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The room was a classroom at Eataly. The attendees were journalists from the blogosphere to the Tribune. But the atmosphere was more like that of a crowd listening to a preacher—and at one point the preacher even pulled out what he said was nothing less than the devil itself: an iSi canister, for making whipped cream.
We were there to listen to Ferran Adrià, the legendary chef of now-closed El Bulli, the temple of avant-garde gastronomy in Roses, Spain, that was a stop in the training and development of many of today's top chefs, among them Grant Achatz. Adrià was speaking at Eataly's La Scuola as part of his current involvement with Lavazza, the Italian coffee company (you may have heard that chefs often consult with food companies). According to Giuseppe Lavazza, he and his firm sought to work with Adrià because they wanted to "experiment and explore the deep roots of coffee," which is "much more complex than just a beverage." At the same time, Lavazza said, understanding how much of Adrià's cuisine is rooted in playfulness and culinary magic tricks, and acknowledging that Italy's world reputation is as a country that knows how to enjoy life, his brand's "approach with coffee has to be clever and funny."
What followed with Adrià was clever, funny, sometimes woolly—like a philosophy professor spinning wild notions faster than his students could keep up—often self-contradictory, and occasionally downright incomprehensible, especially when he raced to the next thought faster than his able translator could finish the preceding one.
He started by walking us through a few of the formal techniques he's well-known for having introduced to world cuisine, like spherification—as a chef behind him made "coffee caviar," little beads of coffee set into gelled spheres by dropping coffee into a solution.
Weird science? Not to Adrià: "You understand what a poached egg is?" he asked. "This is more or less the same reaction. In all of cooking, there is chemistry and physics."
Part of his point was to demystify his scientific approach to food by pointing out how many of the techniques are rooted in the inventions of classical chefs a century or two or three past. Another of the things he's famous for is espuma—the foam you see on modernist restaurant plates. That technique grew out of a thought experiment at El Bulli, which was, how could you make a mousse without milk or eggs (which are the things that fluff up with air when a liquid containing them is whipped)?
For Adrià, such a mousse would represent the purest flavor of the ingredient, without the interference of egg or dairy. He and his team struggled with it until they thought to try an old-fashioned tool already in existence in commercial kitchens around the world: the nitrous oxide canisters used to put whipped cream on desserts without having to whip up a fresh batch every time. Almost any flavor could be put into the can and delivered as an espuma, and at El Bulli almost every flavor was at some point, which is why, he said, "for a few years Ferran with his siphon was the devil." Today, he says, thousands of restaurants use the technique—and ironically, proved his point to me even more than he realized as assistants went around the room spraying a coffee espuma into the espresso cups on each table. This was one of El Bulli's famous magic tricks, an espresso you could turn upside down—and I had just had a version of the same thing at 42 Grams two nights before.
The discussion grew woollier as Adrià talked about his efforts to establish the "culinary genome"—and immediately contradicted any hope of nailing things down philosophically by showing how fluid (pun intended) the distinctions between foods in solid or liquid or transformed forms can be. He started to give an example intended to show how "90 percent of dishes from El Bulli are simpler than making a sandwich [of] bread, butter, and ham," but if he ever quite explained why that was the case, it went past me in the fireworks of ideas whizzing from his head.
So if you want a fuller sense of his concepts, read this interview by Renée Suen, who interviewed him at a previous stop in Toronto. Me, I just enjoyed his infectious enthusiasm and slightly stereotypical Euro-intellectual manner, as ideas and witticisms flew from him. I'm left with notes I can't quite form into reconstructed thoughts, but which were interesting at the time all the same:
• "Hands are not tools. Just hands."
• "The reflection of science can make you laugh or smile."
• "If I were a chimpanzee, I could copy and do almost the same [as the person who showed me how to do something done at El Bulli] but I wouldn't have all this knowledge—that's technology."
• "We are sort of mixed-up and wrong about what's difficult."
In the end, despite Adrià's best efforts to convince us that El Bulli's cuisine was simpler than a ham sandwich, a single question from another journalist brought that conceit down. She asked Adrià what, in his books, could be used by the home cook. His answer: pretty much nothing, except for the more down-to-earth food in his book about family (e.g., staff) meals.
"I don't use it in my home," he explained frankly. "When I buy architecture books, I'm not going to build a house." In fact, chefs don't cook at all in any conventional sense: "There's a great deal of populism [about chefs cooking at home]. Chefs don't cook at home. It's a lie. When you have to cook every day for your family as an obligation—that's cooking."