Whether you’re a fan of Ferran Adrià or think his food is fluff, you’ll find this book is a ripping read.
At the height of Ferran fever a few years ago, I was asked to grade the final exam of a graduating class at a local culinary school. The whole 10+ courses dinner – from start to finish – was a harrowing litany of spurious spherifications, food made bouncy with overly enthusiastic amounts of agar-agar, and dessert petrified by nitrogen. It was an exercise (on my part) of supreme patience, and I haven’t forgiven those students for making me drink reduced bouillabaisse through an eye dropper. I won’t even get into all the foam I waded through at that meal and many others afterwards. At some point, I feared every function I had to attend would simulate situations similar to that in a shaving cream factory.
Situations like the one I describe above can be ascribed to the far-reaching influences of one man, super chef Ferran Adrià. He is depicted in almost Technicolor detail in his very first biography, Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, penned by multi-awarded food writer Colman Andrews.
The author creates a wide arc around Adrià, who the man is and why he’s so important, before moving inwards and more intimately, narrating conversations he (Andrews) has had with the people closest to Adrià. I discover that the chef is frugal (“I need very little to live,”) as well as a fast talker and almost electrically intense, and that he got into cooking when he was 18 simply because he wanted enough money to party in Ibiza.
Though Adrià and EL Bulli (El BOOL-yee) are inextricably linked, it’s interesting to read that the restaurant was originally begun by a German couple from whom years later, Adrià bought El Bulli from. Even more fascinating are details of how the restaurant managed to stay afloat, at least prior to the summer of 2003 when an article in The New York Times Magazine blew open Adrià’s world forever.
Andrews describes Adrià as “… an artistic avant-garde [chef] … taking haute cuisine beyond the merely contemporary into a whole new realm.” He bolsters this with thought-provoking descriptions of what Adrià’s cooking is, which run counter to the world’s perception of Adrià as the “inventor” of molecular gastronomy, a term Adrià detests.
While this is a book centered around Adrià, there are several chapters that “pull back the veil” so to speak about the mystery that is El Bulli: the progression of the four hour meal at the restaurant, a peek into the Taller (tal-YEH), Adrià’s “creative lab”, and a gripping narrative of exactly how those spherifications are done, as well as what some aspiring stagiares have resorted to to nab an internship at El Bulli. Earlier this year, Adrià announced, to the complete befuddlement of the foodie world, that he’s closing El Bulli at the end of the 2011 season, an issue the book’s last chapter addresses in a stunning coup de grâce.
Andrews is a masterful writer, weaving a compelling story around a rather enigmatic character. It’s quite a heavy read however, in terms of subject matter and occasionally, vocabulary used. Similar to how eating Adrià’s creations have been described, it takes concentration to read this book (a dictionary and a food dictionary would be helpful) in order to fully understand and appreciate the picture so deftly depicted of such an illustrious chef.
Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food
Gotham Publishing, Oct 2010. 320 pages
Available at Fully Booked.