Food

Chef Ferran Adria on molecular gastronomy, ‘Coffee Sapiens’ and more

Chef Ferran Adria began his career as a dishwasher. He was drafted into military service at the age of 19, where he began to work as a cook. In 1984, he joined the trend-setting elBulli restaurant, in Spain, as a line cook. In 18 months, he was the head chef, and elBulli rapidly became a trend-setter with its experimental cooking, and Adria’s spin on molecular gastronomy (which he prefers to call deconstructivist cooking).

After a 20-year collaboration with Lavazza, Chef Adria’s research, experiments and innovation with coffee has resulted in a book, Coffee Sapiens.

The release proves to be a perfect excuse to snag an interview with the Spanish chef. Edited excerpts from the e-mail interview:

Though elBulli inspired chefs to experiment relentlessly with molecular gastronomy, many have been unsuccessful, using culinary foams and dry ice for drama, without focussing on flavour. What is your opinion of this trend, which never seems to die out?

My opinion on this matter is very clear — to use foams or other methods that we discovered or that we developed can never be an end in itself; they are instead a means to propose new textures and preparations.

If during the process the flavour is lost, it simply means that we are losing the very sense of what we were doing, at least from a culinary perspective.

That being said, I don’t think that the term “molecular gastronomy” is adequate to define elBulli’s cuisine.

Molecular gastronomy was a movement derived by the scientific world, which sought to explain physical and chemical reactions that were produced in the kitchen, in order to understand and improve them.

Chef Ferran Adria on molecular gastronomy, ‘Coffee Sapiens’ and more

You prefer to call your cooking deconstructivist, since it focusses on preserving the essence of the dish. After constant experimentation, have you changed the way you approach cooking?

We called “deconstruction” a very particular method to create dishes, among many others that we used. It consisted of proposing a new recipe using the same ingredients of a renowned dish, modifying every single ingredient.

During the years, we developed that method, and many more. We worked towards creating a symbiosis between sweet and savoury.

And we searched for non-gastronomic ingredients to stimulate provocation, surprise and amusement. My essential focus has always been the same: to find the creative limits of cuisine, in order to stretch them.

In 2010, you taught a culinary physics course ‘Science and Cooking’ at Harvard University. Would you call yourself more of a scientist than a chef?

The relationship we established with the world of sciences, even some years before our collaboration with Harvard, rose from the belief that — apart from ours — other disciplines could contribute in expanding the limits of gastronomy.

Disciplines like design, art and the agricultural industry — just to name a few — opened the path, together with science, to the birth not only of new techniques, but also to a new way to approach haute cuisine.

A criticism of your style of experimentation has been that you use a lot of unconventional additives to create unusual textures.

The truth is, we never used that many additives like it has been said. Our cuisine has been called technological, but we actually had 50 chefs working with their hands, everyday, to cook elBulli’s food.

On additives, what we did was to rationalise familiar ones, and substitute or complete them with other additives, with a non-synthetic origin. This allowed us to achieve purer flavours and smoother textures.

That said, what are the simple dishes you like to cook and eat?

I love those products whose essence is attractive. I enjoy some products raw, after minimum intervention, like shellfish or jamòn (a cured Spanish ham).

Apart from this, at home I usually have fruits, vegetables and yoghurt for dinner.

Chef Ferran Adria on molecular gastronomy, ‘Coffee Sapiens’ and more

What triggered your interest in coffee, leading you to collaborate on these rather academic publications with Lavazza?

Coffee for me is one of the most magical products on earth. It is complex from an organoleptic perspective, like wine.

I would love to be more involved in spreading general awareness on coffee, that goes well beyond caffeine.

In elBulli, we tried to offer the best possible coffee after a meal, and also to integrate it as a very appealing ingredient for the innovations in the kitchen.

My collaboration with Lavazza, which is now translating into a series of projects on coffee from a holistic point of view — for example the Coffee Sapiens publication — has had effective results, starting with coffee’s inclusion in the fine dining sector.

One of the aims of this project is to show that coffee can be surprising. When you work with a flavour that is so well loved, and well known, what are the challenges?

This is a really interesting question as it summarises not only my focus when it comes to cooking with coffee, but actually my whole way of understanding cuisine: certainly to respect the best qualities of each product and — at the same time — be able to modify some of its characteristics, so that the dining guests can try something that is completely new, yet evoking well-known flavours.

I would say that working with coffee goes along with two requirements: firstly, the freedom to experiment with it in an innovative way.

Secondly, the respect for the product. If these two needs are satisfied, the result can be magical.

And, how do you drink your coffee in morning?

I enjoy it the most on its own: A good espresso, without sugar, in order to appreciate the best qualities every variety can offer.


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