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The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert Adrià

Author: Text by Una Meistere and Ainārs Ērglis0 COMMENTS

Having transformed a Barcelona city block into a gastronomic mecca, famous Catalonian chef Albert Adrià says that the era of Michelin stars is over and that a new language of cooking needs to be created.

In a sense, our conversation with Albert Adrià could really be called an exclusive interview, for it lasted precisely one hour and 23 minutes and during this time, he was interrupted only once by one of Tickets' many chefs with a question about a restaurant dish. If you Google Adrià and see how popular he is, then you'll understand that this was practically a miracle. Although it was two in the afternoon and Tickets officially opens its doors only at seven in the evening, the restaurant's kitchen was a beehive of activity, with steaming kettles, clanking plates, cackling pans and staff running about like sprinters on a race track.

Albert Adrià is most often described as el hermano de Ferran, the younger brother of star chef Ferran Adrià. As one gastronomic publication aptly noted, if Ferran is "the greatest chef on the planet", then Albert is "the greatest unknown cook in the world". Now, it seems that the two Adrià brothers have changed roles. elBulli, the world-famous epicentre of experimental cuisine, was run by Ferran, but has been closed since 2011. As Ferran takes a break from active cooking, an exhibition devoted to his once fantastically successful restaurant is travelling the globe. It is titled Ferran Adria and the Art of Food. Next year, Ferran plans to release a seven-volume almanac elBulli 2005-2011, featuring 750 of the legendary establishment's recipes. He has converted the restaurant into the elBullifoundation and is busy at work on a Wikipedia-like gastronomic publication named Bullipedia, whose publication has been put off for two years from 2014 to 2016.

Albert, for his part, has been building his own restaurant empire (although he strongly dislikes this designation of his activities) since 2010 on a single city block in Poble Sec, a former working-class neighbourhood of Barcelona. Its main street, the Avinguda del Paral-lel, was once known as the Catalonian Broadway. Four of Albert's restaurants operate there, while a fifth (serving Mexican food) is to open this winter, and sixth no later than next April.

Foto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert AdriàFoto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert AdriàFoto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert Adrià

"It's a challenge to open a new restaurant every six months. However, once my project is completed, you will be able to eat in a completely different manner within one city block. Tickets [a tapas bar that could be seen as a more affordable version of elBulli, ed.] has room for 110 guests. It's a party. 41 Degrees Experience, which we converted from a cocktail bar to a 16-seat restaurant, is a more emotional and gastronomic experience with a fixed menu. However, next year, that will change again, because in my opinion it's better to give people freedom of choice during times of crisis, like the one that we're facing now. PAKTA is a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant. You can choose either a 16- or an 18-course meal. The cuisine there is very special. The Bodega 1900 or vermuteria is about vermouth and Spanish traditions. It just opened recently and you can have a great meal there for 40 euro. The idea behind our upcoming Mexican restaurant Yauarcan is to prepare the meals right before your eyes. Everything is made right by your table - the Caesar's salad, the guacamole."

Since it is the middle of the day, Albert is not wearing his white chef's jacket, but a simple grey T-shirt and shorts. While conveying a disarming cheerfulness and simplicity during our conversation, his eyes continuously dart about like the second hand of a watch. One can detect an unmistakable craziness in them, the type that is characteristic of truly passionate souls. And Albert harbours just such a soul, for he concocts dishes that nobody else has ever created before. He simultaneously offers both an artistic and a gastronomic experience - something that is so unique and so positively charged that with a simple plate of food, he can instantly transport any hardened adult back to the emotional state of an innocent, gleeful child. There aren't too many chefs who can do that!

If elBulli was mainly about the art of cooking, experiments and losing money (with losses of half a million euro every year), are your projects concentrating more on the business aspect and on making a profit?
In a sense they are, although I am happy that I still get the chance to cook. If you put your heart into your work every day, then you end up making a name for yourself and that, of course, helps you to make money. However, money does not interest me as an end in itself. I simply saw an empty niche in the market. I am fascinated by the fact that everything is so accessible through my approach and that I can go from one place to the next every day - from PAKTA to 41 to the vermuteria, for example.

How would you describe the culinary world now? About 10 to 20 years ago, the main buzzword was haute cuisine. Now everybody is talking about returning to basic and simple gastronomic values, to slow food. For example, in 2004, the French star chef Alain Ducasse published a Culinary Encyclopaedia with 700 recipes. Among other things, he highlighted thinly sliced white truffles as absolute must-haves. Then in 2009, he released a completely different type of book named Nature: Simple, Healthy and Good, declaring that it is time to go back to the bare essentials.
That is an interesting question. The world has changed quite a bit during the past 20 years. It has become very small. Twenty years ago, a chef would work in only one restaurant. Sometimes he would dine at other restaurants or ask his friends to do so. They would photograph the menus of these restaurants or buy them straight out. Now with the Internet, everything is available through the click of a mouse from anywhere in the world. Before, it was very hard to obtain specific products. Today, all you have to do is make a phone call in the morning and that same evening you will have fish delivered to you from Japan. There are no longer any borders. Everything that you think up in your head can be presented on a plate to your customers that same evening. The technologies and the materials have changed a great deal. Previously, the food guides by Michelin and Gault et Millau carried great weight in the restaurant business. Now it is TripAdvisor and food bloggers who call the tune.

Does this mean that obtaining a Michelin star is not crucial to your business?
I doubt that it would help at all. The economic crisis and the new generation that has come in with its different values and way of life - both have completely changed the situation. Eating bread and butter one hour and paying a bill of at least 100 or 200 euro a couple of hours later...lately no new restaurants of this type have been opened in Spain. People are looking for a new gastronomic language.

Previously, thanks to its three Michelin stars, elBulli was always packed full of guests. Its fate was changed forever from the moment that it obtained its first star in 1997. Nowadays, three Michelin stars no longer guarantee that your restaurant will be full every evening. But that is the most important thing for me. I want my restaurants to be full every night. Therefore, who needs three Michelin stars anymore?

Foto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert AdriàFoto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert AdriàFoto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert Adrià

But aren't you still drawn by the Michelin restaurant atmosphere and its accompanying attributes - the white tablecloths, the silver cutlery, the refined and simultaneously reserved service?
Sure I like it, but for this type of ceremony we have Robuchon and Ducasse. I am different. For me, the kitchen means the freedom to improvise. I offer people a choice in which they are the referees. They decide whether they like my food or not. True, thanks to my last name, Adrià, I might get more than one chance to make an impression.

However, regardless of what you do, in the end it is the quality of your product that truly counts. Genuine haute cuisine is not a powder with aroma. The foundation of haute cuisine is traditional, honest cuisine. It's impossible to create good meals without the highest quality products. Take the example of pizza. You'll never make a good pizza out of bad flour, bad cheese and bad tomatoes. When the time comes to pay the bill at the end of the evening, (at Tickets they will pay 80 euro for the taster's menu), then the informal atmosphere might be one thing. The other thing is that once you've paid the bill, you will remember what you ate - the quality of the foie gras, the quality of the fish, the quality of everything else that you had.

I think that there is only one cuisine in the world, and that is good cuisine. There is always room for another good restaurant. And while it is always possible to create very good cuisine, it is also important to plan out your menu. A good restaurant offers an intelligent balance between good cuisine and a well-planned menu.

At the same time, diners also expect an element of surprise during a great dinner at a restaurant.
That goes without saying. When you bear a last name like Adrià, people expect something from you. And when they return, they want some things to have changed. They want to see and taste something new.

Nowadays, everybody seems obsessed with a healthy lifestyle. People want to live longer and more fulfilling lives. They want to lose weight, they go on all kinds of diets that forbid them from eating this or that food. Do you take that into account and how is this trend influencing the gastronomic scene?
Of course, I take that in mind when I prepare my meals. However, I think that 41 Experience, for example, is a place where you might go once a year to make a party for yourself without worrying about your diet. One day a year isn't too much. At Tickets you could even have a meal six times a year without any problems. (Laughs.) Naturally, I am convinced that my cuisine is healthy. I will add that we always take our customers' wishes into account by asking them about their dietary needs when they make their reservation. These are questions that you could ask to any chef. "Do you use the best products?" "Yes!" "Is your cuisine healthy? " "Yes!" (Laughs.)

By the way, traditional Spanish cuisine is very salty. We start with salty dishes to open the palate of tastes. Sometimes people who aren't used to this get the impression that the food is too salty. And everybody knows that too much salt is bad for the health. But at Tickets as well, we start with the saltiest dishes, such as the legendary olives that were once served at elBulli [actually, they aren't olives, but liquid essence of olive in a fragile membrane the size of a quail's egg - ed.]. When you eat those, you get an explosion of "wow!" sensations. Then you're ready to enjoy the rest of your meal.

Every restaurant has its own signature. After a meal at PAKTA, the feeling is perfect. A light feeling. But if you have dinner at Tickets, you will leave with the feeling that you have had a very big and hearty meal.

Foto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert AdriàFoto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert AdriàFoto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert Adrià

An increasing number of restaurants all over the world are following the slow food philosophy, both in the way that the food is prepared and in the selection of the ingredients. You said that you like the feeling of freedom that you can get, for example, by serving your clients fish from any place in the world.
It is logical to think that locally grown products will be the freshest and the best that you can get. But that isn't the case all year round. For example, what kind of fresh products would you be able to prepare in Arizona, with its hot, desert climate? Here in Barcelona as well, the best tomatoes don't come from Catalonia, but from other parts of Spain. But I want to serve the best tomatoes! The same goes for anchovies. The best anchovies are unfortunately not from Catalonia. Well OK, at least they are from Spain. And how about foie gras? Today I might use Spanish foie gras, but if next week I try some foie gras from France and find that it tastes better, then I will switch to French foie gras, because I want to use the best possible products.

It's relatively easy for you to get good and fresh products. You live in Spain, a warm country with a long growing season. Think about us in Latvia, with our cool climate and short growing season. Or about Noma in Denmark.
Noma is doing a fantastic and incredible job. The asparagus that grows in Denmark is different from the asparagus that grows here. How many sunny days and hours of sunshine do you get in Spain and how many in Denmark? It's similar with greens and other vegetables. They taste completely different in Scandinavia. Maybe not worse, but different. However, I'll have to admit that the best strawberries I have ever eaten were from Sweden. On the other hand, their growing season is shorter than in Spain.

People say that there is nothing more uncommon than common sense, but I try to use common sense in my restaurants. For example, we don't use tomatoes during the wintertime. Once the tomato season has ended, they disappear from our menu. The same goes for artichokes and asparagus. Of course, if you wish, then you can always choose to buy asparagus from Peru so that they are always in your menu. I choose not to buy them, because it is important for me to change my menu on a regular basis. When my customers return next time, I want to surprise them with something new.

What do you think will happen in the future? More than ever, children, teenagers and youths in their twenties are using laptops, iPhones, iPads and other technologies to communicate. They don't seem to have the time, the money, or the desire to devote even an hour or two to the rituals of fine dining. It appears that the gastronomic culture of the older generations isn't being passed on.
That is another very good question. I just returned to Barcelona from my holidays with two other families, and all of us had children. It's terrible to see what is happening. We have access to more information than ever before, but our eating habits have never been so bad. Spain is a country that prides itself of its healthy Mediterranean cuisine, but we have the second highest proportion of overweight people in Europe.

The most surprising thing is that children don't learn anything about healthy eating at school. Even my generation has practically lost the culture of eating. I was lucky that my mother prepared meals for us every day. That's often no longer the case with the youngest generation. In many families, potato chips and chocolate are a fact of everyday life. Even the French fries that you buy when you go out are not the same as those that you prepare at home. They are full of sugar. The excess of sugar in children's diets is one of the biggest problems that we face today. Kids need to eat more vegetables, fish and meat. If they don't get enough of these foods, then the consequences are diabetes and cancer.

Educating the children is a dual responsibility, involving both the schools and the parents. If you want your children to eat foods like cauliflower and broccoli, and if you want them to actually like doing so, then somebody has to tell them about these foods.
Of course! Unfortunately, it's all too easy to seat the children separately at another table and order them some pasta to keep them quiet. Right now, a whole bunch of Spanish chefs are getting ready to collect signatures for a petition, in which we will ask the government to introduce courses about nutrition at schools across the country. About 100,000 restaurants in Spain are ready to take part in this campaign. With an average of 20 people working in each restaurant, that already comes to two million people.

The evening before this interview, we were in Vilafranca del Penedès, the capital of the Penedès wine-making region. The main square was full of people drinking beer and eating sandwiches. Only one restaurant was open, and it was half-empty. The locals are apparently short of money, so most of the restaurants open their doors only two nights a week for dinner. What do you think will happen to the Spanish and European economy over the next five years? Will it start to recover?
I think that Spain is surviving mostly due to tourism. We have lots of sunshine, and people return to Spain to eat, drink and party. That is the main reason why we can keep our heads above water. However, we definitely need to diversify our economy. Up until now, Spain has been dominated by a "sun economy", but today we need something completely different, like investments into quality. One idea is to turn Barcelona into a foodie city, because many people are interested in spending their holidays here and to eat well while doing so. However, it will take at least another three years before that project can be realized.

Foto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert AdriàFoto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert AdriàFoto: The Willy Wonka of the gourmet world. Interview with Catalonian chef Albert Adrià
Bodega 1900

I think that we need to completely change the language of food. At first we were talking in terms of haute cuisine. That should remain, of course, but it should make up only a small part of the food scene. The rest should be devoted to regular gastronomy and to ensure that people in this country eat healthy foods every day - both the locals and their guests. Here in Barcelona people can enjoy the sun and the sea for eight months a year. We have great food. In Spain you can even sow seeds onto the sidewalk and they will grow into vegetables.

However, it's a different story with the sea. We've depleted it completely. I think that in the future, we will all be eating only vegetables, chicken and pork. Well, maybe one or two fish grown in fish farms. I have friends in the seafood restaurant business who recently told me that during the next two or three years, they'll either have to change what they offer or shut their doors for good. The sea is simply exhausted and doesn't have the time to renew itself.

At the same time, every new restaurant, particularly if it is opened by a well-known chef, presents a new challenge. People expect something special. What do you think that people expect from you?
Before you go to PAKTA, you will probably have an idea about what Japanese-Peruvian cuisine might be like. The main factor in this restaurant's success lies in the balance between what its guests expect and what they receive. I am an Adrià and I am different from other chefs. At the same time, I always listen to what my customers and staff have to say. Every day, we continually evaluate and taste our recipes. As a result, I think that our restaurants are becoming better and better.

You place great emphasis on your last name, Adrià. How do you keep on top of things, taking into account the high expectations that are placed upon you?
It's a struggle. The most important thing is to maintain the soul of the restaurant. Let's say you return to Tickets after two years. If you get the feeling that it has lost its soul, then you will say: "Oh, it's no longer the same" and never return again. We are always thinking about the atmosphere, the quality of the food and the menu. And having a good team is very important. Today, for example, our team works at least 50% better than it did two years ago. For me, the future doesn't go very far beyond tomorrow. I'm here every day, five days a week, and it is very rare for me to be away somewhere.

Alain Ducasse doesn't have the opportunity to personally oversee his restaurant empire every day. In that sense, things are much simpler for you.
That makes me jealous of him! (Laughs.)

Why? Would you like to have 20 different restaurants spread out across the world?
No, of course not. I like the model that I have established. These are my restaurants and I work for myself. This is my home. However, I am very happy when people enjoy their free time at my restaurants. Some customers reserve a table at a different one of my restaurants every evening and so I see them almost all week long. They say 'Hello!' and greet me like a friend every night. That is a very good feeling.

You left the elBulli restaurant before your brother Ferran shut it down. Did you feel drained or tired, or was there another reason?
At that time, the main reason was my wife and family. I wanted to spend more time together with them. The pace of work at elBulli was really hectic.

Would you agree that a chef's job is one of the hardest, because you have to be moving around on your feet all day long?
Yes, it really is hard. You have to put in 100 percent every day. But on the other hand, we are closed 140 days a year and have no business during that time. Of course, this means that I lose money, but you also need to find a balance. At the same time, Tickets is one of the few restaurants in Spain that is full every evening, just like Con Roca, which is owned by the Roca Brothers in Girona, and Arzak in San Sebastián.

Is it still important for you to make sure that what the client sees and what he tastes are not one and the same? In that sense, have you remained a trademark Adrià?
The most important thing is a balance between quality, price and the surprise to the client's taste buds. Taste is the only subjective factor in the kitchen and it depends on various things. The first is physical. Nature has given some people a broader perception of taste than to others. The other is cultural and depends on where you are from. The third is acquired and depends on the openness of the person, on his or her willingness to try new tastes, foods and cuisines. Although taste is subjective, the best chef and the best kitchen will appeal to the largest possible number of people. If nine people out of ten like what I have prepared, then that means that my dish has been a success. When we were experimenting at elBulli, sometimes four or five people out of ten didn't like our dishes, but that was another game altogether.

Everybody knew about elBulli. During its last year in operation, it received almost 8 million reservation requests for 10,000 seats.
El Bulli was a cathedral of the new cuisine. The problem was that you can't have 100 cathedrals in one country. Maybe five or six at the most.

Everybody wanted to enter the cathedral, but did everybody understand it?
That's a valid point, and that was the reason why at elBulli I sometimes felt apprehensive about going out and talking to the guests at the end of the evening. I don't want to get that feeling here. I like all of the customers who come to Tickets. I am the same here as I was at elBulli, aside from the fact that there I felt like a Formula 1 race car driver.

How important is it for you to feel satisfied?
Many chefs say that they prepare restaurant meals for their own enjoyment, but that's not very smart. We're very lucky, because we see the public's reaction right away. If three plates full of food are sent back to the kitchen, then I know that I have made a mistake.

You're always trying to create something new. To what capacity is that possible?
This fall we will be releasing our first book with 60 recipes, although actually we have made 240 new recipes since the opening of Tickets in 2011, but not all of them are equally good.

Have you ever created a dish that tasted great to you, but that your customers didn't appreciate?
Usually that doesn't happen. When we sit down in the kitchen to taste a new recipe and all of us say: "Hmm, that's delicious", then our guests also usually think so. It's a different matter with complicated foods that not everybody likes. The cultural differences that I already mentioned also come into play. Take chipirones, which are known in English as baby squid. If they are sent back to the kitchen just once, then that is not a problem, but there were times at elBulli when 20-30 percent of the food was returned to the kitchen. I don't want to experience something like that here.

Sometimes the client is good and the food is good, but it doesn't speak in the client's language. This evening at Tickets, for example, we will be conducting an experiment. We will prepare Caesar's salads right in front of the customers who order them, at their tables. Although this dish isn't from Spain, I believe that we make the best Caesar's salad in the country. Nevertheless, I have to find a balance and see how the customers react before including Caesar's salad as a staple on Tickets' menu.

You have to take into account that people's attitudes change, depending on where they are eating. If you are in a Mexican restaurant, then of course you'll find Caesar's salad there. But if you are in a Spanish tapas bar, then why should you order a Caesar's salad? For me this is an interesting dish, because it is relatively inexpensive and consequently my customers don't have to overpay.

By the way, right now only three things can be bought cheaply at the market: eggs, potatoes and salad. Everything else is expensive. For example, we don't buy shrimp during the summer months, because they are the most popular dish at Spanish seaside restaurants. Now that the summer season has ended, most of these restaurants are closed, but shrimp are still available in the sea and we can get them 20-30 percents cheaper. We're always making these types of calculations so that we can offer the best prices to our customers.

The press usually describes Tickets and your other restaurants as new projects by the Adrià Brothers. To what extent is Ferran involved here?
He sometimes comes to have dinner here and we are always happy when he does, because his opinion is very important to us. When I opened this restaurant, we talked it over a lot between us, but this is mainly my project. We've been in this business together for 25 years. We don't always think exactly alike, but our language is the same.

In another interview you used a Barcelona football metaphor, comparing your brother Ferran to Guardiola [a former palyer and current coach at FC Barcelona, ed.] and yourself to Messi [a current forward with the team, ed.] Now you have your own Messis in each of your restaurants. How would you describe your current relationship with Ferran?
(Laughs.) Ferran said in that same interview that "at elBulli, I was the ying and Albert was the yang. Now, I am the yang and Albert is the ying ying ying." Sometimes I poke fun at him and say: "When I was the yang, I worked hard. Now that I am the ying, I am still working hard, unlike you!"

Have you ever felt jealous of the fact that your older brother Ferran has received more fame and glory than you have?
No, no. Ferran is very smart. elBulli was his thing. When I worked for Ferran at elBulli, he paid me a salary. It was a professional relationship. I was Messi.

Wouldn't you like to be famous?
I choose very carefully who I grant interviews to. Right now, my priority is to finish this six-restaurant project and to create an excellent team. I grant only two interviews per week. I hadn't granted any for the past two months (you are, of course, the exception). Otherwise, I wouldn't have the time to work. I also try to avoid TV interviews. I simply don't like television as a medium. Furthermore, as soon as you are seen on TV, you lose credibility from foodies. Nowadays, television is a very dangerous medium, because it distorts one's sense of reality.

You don't want to be like Jamie Oliver, then?
Jamie is a showman and I admire him a great deal. He really enjoys making cooking shows for TV audiences. I, for my part, feel best preparing meals behind the scenes in my restaurant kitchens.

The day after our interview, Albert had to catch a flight to Peru. That evening, his older brother Ferran took his place at Tickets. It seems that together, the ying and the yang of the Adrià family do make up a unified whole after all.

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