The sky was grey. The air was wet with drizzle. People started a queue as early as 4:00 in the afternoon. The line of umbrella’ed attendees wound from the front of the Castro Theater around the corner down 17th Street. All because of a chef.
If you are a food-lover in the San Francisco Bay Area, most likely, you bought your tickets to this event months ago. The buzz surrounding elBulli chef Ferran Adria was so loud it summoned well-known chefs (such as Dominique Crenn, Cris Cosentino, and David Bazirgan), members of food journalism and of course the food-loving community at large.
Omnivore Books hosted the event at the gorgeous 1400-seat Castro Theater, a perfect venue to get into the mind of this innovative chef. Celia Sack, Omnivore Books’ owner, received warm applause from the crowd. (She really hooked us up!) Lisa Abend, food journalist (with a food writer’s dream resume) who has dined at elBulli “many times” according to Chef Adria, was the moderator for the Q&A.
Chef Adria started with something he claims he says at all his events. If he could choose three places in the world he could live in, they would be:
1) Barcelona, his current residence
2) Sydney, Australia
3) San Francisco. *applause*
When asked how he comes up with his recipes and ideas, Chef Adria says something that is hard to believe, “I don’t know anything about cuisine.”
The crowd chuckled, but were they going to believe what he was saying? This man who creates flavor profiles with gases, liquids, and chemicals most of us will never use. This man with a mind so avant garde and has diners asking for reservations to elBulli months in advance doesn’t know anything about cuisine? His answer? It is all subjective – holding up an egg and an orange. To some, those two ingredients don’t go together, but there is a Spanish recipe for eggs and oranges called “Ensalada Hurdana.”
Eggs and Oranges to us as raw fish/sushi are to his parents.
Chef Adria then brought up, in his words, “that naggy word” – creativity. There are 3 basic rules to being creative and to be an innovator, he explained – 1) To always challenge yourself 2) Always stay knowledgeable 3) Do not copy others.
He then told us the Fable of the Omelet and the Miniskirt – complete with a model: (here’s the gist of it)
Mary Quant revolutionized the miniskirt, but people in ancient Greek/Roman times wore miniskirts way before her time. (Haven’t you seen the movies?) She took the idea and “conceptualized it” – putting in her own style, pattern, etc. She wasn’t the first to think up the mini skirt, but she made it her own. (American Idol, much?)
It took one person to create the recipe for the omelet, but several other people added their own spin to the omelet, by adding cheese, ham, veggies, etc. When it comes to food, it doesn’t matter if you are the first. You have to make it your own and present it at the right time.
A-ha! Now for the pretty pictures that took the crowd’s breath away:
Spherification – using calcium chloride and sodium alginate to create a thin membrane around a liquid so when eaten, an explosion of flavor invades the palette. Here, pea puree. Chef Adria explains it quite simply: it’s like an egg yolk getting heated. The outside of the yolk stiffens leaving the center liquid.
How is this for trompe l’oeuil? Spheres of fruit juice to make “caviar.”
Who knew Black and Decker tools can create phenomenal structures made of sugar? He used a rotating power tool to spin delicate threads of sugar (or any pliable substance than hardens) into lovely cylinders.
Here is is showing “edible paper” with flowers.
Simple whole fruit? Of course not, fruit sherbet was put into custom molds to make them look like the fruit they derived from.
Those weren’t all he showed us – coconut milk made into dinosaur eggs, cheese “noodles” extracted from long tubes (did you know you’re eating 60 meters of spaghetti?), spun sugar wrapped around a fish skeleton. We only wished there were samples to be passed around. He said food is not just about eating…it’s about the experience. All the while, he is humble. He is showing his techniques, but not being cocky. He explained that chefs used to keep their recipes secret. With the elBulli Foundation slated to open in 2014, knowledge will continue to be passed on from chef to chef to even us, the everyday person as they will post their daily updates and progress on the foundation’s website.
He then sat with Lisa Abend and his interpreter to discuss his new book “The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià” and the future. Were people going to take his book seriously after seeing all the videos and hearing him speak about molecular gastronomy? Yes, because the meals in the book are meals he served to his staff at elBulli. He wanted to treat his staff like family, after all, they cannot cook well if they don’t eat well.
Abend asked with so many people eating out much more, would they cook from the book? Chef Adria says it’s all about willpower – comparing cooking and going to the gym. He also asked, “how can you cook when you’re watching 4 hours of television?” Simple. “Put a television in your kitchen.” The book, he says, is for the person with a job, who comes home at 7:00pm. He also explained that he wanted the recipes to be simple because people make things so much more difficult than it really should be. So really, we have no excuse.
When Lisa asked her “morbid” question of how he wanted his obituary to read, he cocked his head to the side and let out a sigh with an audible “heh…” He shows modesty in his answer. Rather than talking about himself, he goes back to food: “Food can be a social tool. Food can be an instrument of peace.”
The lines to meet him were (predictably) ridiculously long. There was no personalization of the books and no photos with the chef, but for some reason, the talk, the movies, the music, his voice, his accent, his humor, his charm were all enough for me. We were inspired? Yes. He came from humble beginnings climbing his way up from working as a dishwasher to being known as the best chef in the world – elBulli winning “Best Restaurant in the World” a momentous 5 times.
This was truly a night to remember.
Even for some food lovers, this was an emotional one as well. 1400 people gathered for the love of food.
We just all wished we were invited to Mission Chinese Food for the after party.
Much thanks to Cristina Santos for helping me recap.