Cedar Lewisohn meets his culinary hero – star Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià, and finds that food transcends all language barriers.
I was lying in bed, paying my rent … when a message popped into my inbox. The interview is on. Today, 2 o’clock. If anything could get me out of bed, it was this; a face-to-face interview with ‘ The godfather of molecular gastronomy’ and general living legend, Ferran Adrià, one of the most influential chefs in the world, if not the most influential.
Ferran is in London for the opening of an exhibition at Somerset House: The Art of Food. I get up and dash over there. Before meeting the big man I take some time on my own to look around the show, which is quite a treat. An exhibition exploring the career of a great chef is a decidedly uncommon thing. The curators have done a good job in presenting the many weird and wonderful dishes created at elBulli, Adrià’s three Michelin star restaurant in Catalonia. Watching the videos of their ingenious ‘deconstructivist’ gastronomic creations was in fact mildly hypnotising. This is food porn of the very highest order.
Next, I’m taken backstage to a small, bare room where the interview will take place. Ferran arrives with his translator and we begin. I start by asking how the history of art compares with the history of cuisine. He replies that food came first and then art. “We know that for sure”, he says, point blank. “What makes us human is the fact we started eating meat; that’s how we developed our brains, and that’s what makes us what we are”, he continues. “Food is probably the most important fact in human existence.”
It’s strange doing an interview through a translator. The latter speaks in a flat, measured English ascent, whereas the Catalan words coming from Ferran sound intense and are delivered at speed. “ The issue we need to talk about is what is cooking?” he asks, “What separates food and cooking? There has not been much dialogue between cooking and art.” We talk about this a bit more and Ferran concludes that the dialogue between a chef and an artist is still very new. Whenever I’ve previously thought about this subject, I’ve done it from the perspective of the artist. Ferran, however, clearly sees the connection between food and art from the perspective of a chef. He’s not trying to be an artist. I’m curious to see if he has an opinion on the huge rise in the popularity of food culture. He merely expresses surprise that “it did not happen sooner.”
Next I ask what chefs and artists have in common. “It depends which artist you are talking about and which chef”, the translator deadpans. “I don’t consider everyone who paints is an artist.” Very good, I think to myself.
In 2007, Ferran was invited to take part in the prestigious Documenta 12 exhibition in Kassel, Germany. He tells me this project was the highlight of his career. Every day, throughout Documenta’s one hundred-day run, two very lucky visitors were invited for a meal at elBulli (normal waiting lists are backed up for several years), and there was also a large dinner for a select group of art world guests. The meal was documented in Ferran’s book, Food for Thought, which he worked on with Richard Hamilton and Vicente Tolidi. Documenta 12 received over 754,000 visitors, but, according to my maths, less than 300 of them will have been able to experience Ferran’s artistry. I can understand why he chose to keep his work pure, and also how the work can exist as a sort of myth, but it also feels a bit of a shame. Ferran, however, defends his decision. Finally ignoring his translator, he says, in English, “Every discipline is different. In a soccer stadium it’s possible, in the opera, in the cinema… In food, high, high gastronomy, it’s small. The production is very, very, expensive.” Then he goes back to Spanish and the translator. “ That’s why in this exhibition, we don’t eat. It’s kind of educational. My participation in Documenta contextualised very clearly what is avant-garde cooking.”
Back when I was in bed earlier, I thought it might be fun to invite people I know on a certain popular social networking site to send me their questions to ask Ferran Adrià. I tell him I’ve done this, and he’s up for a random enquiry. I take a quick look at my notes and decide on one question. “What is your go-to food for a hangover?”, which elicits a laugh, and the sage advice: “It does not matter what you eat, as long as you get rid of that hangover. Really, the only solution is getting drunk again.” Hair of the dog, as we say in English.