I was prepared to dislike Ferran Adria. Through a combination of his own publicity and the attention of the world’s food critics, he has assumed a god-like culinary status. It seems likely that any human could endure that degree of praise without becoming arrogant.
Last night, he was speaking at an event organised by Waterstones for the launch of his new book, ‘The Family Meal’, a compilation of the staff meals from El Bulli, laid out with step-by-step photos for the home cook. There is not doubt that he has some arrogance – he is fond of statements like ‘before us, no-one shared anything [in professional cooking]’. He is also an infectious, passionate speaker, talking about humility in this profession, the importune of creativity, but also the important role of those who reproduce others recipes with love and professionalism.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the evening. I was intrigued to meet the man in question, but in truth my expectations were probably on the low side. Book events can be very formulaic, with a brief talk about the contents of the book, followed by lots and lots of time for buying and signing of books. As this book is about home cooking, I wondered what sort of a talk it would be, and how much we would hear about El Bulli.
I needn’t have worried. Along with his translator Lucy, Ferran Adria gave an energetic talk covering the need to think when cooking, his theories of creativity in cuisine, a history of El Bulli, the background and purpose of the new creativity institute, a video of the drawings for the new buildings, and in a 15 minute answere to the last question of the evening, a long description of the origins of the term ‘molecular gastronomy’, via Escoffier, Michel Guerard and Herve This.
Ferran obviously has very clear ideas about what constitutes genuine creativity in cooking. He explained a hierarchy of efforts, from the basic level – simply to reproduce recipes with love and professionalism, the minimum we should expect in a restaurant – to the apex of creativity. Above the basic level of reproduction are those who adapt recipes with their own amendmentsand tweaks. At the next level, there are those combining different techniques or ingredients to make something new – he gave the example of a millefeuille of strawberries and rare amazon fruits. It may be a new set of flavours, but it depends on the existing idea of a millefeuille from a pastry tradition.
At the peak, are those creating an entirely new concept or technique. He clearly thinks of chefs operating at this level as being in a different league, and feels that this represents a clear and measurable distinction between this group and the rest. He was careful, though, to emphasise that this was a difference in great creativity, not the designation of a great chef. You can be a great chef, a great cook by reproducing recipes with care.
He described the omelette, for example, as a concept that was created at some point. He also described the difference between creating a concept and invention, with an unusual device. He asked if anyone in the audience was wearing a miniskirt – when they came up to the front, he asked if anyone knew who first created the miniskirt. Mary Quant, the audience said. Yes, correct, invented in London, he said. Except, of course, it wasn’t. Have you seen films of Romans, and ancient Egyptians? They all wore short skirts. Being the first isn’t important – it’s the conceptualisation that is important.
I think this works up to a point, but this description still doesn’t give an adequate description of what conceptualisation means. In Mary Quant’s case, it might be that this became part of her brand, what she was known for. It might be about defining the new concept in opposition to other concepts, in how it is a leap forward, not a recombination of two existing things.
His second diagram of the evening described a continuum of food preparations, with natural ‘product-based’ cooking at one end, as close to nature as you can be (the platter of figs approach, perhaps) and what he called ‘elaborative’ cooking at the other end, where the natural state of the ingredients is almost impossible to find. At this end might be a puree, a sorbet, a foam, a consommé. He took trouble to explain that this was not a distinction between new and old cooking (as he wanted to explain in great detail why he didn’t think molecular gastronomy was a good term to use). He gave an example of someone who says of an asparagus sorbet, why is it necessary when asparagus on its own is so good, but then is happy to eat a strawberry sorbet for dessert at another restaurant. He also said that some people will say to him that they are unconvinced by the idea of mixing sweet dishes and savoury dishes – and then will happily go and eat a hamburger with ketchup and a coke.
His thoughts on home cooking were kept fairly brief, but were refreshing, and echoed some things I have thought about, and Trish Deseine’s recent blog post. He said that we are giving the wrong messages about home cooking. “Home cooking now means cooking pizza at home. I love pizza but I have never made it at home – it takes ages!” Restaurants are good at some things, home cooks at others, and in common with many other chefs, he would not consider making restaurant dishes in a home kitchen.
The impression I got was of an incredibly energetic and passionate individual, who has thought deeply about what he works on every day. The book itself is much more likeable than I expected, with seventies style layouts that show you all the ingredients and a timeline for the meal, and simple, inexpensive recipes that sound really tempting, and photos that make the whole thing feel doable. The ingredient layouts echo those in Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at home, but without any pretensions about sourcing or dng everything from scratch. He has a fondness for bought sauces and dishes like crisp omelettes and piña colada for dessert are appealingly trashy. I’ll have to wait to try the recipes out to see if they really are doable, but at the moment it looks very good – a thoughtful book, where the producers have really thought about how people will use it.
Although he made specific mention of the degree of testing that has been done at the restaurant for these recipes, I wonder whether the book has also been tested by home cooks. As others have pointed out, some of the basic recipes for sauces and stocks to freeze ahead seem to have quantities completely at odds with the amount of ingredients specified (more than 2kg of ingredients for 1kg of output, without much mention of reducing). The timelines look very helpful, but don’t specify whether the step should start or finish at the listed time. When some of the steps are likely to take even a competent cook 30 minutes or more, this seems an important distinction. But the proof of these things will be in the making. I’m preparing to clear some space in my freezer and get started.