Ferran Adria, Jose Andres & Andrew Zimmern on the Creative Process
On October 9, the Minneapolis Institute of Art welcomed Ferran Adrià, the world-renowned chef behind Spain’s avant-garde elBulli, his protégé and award-winning chef José Andrés, and yours truly for a discussion on creativity and innovation in the kitchen. The panel was part of a weekend of activity celebrating creativity in Minneapolis, that concluded with a 10-course progressive dining experience from the Twin Cities leading culinary icons (photos below). Huge gratitude to all the amazing chefs in this community who made it happen. Below, you’ll find a condensed and edited version of our discussion.
Credit: Melissa Hesse
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Andrew Zimmern: In my personal and professional life, both of you have unleashed my creative passion. We went to Spain for the first episode of Bizarre Foods we ever made, and I got to spend a day and a half with Ferran in his kitchen. We documented it in our show, and it changed the course of my professional life forever. Nobody wanted to make shows with us, because they didn’t want to be on a show called Bizarre Foods; a movie called Borat had just come out the year before, and they thought that we were trying to snow them.
Many years ago, [Jose Andres] and I were out in New York City very, very late. We were going from snack to snack, drink to drink with some very avant‑garde thinkers and magazine publishers. At the end of the night you said, “You need to do two things for me as a friend. Number one, if you have a platform, you have to do something with it.” And you said, “You have to take July and August off so you can be with your wife and your son.”
“So for professionally opening up my mind and allowing me to tell stories all over the world and for personally helping to redirect all the stuff I do when I’m not working, thank you for both unleashing the creativity in my life.”
On to business. Ferran, can you put the exhibition into perspective for us, what would you like us to take away from it?
Ferran Adria: Everybody that sees cooking one way will end up coming out of the exhibit thinking that cooking is different. This is an artistic exhibit from the point of view of the curator. We explain very little. We’ve done other exhibits where we explain everything, but not with this one. With this one, each picture, each map, you have to give it a vision. The thing is, we each have a different vision of cuisine. We cook every day, from something really simple to the most incredible experience that you could ever imagine.
There are wonderful paintings; let’s say, for example, Picasso. What’s the use of a Picasso? Well, just to look at it; to get excited about it. But you could also use it to make a fire. Sounds crazy, right? Well, in cooking, it’s the same thing. You could say that cooking could be a creative experience to the maximum level or it could just simply be to feed yourself.
AZ: The first time I ate at elBulli, you actually made lunch for us. You did a simple escabeche of rabbit. It was lightly pickled, and served with potatoes and some vegetables. And we sat down at a table in the kitchen and ate. But then that night, I had 32 courses in the dining room. I’ve had the same pleasure of dining with you [Jose], simply throwing a piece of meat on the grill late at night, but then also eating in your restaurant and seeing magic that most people would consider high art.
Credit: Melissa Hesse
Jose Andres: I’m fascinated with [Ferran Adria]. I’ve known him for almost 30 years now. He’s been so generous with his knowledge, that if he was a doctor and trying to cure everything that’s in the world today, there wouldn’t be sick people. That’s how big of a heart this man has.
“If he never shared what he created in his restaurant, cooking in the last 30 years wouldn’t be what it is today.”
I owe him a lot personally, and not only for the amazing creative things he’s done, but actually he was one that began telling us, “If we’re going to move forward, we need to understand the past.” I’m going to tell you a story. I was probably 17. We were frying artichokes. He was like a fish that keeps going back and forth, looking at the gelatin and then the fryer. And we were thinking, “This guy is nuts. He’s going to put the gelatin in the fryer and it’s going to explode.”
If you would use logic, you would never do what he did, which was to throw the gelatin in the fryer and create a big explosion in the kitchen right there in front of us. But many years later, he created the liquid croqueta. The lesson there is to never be afraid to look like a fool for thinking the impossible.
“Never be afraid of failure, that’s when amazing things happen.”
Credit: Melissa Hesse
FA: No doubt whatsoever, a gastronomic experience is the best one there is. It’s the only one where we use the five senses. In human history, cooking has always been done so that people would like it. That’s logical, right? ElBulli was the one that violated this rule. We were not cooking so that people would like it. We were cooking so that you would reflect on it.
“When you would eat there, it would change you. People came because it was so shocking, because it would make you think constantly.”
AZ: I understand your need to provoke, and your desire to make people think. But a restaurant, a good one, is about art, and also about commerce. You have to put people in the seats to keep things going.
FA: Avant‑garde is never a good business. You can’t make a lot of money through avant‑garde, although I can’t complain about how I did. But we spent 14 years without making a penny. I never cooked for money, though. That’s the difference. In the museum, the person who does avant‑garde, real avant‑garde, will die the avant‑garde. He might not sell a piece. That’s his life, though. It is very tough, very tough.
AZ: Tell us about year 15 when things began to turn and the reservation book began filling up. People are coming because they know there’s experimentation, they know there’s avant‑garde, and what was once frightening to people is desirable. Did that change your creative process?
FA: Not at all. Not even now. It’s easier, I guess. In 2009, I approached my partner and I said, “We’re closing down.” We had two million people reserving every year. And do you know why we did it? To keep on doing what we were doing. To be able to keep on doing avant‑garde, to have a challenge. You can open a restaurant or you can close it. You don’t transform it into a foundation.
Credit: Melissa Hesse
JA: One night at elBulli, we had zero people on the books. It was raining. Between the wind, the rain, and no reservations, on a very cold day in April, it didn’t look good, so why get the cart of desserts ready for service?
The pastry chef went to Ferran and said, “Today we are not doing the cart of desserts, right?” And Ferran said, “Why?” “Because no one is coming.” He said, “You know one thing? Today I would love to see the best dessert cart we can do.” That answer didn’t make any sense. But, what he was doing was making sure even on a very rainy day, a day of no reservations, that we all had our hopes up. If you see his success, his success has always been looking beyond the horizon. I believe this is very important for life, and in our profession.
“Look beyond the horizon, because there will be a day that will be sunny and beautiful.”
FA: What we’re doing now at the Foundation is an evolution. We’re going to do whatever we please, whenever we please, so that we can find the limit. The issue is that we think the gastronomic experience, the avant‑garde one, is to actually eat, and it is not. It’s to eat knowledge. It is to eat creation. The physical part of it, that’s the minimal part of it.
AZ: You’ve been teaching lessons about food through presenting avant‑garde cuisine in a restaurant environment. How will you continue that vision at the elBulli Foundation?
FA: Well, first of all, gastronomy is a discipline that hasn’t been in universities for very long. All the knowledge and information that exists is not organized. We’re creating a logical taxonomy that we can use in the world of cuisine and gastronomy.
If I were to ask some of you ‘what is cooking?’ it’d be very difficult for you to give a definition. Do you know why? Because very few of you know how cooking or cuisine started. To put it into context, we need to understand how humanity started, the scientific version. If we do not have this context, it will be very difficult for you to understand that something very simple, such as ceramics, was the major culprit of cooking the way we cook today. What could we do without pans?
What would have happened in Asia if instead of rice, they planted wheat? Just one product would have changed the cuisine. Without context, we could ask millions of questions like that.
In Catalonia, one of the national dishes that we eat for Christmas is cannelloni with white béchamel sauce. As far as I know, neither cannelloni or béchamel sauce are from Catalonia. Do you know what a vinaigrette was in 1350? It was a soup. Who knows about the evolution of dishes? We think that things have not changed, but everything is always changing.
It’s clear to us that an organic tomato is a natural product and that we’re supposed to eat natural products. But that’s a lie. An organic product is the least natural product on the market. Natural means something that a human does not touch. A natural tomato does exist in the Andes, but it’s horrible. 99.9 percent of plants that are in nature are not edible for humans. Even though we’re a mess, human beings have been able to make a lot of plants edible. The worst tomato out of the worst grocery store is better than the natural tomato. Why go through all of this? We’re starting this so that cooks and the people that are dining are not manipulated.
Credit: Melissa Hesse
AZ: elBulli was known for radical innovation and now many restaurants are emulating its methods and style, making those techniques more common. What do you think the next radical food innovation will be?
FA: If we knew, then it wouldn’t be avant-garde.
AZ: Good answer. In a craft such as cooking or furniture making, do you think creativity comes from competency, that not having to constantly think about technique allows for the creative process to occur, perhaps?
JA: It seems that creation and creativity happen when you’re hard at work. I don’t remember ever creating anything on a beach. Let me tell you about the liquid olives. Ferran doesn’t have a tree that has liquid olives. It’s a technique that he perfected that came from the pharmaceutical industry; we call it a spherification. The liquid olive is amazing; it’s the best olive you’re going to eat, ever. I’ve sold a million times more liquid olives than the man that created them. I serve it at Jaleo and Bazaar, and we sell millions. I have the decency to have his name next to the dish on the menu.
Some chef, whose name I’m never going to pronounce again, told me, “Are you not feeling guilty that you are stealing your mentor’s dish and technique?” And I thought for a second, and I told him, “In your restaurant, do you fry, do you chop, do you bake, do you roast?” Yes. “Which ones of those techniques did you invent?” Those techniques are highways into the horizon of better things. When a technique is created, he has always emphasized how important it is that other people get that technique and continue to do things with it. That’s what we’ve always done in our history, keep coming up with things that somebody else will take further, and this is what Ferran has done better than anyone.
FA: Could you define the technique of creativity in an objective way? Because everyone starts by saying, “Oh, for me, it’s —.” No, no, not for you. What is it really? You can learn and acquire creativity, but what you do is creation. Your capacity of creating is something cognitive that you can learn and teach.
AZ: You’re describing what the philosopher William James perfectly described as the spiritual experience. People would ask him, “How do you have a spiritual experience?” and he said, “I can’t tell you, but I can tell you how to create an atmosphere of grace in your life where one could happen.” So perhaps it’s the same kind of thing.
“There are ways to change the way you look at the world that create an atmosphere for creativity to happen.”
Credit: Melissa Hesse
FA: Technique is a group of procedures to get to a purpose or a goal, and it’s as simple as that. Do you know what the first technique in history was? It was two and a half million years ago. Homo habilis grabbed a rock and rubbed it against two rocks and created the first tool ever. With this first tool, he created the first technique to be able to cut meat. If you understand this, you will understand that for cooking you always need technique. It would be impossible to cook without technique. You could create without thinking about it. You can have the idea in the shower, right? Or you can do it consciously, which is how we mostly do it most of the time.
I’m going to tell you about a creativity technique that a lot of you use. Pretend that this is a magazine you take with you to the bathroom, thinking that you’re going to look for ideas. That’s a creative technique. It’s a group of procedures to get to a purpose.
AZ: That’s a great, great point. There are ways, whether it’s sitting in the bathroom or taking a walk, that creative people all talk about where their moments come from. It doesn’t mean it always happens, which is what differentiates it from a technique. Every time you sit on the toilet with a magazine, you don’t have great ideas. But it opens up the possibility.
FA: It took 6,000 years for people to realize that a miniskirt on a hairy man was very different than a miniskirt on a young lady. In Egypt, in Greece, the ones that were wearing the miniskirts were the men. Mary Quant in 1960 conceptualized the miniskirt. It’s silly, but it’s an idea. Many scientific advances that are very complex were just an idea at the right time, but we’ve spent thousands of years and we have not been able to make a pill to cure the flu. So there isn’t really one way to do things, there’s not one truth.
AZ: This is a fantastic place to end it. Ladies and gentlemen, Ferran Adrià andJosé Andrés. Thank you very, very much.
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