One of my regrets about not attending every one of the Harvard lectures that accompanied the Physics of Soft Matter course was that I never got to hear chef Ferran Adrià. Last night I was able to remedy that gap in my culinary education when I attended “Deconstructing the Chef: Ferran Adrià and the Experience of Food” at the Museum of Science. The lecture was for museum members, who would also get a sneak preview of the “Innovation in the Art of Food: Chef Ferran Adrià” exhibit, part of the museum’s ongoing mission to enhance food education.
Via his interpreter, Adrià, who understands English but prefers to speak his native Catalonian, described what he has been up to since he closed his legendary elBulli restaurant in 2011 and converted it into elBullifoundation. The foundation has three initiatives: elBulli 1846, a complete cataloging of all of the dishes created at the restaurant (1846 in total, documented in 14,000 pages); Bullipedia, an attempt to do for food and cooking what Wikipedia has done for general knowledge; and elBulli DNA, a creative think tank for culinary experimentation (and a collaboration with MIT).
We learned that the 14,000 pages of recipe information translated to more than 14 hours of video, but we would only have to sit through a six-minute retrospective. As dishes flashed across the screen, I noticed that I had cooked five of them: spherified peas, mango caviar, parmesan foam, instant cake, and the vegetable panaché.
When the lecture ended, we were invited to try some Adrià-inspired dishes at a reception that also featured demos of some of the now everyday techniques the chef had invented. The museum director and his assistant successfully spherified pea soup:
Of the three dishes offered, the most interesting was this “salad” of melon spheres, panna cotta, lime foam, the spherified peas, and salmon roe:
With the food sampled, and judgement passed by both She Who Must Be Obeyed and He Who Will Not Be Ignored, we made our way through the exhibit. I learned that Adrià and his team used modeling clay to work out the plating of most of the dishes. This one looks good even with the clay:
What surprised me was seeing the prominent placement in the exhibit of the vegetable panaché, both the plating model and a photo of the final dish, which is an arrangement of basil gel, corn mousse, beet foam, tomato sorbet, cauliflower mousse, peach ice, almonds, avocado, and almond sorbet.
Compare that perfectly plated dish to my first and only attempt:
While we were admiring the photo, Adrià wandered over. I asked his interpreter to “Tell Feran I have cooked this dish.”
Adrià looked at me and asked in English “You made this?”
“Yes, chef. But the timing of the plating is very difficult.”
“You cooked the most important dish in the history of elBulli!”
“It helps to have a biochemistry degree from MIT.”
“You’re from MIT!” He laughed and grabbed my hand. I was carrying a brochure advertising the soon to be published elBulli 2005-2011, a complete record of every recipe created in those years. He was gracious enough to sign it for me.
So yes, next month I’m buying the set of books. And I’m framing the autograph.
Did I mention I shook hands with Ferran Adrià?
ETA, 2/16/14: Here’s an article about the UK version of the exhibit.
Why is the vegetable dish so important? Here’s the description in my cookbook:
The textured vegetable panaché (la menestra de verduras en texturas), which we created in 1994, was a milestone dish for elBulli, not only because of what is on the plate, but also because it came at a pivotal moment in the the development of our cuisine, and opened up a rich seam of creative potential. The interplay of prepared textures and the use of deconstruction as a creative technique make the dish an expression of some of the best-known characteristics of elBulli’s food. Deconstruction is the process by which a dish is inspired by an identifiable external source, but in which every element of that source os modified in the final dish. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, it was probably the first use of deconstruction as a creative method.
The dish was created as an homage to Michel Bras’s iconic dish gargouillou des jeunes légumes, in which thirty different seasonal vegetables are are cooked and seasoned separately and presented together in a perfect expression of their inherent qualities. We wanted to create a vegetable dish at the same level, and at the same time we were developing different textures using liquid bases, such as foams, jellies, savory ice creams, and sorbets, all of which went on to play an important role in future dishes. The textured vegetable panaché was the result, and it opened up a new world of possibilities. Each component is an expression of a vegetable through texture: an almond sorbet, a cauliflower mousse, a tomato puree, beetroot foam, raw avocado, basil jelly, and sweet corn mousse. I still consider it to be one of elBulli’s most symbolic dishes.
ETA, 4/15/14: The complete talk is now online: