/ 8 April 2011

A tale of high drama — in a foodie kind of way

A Tale Of High Drama In A Foodie Kind Of Way

Reinventing Food. Ferran Adrià: The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat by Colman Andrews (Phaidon)

Colman Andrews doesn’t remember what he ate the first time he visited El Bulli, in 1985. He remembers he had a “good lunch” and that it seemed like French nouvelle cuisine.

One of the chefs was Ferran Adrià, then in his 20s. Andrews next ate at the restaurant 21 years later and Adrià joked there had been a few changes.

Andrews (not to be confused with the one-time boss of South African Airways) was perfectly placed to write this exhaustive, clear-eyed biography of Adrià, having also written the well-respected Catalan Cuisine, which Adrià knew and admired.

He put it to Adrià that it was time to write “a biography, or not a biography; a portrait. An explanation and appreciation of who you are and how you got that way and what you do and why.”

The book — the last one, says Adrià, that he’ll collaborate on — took two years to research and entailed Andrews spending countless hours with the chef and his family, interviewing fellow chefs and associates, reading thousands of pages of interviews and articles, as well as lurking endlessly around El Bulli and its famous taller, or workshop.

It’s high drama, in a foodie kind of way. But then Adrià’s food is high drama.

Refinement and complexity

It’s fascinating to read how he began reinterpreting Spanish classics — grilled fish, or gazpacho — and using ingredients such as rabbit and sea urchin that were looked down upon by serious chefs.

Although Adrià wasn’t the first chef to modernise Catalan cuisine, he bought a level of refinement and complexity that had never been seen. After the reinvention, Adrià’s food was now the “furthest expression of Escoffier. After that, Ferran’s food became something else. It left the planet,” according to food historian Toni Massanés.

Adrià comes across, unsurprisingly, as obsessive about details. Staff meals are planned years in advance, for example, but he also comes across as a good-hearted man who is passionately interested in food and dining. This makes it all the more startling that he has bitter enemies in the competitive Catalan food world, which Colman explores by seeking out both sides of the story.

Just as the first draft of the book was completed, Adrià announced he was closing the restaurant, and as Colman puts it, the last chapter of the story of El Bulli and Ferran Adrià was not likely to be written for a long time.