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El Bulli: 1998-2002


robert brown
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What may be the most elaborate, if not spectacular, documentation of a chef’s work is found between the covers (and in the slipcase) of “El Bulli: 1998-2002. Released last month, this volume is one of the projected three that will cover the history of the restaurant on the Costa Brava from 1983, when Ferran Adria became the head chef, to the present. (The volumes are being released in reverse chronological order). Anyone acquiring the book now will have to make do with the Spanish language version, as the English text edition is due out this coming summer. (As a former antiquarian bookseller, my advice is to buy this first edition and put it away; then buy the English version).

Coming in at just short of 500 pages, not including a fold-out “Guide to the Work” with a CD-Rom, and in a large-format, “El Bulli: 1998-2002” provides a survey of Ferran and Albert Adria’s creations year-by-year, in meticulous detail and codification, and in magnificent and mouth-watering mostly full-page color photos of which there are many. The CD-Rom, my opening of which will have to wait four-to-six days until I can use a computer other than the drive-less laptop I brought to Nice, has recipes, more photos, menus, and what is called “Schemas of Evolutionary Analysis”. (I will add comments about it to this thread as soon as possible).

Beginning with 1998, each yearly section contains a table of contents of every dish created at the time and its category; i.e. cocktail, snack, tapas, main dish, pre-dessert, etc. Each dish is given a number so that each can be identified or viewed in the photo section and singled out in the several categories that Adria uses to give an analysis of his achievements. He codifies his cuisine by describing in detail the building blocks for dishes: the products that he transforms and categorizes in such groups as “new products”, “products with soul”, “thoughts about products” and “techniques and concepts applied to products”. He then describes the utensils and instruments he used; and lists and describes the combinations of products in each dish; the specific manifestations (“elaboraciones”) of his various foundations such as consommés and soups; hot gelatins; warm and cold foams; sorbets, raviolis and so forth. To the uninitiated, it likely appears as egocentric and trivial, but to the serious professional chef and well-traveled gastronome, it is fascinating, even riveting. Such detailed elaboration of a culinary “oeuvre” makes sense and interesting reading only coming from Adria. If a chef with the stature of other trendsetters (Bras, Gagnaire, Veyrat?) were to attempt something comparable, I suspect it would look like not much more than self-aggrandizement.

“El Bulli: 1998-2002” may have no practical value for many. Yet it is culinary documentation of such detail and importance and such a substantial and beautifully designed book that any gastronomic library without this book and the two to come will be viewed as incomplete.

Note: I bought my copy at Librairie Gourmand in Paris. It is also available through the El Bulli website. Both establishments sell it for 120 euros.

Edited by robert brown (log)
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Talk about raising the bar higher.

Well, it's 120 Euros plus whatever extra for shipping, customs and taxes if you order it online. I think it would be about $170 total. Patrice Demers told me he received his in about a week from Librarie Gastronomie. (I paid more than this many years ago for Roellinger's book from Kitchen Arts & Letters, which, at the time, was considered an excellent book--all the better French chefs tried to get their hands on it.)

I haven't even opened the book yet, Robert, the CD-ROM is that captivating. It's been in my laptop nonstop for the past few days, I've been carrying it to the restaurants each day and more than anything else it demonstrates what not following tradition, what daring, what innovation is all about. It should redefine what anyone thought they knew about "interesting" food and cooking--and no one working their way through the dishes will be able to look at whoever their favorite-admired-beloved chef may be the same way again. There are trendsetters I suppose on the culinary scene; Adria is not one of them. As I've said all along, Adria is beyond trend.

Let the re-assessment of Adria, and his influence, begin. Good thing that the "Chef of the Century" thread can't be edited anymore.

I'd find it interesting for you to briefly compare the effect the two recent, massive Ducasse books had on you as well, Robert, in light of this project. To me, they beg for comparison on so many levels.

Perhaps your most provocative statement is "Such detailed elaboration of a culinary “oeuvre” makes sense and interesting reading only coming from Adria. If a chef with the stature of other trendsetters (Bras, Gagnaire, Veyrat?) were to attempt something comparable, I suspect it would look like not much more than self-aggrandizement" I'm curious--did the large scale Ducasse books seem self-aggrandizing to you--and looking past Ducasse, why do you already sense you wouldn't perceive similarly-styled works by Bras/Gagnaire/Veyrat as interesting? After say one year of dishes, after the tricks or trucs or strange ingredient combinations are revealed and you go "that's interesting"--do you fear you'd find yourself saying--ok, so what? Is that it? I've seen that before at the French Laundry, I see that at Blue Hill or Union Pacific, that's nothing new or nothing special? (I'm also not sure I'd be as comfortable lumping Bras in as a trendsetter anyway, as he has several very revealing, very thoughtful books under his belt, out for awhile now. Those books encourage me to think a more extensively cataloged, more extensively explained treatment would serve Bras--and us--very well indeed.) Would you fear a Keller work like this might appear self-aggrandizing?

Regardless, in this Adria collection I have such a hard time finding a picture or recipe or juxtoposition or phrase that doesn't surprise, doesn't broaden, doesn't stretch what you thought you knew.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Short answers are either "no," or " it depends--it's more complicated than that." What we might come to understand is just how much El Bulli-esque stuff we're already seeing, how much the Trotters and Kellers of the country have "emulated" stuff Adria has already done--stuff previously thought isolated up a winding road in a country off the beaten path and out of the US media limelight. And it isn't like adding a foam to a dish makes it El Bulli-esque, that isn't Ferran's message and it's also not like that large bloc of chefs and cooks mailing it in around this country, serving up the majority of our conservative unadventurous uninteresting stuff--to an undemanding clientele--will even buy this book/CD-ROM to begin with. How many do you think have a CD-ROM drive and are comfortable using it? How many chefs are even comfortable typing on a computer keyboard? (Answer: not many.)

But even if they did get their hands on this, it's not like this will shock them into caring about their jobs more or magically kindle some type of creativity from within. You either have talent and an open mind or you don't. It's also not like restaurateurs and owners are going to start supporting food like this--with better equipment, better training, better staffing--nor that the food media will all of a sudden realize this kind of cooking is special and interesting as opposed to a vanilla ice cream sundae or Alice Waters. Like in France, chefs in the US operate largely within a "tradition"--largely professional to be sure but conservative, a tradition of diminished creative expectation, of consistency, of maintaining the status quo, of concept or theme. What Adria teaches those willing to listen is that you don't have to cook or think conservatively within a tradition. That's why you're already starting to hear about all these other Spanish chefs who came up under Ferran's influence, under his freedom, doing interesting things in Barcelona and Spain. They all credit Ferran and realize if they grew up and cooked in France or America they would never be doing the things they're doing now--they wouldn't have realized it possible.

Unlike France there is more freedom here--which is but one reason why so many good young French chefs and pastry chefs come here. I already see El Bulli-esque dishes and techniques all over the high end scene--not as often, if at all, in the unabashedly French places. (The French still try to work around and work within the "French" tradition somehow and very few are willing to be seen openly emulating Adria.) I also don't want you to underestimate the resistance toward Adria and the inertia of the typical American chef, both of which mitigate against noticeable change, at least in the short term. (Short term is easy, I'd have to think about what the effect might be long term.)

Plus, when I've run into non-French chefs in New York in the past year, the two and three star chefs and pastry chefs who you might think would be the most open to what Ferran and Alberto have to teach--I hear from them that their customers "are not ready" for El Bulli-esque dishes. What they're really intimating is that we have no tradition to support such a view of cooking and eating--that in fact, our tradition augurs against it. So we'll see. You certainly aren't going to see it at the mundane CIA and Johnson & Wales level--the ACF-types have too much of a vested interest in maintaining the foodservice status quo, you aren't ever going to see it at the hotel level below an occasional trend-spotting W or an isolated Ritz, since business travellers are safe and conservative and so too are F & B directors. You might not see too much even on the restaurant level in NYC since the four-stars, which command the most media supplication, are all French. You'll probably see the influence in places you'd least expect: 1) in small chef-owned, chef-driven restaurants like a "Blue Hill" in NYC or a "Django" in Philly, 2) in cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, DC, 3) from chefs who aren't the product of rigid "French training" or the CIA but who are open to all influences--like eGulleteers Patrice Demers and Michael Laiskonis, 4) from chefs without a publicist, without the ear or much fear of a local reviewer and without investors to answer to. Those chefs who have a publicist, know the reviewers and have investors aren't likely to change their safe style or approach.

In fact, it's now possible those American chefs of some stature, like a Bouley, who so charitably "emulate" Ferran and Albert Adria's dishes may just have to remove their more blatantly El Bulli-esque dishes for fear now of being found out.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I have also viewed the book and it left me speechless for almost an hour. Not only does a document like this shock you but it also puts everything you were doing till now in question.The point to this book (i hope) is not that we change our way of cooking but that we understand that some people are really rethinking our way of eating. People like Ferran Adria don`t exist on every corner.His work should change and affect what we are doing in maybe ten years when we start to understand what he is doing NOW. On the night i read the book, i was cooking rabbit with mustard sauce, i can assure you that many questions passed by my mind while doing this very classic dish. That should the purpose of this book; letting us think twice on how to personnalize our food next time we cook it.

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Oddly enough this thread and particularly Klc's impassioned post reminds me of Suzanne Fass' recent review of James Peterson's Glorious French Food: A Fresh Approach to the Classics. I suppose Adria's food should be seen as the antithesis of classic French cooking, but what's needed to produce great food is an understanding of the food and not a recipe to be followed or a superficial understanding of an unusual technique. Suzanne quotes Peterson as saying:

If the cook understands what’s going on in a dish and how it relates to other similar (or not-so-similar) dishes, he or she can cook from principles rather than from recipes. … But if you understand what a cassoulet really is, that it’s the culmination of many techniques, traditions, and ways of using ingredients that have long been available in a particular region, you have access to something far more valuable that a recipe for cassoulet. Instead you have its logic and context and you understand the techniques needed to prepare it, and so you are able to invent your own variations or to simplify the recipe to suit your schedule or energy level. (p. xxiv)

Adria's real influence will be felt by those who understand what he is doing and who learn not to cook as he does, or even to think as he does, but to rethink the way they already cook. Of course that has its scary side as well. It's far easier to learn to repeat the classics successfully than to be creative successfully.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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By the way, Tony Bourdain had a few words to say about Adria's book in Barcelona Rules. I believe he said it was amazing, and later weighed in with a few more superlative adjectives and phrases. The thread veered off to discuss Barcelona more than the book, but Klc added a few links to Adria's web site. I recall looking at the site when a link to it first appeared on eGullet and it was, to borrow a term, amazing. Does anyone know if the CD is at all related to the web site? It wouldn't suprise me if it were.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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No, Bux, the CD-ROM is completely self-contained--beautifully, stylishly extant--though a "web help" link is still under construction--besides containing alot of bonus stuff as Robert described (and not wishing to steal Robert's or Bourdain's thunder since they probably haven't been able to view the CD-ROM yet) it has all the recipes, images, searchable and indexed by every sort of determinant--you can move your cursor over micro-thumbnails of every dish from 1998 say--see a larger thumbnail and if the description or image interests you, click on it and you're presented with the full recipe and process, even printing it out. You can call up specific lists--say of all cold espumas or all hot gelatins used in the four year period--and use that as an jumping off point if you so choose. In short, alot of work went into the production and organization of this so that the user can customize his own experience and define how he interacts with the work. It is a liberating anti-cookbook, the cookbook to end all cookbooks, much like Ferran's philosophy of cooking and eating.

The "look" and feel of the CD-ROM, though, will seem familiar to anyone who has navigated the El Bulli media website.

A good point, Bux--Barcelona may rule, but why it rules might becoming a bit more clear. You can't even begin to discuss Barcelona without discussing Adria first. I think chefs implicitly understand this. Lubow at least gets that right in his "Barcelona--Way Beyond Tapas" article mentioned on that other thread.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I have indeed viewed the CD Rom. And it is as amazing as described. When I was just over in Barcelona, Adria gave me the full tour of his lab--from kitchen/test facility,( equipment behind rising metal curtains, induction burners concealed beneath slide-out work-table, backlit ingredients/elements in clear glass jars), library, collection of "found objects" and toys, (for inspiration), spritzers (wet forest floor scent) flow charts etc. to a draft of next year's projects on a painstakingly assembled chart in the inner sanctum,/boardroom.It's like a friendlier version of Dr. No's lair, set in a former Spanish Gothic palace. Offices for his other enterprises are down the street. The man himself is delightful. Animated, down to earth--an admirer(surprisingly to some, perhaps), of the simple good things in life: rustic Spanish country cooking, good hamburgers, good ham, those tiny cans of oysters and cockles they do so well over there, Thai street food, and lurid Americanesque packaging.He was an extraordinarily kind and generous host--who loves talking about food--any food. I liked him. A lot.

The Book--or "The Object" as one can breathlessly call it--is indeed a revolutionary reconceptualization of the whole idea of the cookbook. There has never been anything like it. Just flipping between photos of the "cocktails" watching them develop from year to year is a jolt.

abourdain

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Tony, will this visit be on A Cook's Tour?

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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That would be great. Any other FN coverage of el Bulli would probably be dreadful. You could make it work, either as ACT or an hour long special. :wink:

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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This is the sort of thing you can get only in eGullet. I miss it.

Well, speaking for myself, your participation is missed. Don't be a stranger, John.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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The Book--or "The Object" as one can breathlessly call it--is indeed a revolutionary reconceptualization of the whole idea of the cookbook. There has never been anything like it.

He is, I suppose, a revolutionary reconceptualization of the whole idea of a cook or chef whose thinking extends beyond the kitchen and the cookbook. Possibly beyond the dining room and restaurant as well, but in regard to these and their relationship to hotels, I've been leaving extracts of press releases of his projects with NH hotels in pertinent threads here. For such an exciting revolutionary, he's commanding a great deal of respect from those in a position to let him experiment in the real world outside his kitchen in Roses and his "lab" in Barcelona. I expect to see more unpredecented projects.

John, I don't believe eGullet scoops all the other media sources or that everything I want to know will be here, but it sure as hell seems as if it may be the single source I'd most miss if I lost it.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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In light of the discussion in the Chefs' Cookbooks topic, I'd be interested to hear from anybody familiar with the mechanics of how the El Bulli book was created. It would be interesting, hypothetically speaking, to learn that what seems to be the most important cookbook of our era was created outside of the traditional cookbook publishing channels.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I received my book about a week ago and I'm still speechless :shock:

While reading this book, you can really fell the ''El Bulli''way of thinking.

The pictures are superb, the CD-Rom is a very useful way of searching recipes.

It's very interesting to see the evolution of their food through the years. I can't wait to have the other 2 books

Patrice Demers

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Sometimes there is no escaping Ferran. With the El Bulli book open on the bed so that I could describe it for eGullet, I looked up at our TV set and saw the man himself being interviewed on the French Gourmet TV. I managed to catch all but the first few minutes of the hour-long program, which is worth seeing despite the lack of visual material: Only the atelier is shown while the rest, except for a few brief segments in which he makes a sardine salad with Joel Robuchon, is talking heads with a woman host and some fellow named Oscar who has something to do with Adria. Since Adria speaks French (fluently) with a Spanish accent, his words were nonetheless turned into sub-titles, which made it a bit easier for me to understand. It would be wonderful if the Food Network could pick up the program and put on English subtitles.

Having chatted only briefly with Adria at El Bulli last summer, the program gave me quite a bit more insight. Sometimes he would appear distracted and day-dreamy. There is a little boy quality to him that crept in fleetingly several times. His answers were focused and lengthy. It is obvious he wishes to hide nothing about his achievements and goals. Yet, after watching the program and reading the extended Esquire article on him, there are serious omissions in his CV. All he states is that he started out, after studying economics, as a dishwasher in Majorca so he could see the pretty women on the beach, and then had other small jobs at nameless restaurants, devoured books with classic French recipes and sampled the cuisine of Guerard, Girardet, Chapel, and other Nouvelle Cuisine chefs, leaving me with the impression of either hiding something or being the greatest natural-born chef of all time.

I am not about to give a moment-by-moment recapitulation of the program. I think that what is most important from my point of view is that the interview, along with the El Bulli book, neither detracted from or added to my tentative notion that Adria and his cuisine are phenomena that are “off the charts”. Any other chef who lacks the mystique of Adria’s persona, the laboratory, the amazing creations should not be trying very hard to follow in Adria’s footsteps. Of course, there is no one like him and there surely never will be. I found the most enlightening moment of the program to be when Adria referred to “the sixth sense” which he called “sensibility” and which he defined while pointing to the top of his head, as “what makes you say something is delicious”. It is sensibility, as I see it, that makes Adria unique and will keep him that way. Perhaps in a few years from now I will have to admit that Adria is exerting a valid and positive influence on cuisine. For now, however, every time I am served “an Adria-type” dish, it is with the feeling that the chef in question is simply trying to be trendy. It is possible that Adria knows that he has the culinary avant-garde stage to himself for a long time to come, which is why he can be so open and, to reply to Steve Klc’s inquiry to me, the likes of Bras, Gagnaire and Veyrat (whose best dishes seem conventional by comparison) will look like imitators if they also attempt to document and codify their cuisines.

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Can someone kindly post the links to ordering this on-line? I seem to be having trouble finding either Librarie Gastronomie or the section from which I can order on El Bulli's site. My laziness no doubt, but help would be nice.

A.

(Told my wife not get the Tramonto's Amuse Bouche for me for Xmas. I want this one, even though I am still laboring through translating two his other books.)

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I think that Adria's influence would be best felt in the area of thinking about and exploring culinary possibilities rather than in techniques. His techniques arose from that exploration. One cannot approach that exploration through the techniques.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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My Spanish teacher in prep school, right from the beginning, insisted that Castillian was the only "true" Spanish. And that was what we were drilled in. Unfortunately, after all his good lessons so many years ago, I can't remember much now.

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