el Bulli, the legacy & the after effects

Saturday 30th July will go down in culinary history, ordinarily just a weekend in mid summer. But this Saturday was different. It was the final ever service at the iconic gastronomic destination, El Bulli. For over 20+ years Ferran Adria has presided over the stoves at the foodie Mecca, initiating the movement that is known by many as Molecular Gastronomy. Leading the way with pioneering techniques, chemicals & equipment, he is almost revered to God like status with his lectures & appearances selling out quickly.

I have been fortunate enough to attend one of his lectures and there is no doubting his passion, drive & inquisitive sense about food exploration which sets him apart from the rest of the madding crowd. Whilst the lecture was nearly 2 hours in length, there was for me one real key phrase that struck home. When asked about how he arrived at the avant garde cuisine he now served he replied – If you think about my food as a language, then you must first design the letters to create words. The building blocks if you will. I went back right to the beginning & started from scratch.

The impact he has made on the 40 or so chefs that pass through the el Bulli kitchens is profound. Jason Atherton, one of the first british chefs to sample the new ways said in a recent interview

The guy is a legend, simple as that. We won’t see his like again in our lifetime.

12 years on and Mr Atherton still uses recipes that he learnt at el Bulli for his own restaurant Pollen Street Social. Whilst Mr Atherton is a highly skilled chef and has experienced el Bulli first hand, many that now try to emulate Mr Adria who haven’t been so educated to using the techniques, recipes & chemicals that are in danger of killing a legacy.

The example of this is Nouvelle Cuisine. It started in the 1960’s with a recognised group of chefs, but for all the good that brought to catering it will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. The miniscule portion sizes, combinations of tropical fruit with meats & the element of the emperors’ new clothes. Unfortunately this is where the past becomes the present. Mr Adria’s techniques of spherification, hot jellies, foaming sauces & isomalt lollipops are now common place and have been for sometime. In the right hands they are a jolly to behold and add extra dimensions to dishes, but in less capable hands, oh dear. I’ll relay a story between myself & a senior Michelin inspector;

When I asked him about the future of food he replied

To be honest I don’t like where it’s going. People will recommend a lovely little gastro pub off the beaten track. We go, inspect & have a wonderful meal. At this point as an inspector I’m thinking Yes, maybe it’s worth another visit or a bib gourmand award. Then you get served red pepper lollipops as petit fours. I mean really? Why go & spoil it.

He laid the blame at the door of the likes of Ferran Adria & Heston Blumenthal for creating this type of cuisine. The problem now is that we now have a generation of chefs starting in the industry that think that this is only way forward. What many of them forget is that any of the chefs involved in this new food movement all have classic training backgrounds, the foundations on which their heritage is built.

More over from the impact on chefs within catering there is also the so called IAAEB movement. This phrase has been coined over recent times, often aimed at food bloggers. Unfortunately I am not part of this group as IAAEB is an abbreviation of  I Ate At El Bulli, but it fans the flames of media hype of what is essentially just a restaurant, yes cutting edge but not without its detractors. Whether or not you choose to read or listen to the small band of voices which say el Bulli is at least audacious or at worst dangerous is upto you, but there maybe a case to be heard. I have no doubt in my mind that when the el Bulli team use to settle into their winter testing for the following season, they were fully versed in the use of the chemicals they used.  And this is where part of the problem lies, 90% of chefs that are using the said chemicals aren’t that well versed, they just see what they want in an end product.

In the frenzy of chefs wanting to emulate Ferran or Heston an industry has built up around them specialising in all kinds of powders & additives to help them achieve that target of quirkiness that they desire. Whether it’s using Methocel to do hot panna cotta or buying instant Umami (or E621) to give their dishes that extra edge, chefs seem to have forgotten all the ho ha of not so long ago about reducing E numbers & genetically modified products in their menus. I’m not saying that all ‘E’ numbers are bad, but to constantly load a menu with them can’t be a good thing.

Then there is the plethora of equipment which has come to the fore. In the 70’s the Troisgros brothers are credited with the pioneering use of cooking sous vide. In the early 80’s it reached the domestic market & was referred to as ‘Boil in the Bag’. It quickly fell out of fashion but only because the technique had become so bastardised it was ridiculous. Enter the 90’s and all of a sudden sous vide makes a re-emergence, combined with waterbaths (initially from the medical industry) chef could control the cooking of food to the 0.1 of a degree. Of course some of the younger chefs are now not being taught the fundamental basics of pan skills, because the cooking by numbers approach is pretty much fail safe.

There were more exotic pieces of equipment, The Paco Jet & the Anti griddle to name two which costs thousands of pounds.There was a time where chefs just aspired to having a bespoke Charvet or Bonnet range which would be look after, serviced & cherished just as if was a rare sports car. Now a number of chefs all be it aiming at the stars, are going to owners with a wish list of equipment which would make Santa Claus blush.

The upshot of el Bulli closing is that it’s the end of a chapter in the book of culinary history, yes it was forward thinking much in the way Escoffier was in his time. But the world moves on, and it has. Noma superseded el Bulli 2years ago to take the mantle of ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ at the 50 Best, from this point I believed that the writing was on the wall for Adria’s restaurant. It has been losing money for the past decade and whilst there seemed to be no rest bite in the demand for tables the culinary world seemed to be taking more notice of some of his former protégés serving less chemical orientated food.

The tributes flowed in from around the world and twitter was awash with praise for Mr Adria.Whilst this post has painted a rather sombre portrait, I have no doubt in my mind the man is a genius. I’ll close this post with tributes from the people that know him best and probably the quote which set Ferran Adria on his way.

From Grant Achatz & the team at Alinea

Jason Atherton

Congrats #elbulli and chef ferran thanks for everything! You changed the food world as we know it and we are much better for it RT

Jose Andres

Good night world! We are better because #elbulli and Ferran Adria changed everything……but still so much more to do: hunger obesity war..

Andoni Aduriz

Muy emocionados disfrutando de la última noche de #ElBulli junto a Ferran. http://t.co/HaKwYeg (Very emotional enjoying the last night together at #elBulli with Ferran)

In 1987 Ferran Adria attended a lecture by Jacques Maximin whose quote changed Mr Adria forever.

Creativity means not copying

I only hope that the next wannabe superstar chef bears this in mind before they use their next hydrocolloid and try to destroy a legacy.

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