign lit up in neon that states crear és no copiar (pictured above), which means ‘Creating means not copying’. It’s a powerful testament to El Bulli’s innovative spirit – something that continues on in the museum: establishing a space to honour a restaurant’s legacy is unprecedented in the culinary world.

The museum, however, is not the only way Adrià is aiming to ensure a lasting legacy for the restaurant that changed the world. Since closing El Bulli, he and his team have been working tirelessly on a series of books under the Bullipedia banner. It’s fair to say it’s the most ambitious food encyclopedia in the world: 17,500 pages long, split into a 35-volume ongoing series and currently being translated into English. Each title has an average of 500 pages, with seven volumes alone dedicated to the subject of wine. Underpinning the project is Adrià’s ‘Sapiens’ philosophy, a methodology that first breaks down the subject at hand before forensically evaluating and questioning all elements, aspects and influences and how they interweave – and then piecing it all back together again. It’s the physical manifestation of an enquiring mind that never stops.

elbulli 1846 sculpture
Before entering what was once the restaurant, visitors to the museum in the Costa Brava’s Cala Montjoi can feast on sculptures in an outdoor display that documents the radical dishes that came out of the kitchen, as well as depicting the philosophy that went into their creation

At 62 years old, the chef practically possesses a culinary encyclopedia within his own mind, effortlessly recalling restaurant data from around the world (‘There are 7 million restaurants out there,’ he says effusively; ‘7 million’), specific dates in culinary history and countless El Bulli dishes. Adrià is a man of rapid speech and keen observation. During the latest edition of Madrid Fusión, Spain’s premier gastronomic symposium boasting 220 speakers (including himself), the chef occupied the front row, notebook in hand, meticulously jotting down insights and posing thought-provoking questions.

So, what excites him about gastronomy right now? The chef states the most innovative work today lies in chef Rasmus Munk’s creations at Alchemist, Copenhagen, which epitomise ‘holistic cuisine’. This approach aims to provide diners with an experience that is profoundly sensorial and socially conscious, incorporating elements such as room projections, music and visual effects. In February, Alchemist paid homage to El Bulli with a series of events, including a symposium and dinners (at cost of £1,700 per person) honouring the iconic restaurant.

Avant-garde is not something that happens often, so I doubt a new major culinary movement will emerge anytime soon
– Ferran Adrià

Despite criticism from some quarters in Spain, Adrià insists, ‘Spanish restaurants continue to drink from techno-emotional cuisine.’ (This is the phrase he prefers to use in reference to the type of cuisine pioneered at El Bulli, instead of terms like ‘molecular gastronomy’) ‘They are not avant-garde,’ he adds. According to Adrià, one of the defining characteristics of El Bulli is its relentless pursuit of questioning the why, how, where and what of things. ‘We never accepted the status quo without challenging it,’ he points out. He says there is little of that avant-garde spirit in the current world of gastronomy. ‘Also, avant-garde is not something that happens often. We had nouvelle cuisine and techno-emotional gastronomy separated by a few decades, so I doubt a new major movement will emerge anytime soon,’ he says.

What does Adrià make of claims that the tasting menu is falling out of fashion? ‘For years, people have claimed that the tasting menu is dead,’ he says. ‘However, if you look at the top restaurants in the world, such as those listed in the 50 Best, you’ll find that 90% or even 95% of them offer tasting menus, many as their sole option. Despite the passage of time, the tasting menu remains the prevailing model in haute cuisine; no alternative has surpassed it.’

Adrià argues that there are many paths still to be trodden today in the gastronomic panorama, especially by the restaurants most concerned with serving quality cuisine, ‘of which there are few in the world – around 35,000, I would say’. He identifies a path characterised by creative haute cuisine, expected to gain further ground, and a smaller number of establishments representing the most classic cuisine. The chef is also deeply intrigued by what he terms a ‘cultural deepening’ of specific cuisines, mainly Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican. ‘What we know about the cuisine of many of these nations is still very superficial,’ he says. Adrià underscores the ongoing work in a new edition of Bullipedia focusing on Japanese cuisine. ‘I realised that I had no idea what real Japanese cuisine was. There is still much to uncover about nations and their regional cuisines.’

Chef ferran adria in cala montjoi

To foster this exploration, Adrià emphasises the importance of inspiring young chefs to delve into the purest forms of traditional cuisine. ‘Today, 99% of chefs in newspapers and on social media are focused on creative cuisine. It’s crucial to reignite interest in culinary heritage, because innovation thrives on a solid foundation of tradition,’ he asserts.

There’s that reverence for tradition from the forward-thinking chef again. ‘While I am naturally curious and enjoy embracing new culinary experiences, there are certain aspects I prefer to preserve as they have always been,’ says Adrià. ‘If I attend a dinner, I would far rather be served a glass of Vega-Sicilia than a glass of kombucha.’