Ferran Adrià is a genius.
Jason Atherton says the word is used too often – “Wayne Rooney kicking a football will never be genius” – but in Adrià’s case it’s different. He is a genius. Of that there is no doubt. Gee-nee-us.
Adrià stands up and takes the stage following Atherton’s introduction. He starts speaking in Spanish.
“It’s clear I’m no genius at all,” says Adrià’s translator, “because I don’t even speak English.”
The audience laughs. So, he’s a genius and he’s funny. Crikey, he’d be a real hit with the ladies if he could cook asw… oh, right, yeah.
We’re sitting in the main lecture theatre at IET London’s Savoy Place residence to hear from the man behind elBulli, the best restaurant in the world before it closed its doors in 2011. He is speaking ahead of the opening of his Somerset House exhibition, elBulli: Ferran Adrià and the Art of Cooking, in part to give us a flavour of what to expect from the show but mainly to talk about what he has got planned for the future: namely, the elBulli Foundation.
There are three projects that his team are working on: elBulli DNA, elBulli 1846, and La Bullipedia.
And it is the latter, La Bullipedia, that is perhaps the most intriguing. It will be an online database of gastronomic knowledge and will connect chefs all over the world to the ideas and techniques that are at the heart of the elBulli philosophy. But it will go beyond just chefs, La Bullipedia will involve and encourage all manner of cooks, from the professional to the most humble home kitchen.
Although Adrià didn’t say a great deal about La Bullipedia – we were shown a video that went some way to explain the concept – he promised to come back to London in September to discuss it in greater detail. As ever, Ferran Adrià kept his audience wanting more; just like when he closed elBulli at the peak of its popularity, he closed it with his audience wanting more.
The most touching part of the evening came with a video taken on the restaurant’s last night, just after the last service at elBulli. The head chef and all his staff were jubilant. This came as a surprise to him as he imagined it would be a solemn occasion.
“But we knew it was the beginning of something else,” he said. “We were happy because we knew elBulli would continue – the spirit of elBulli had to continue.”
And through the three projects, it will. The Foundation will allow 30 chefs every year to discover the most original, innovative and inspiring gastronomic delights. It’s an R&D lab for chefs, essentially.
While the elBulli exhibition at Somerset House is breaking the mould – it’s the first art exhibition based on a restaurant – and even though Adrià has always been pushing the boundaries of the now and setting new standards for the future, he is only too aware of the importance of history. elBulli created and served 1,864 distinct dishes during its lifetime. Auguste Escoffier – “the Van Gogh of cuisine” – was born in 1864. Hence the name: elBulli 1864. This project was created as a respectful nod to the past as much as it was a welcoming appeal to the future.
You must understand the past to fully appreciate the possibilities of the future.
Adrià didn’t say that last line but it feels like something he would believe. He is frustrated that so little has been done at universities on cuisine – “where is the knowledge on cooking? Who’s done a thesis on Escoffier? Why have academics been so slow to look at cooking?” – so with the elBulli Foundation he is hoping to spark a new movement. From recipe book to text book. From the kitchen to the classroom. “Our lack of knowledge is the most irritating thing, the next generation must know more than us.”
Ferran Adrià is a visionary. He is a genius. Because of that I have little worry in being candid with you at this point: I barely understand elBulli DNA, elBulli 1846 and La Bullipedia. I understand their underlying concepts and I get what they are hoping to achieve, generally speaking. But I’m not sure I fully appreciate them for what they are yet. I know they will be revolutionary; I know they will play a part in changing how we look at and interact with food. I just don’t quite know how.
Perhaps I’ll have to wait until September to find out more.
You often lose something when hearing people speak through a translator. It was clear the Spanish-speaking members of the audience laughed more than the rest of us – we laughed at the translators’ comic timing as much as we did at Adrià’s material. But does language matter? Atherton went on a pilgrimage to work at elBulli during the summer as a 28-year old without knowing a word of Spanish, let alone Catalan. And he did ok for himself didn’t he? elBulli’s grand project will bring people together from all over the globe who speak in thousands of different dialects, but Adrià isn’t concerned.
“Our language will become cuisine itself,” the genius said.
We were going to see One Man, Two Guvnors that evening. I had excitedly booked a table for two at the Modern American Steak House (MASH) on Brewer Street four days earlier after finding out that they offered a pre-theatre menu. From the moment the cheerful lady at reception – it felt like a reception, though there may be a more restaurant-friendly word for this – offered to take our coats, I knew it was going to be an agreeable evening.
I was looking forward to the food. My girlfriend was looking forward to the theatre.
MASH, despite its name, is actually a Danish export. That’s not a terribly important nugget of information, but it does make the next sentence flow better as you read it.
The waiter – probably a Danish guy – showed us to our seats. Big, red, sexy seats. We were placed in the middle of the restaurant – I could see about 190 seats in front of me, she could see about 190 seats behind me. It’s a BIG place. An old Art Deco masterpiece, the building itself is a sight to see.
“Have you ever filled this place?” I ask.
The waiter hesitates. Why’s he asking? A few cautionary shakes and rolls of the head. “We’ve been very full many times, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation where there hasn’t been a free table. Yet.”
MASH has been open six months so it’s been reviewed many times already. I’m not a restaurant critic and this isn’t a review. It’s a blog of my food-based experience, which just happened to be inside a restaurant. I mention this because I don’t care if they’ve been full or not. Like the waiter, I don’t want you – the reader – to think there’s an agenda for the things I say here. There isn’t.
OK, back to the non-review.
FREE TAP WATER! AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE! IN A CARAFE! WITH ICE!
Oh, the joys. Why can’t other restaurants do this? It’s a simple gesture – ordinarily you’re made to feel like a cheap, grotesque Neanderthal who’s just scuttled his way from the gutters of 1840s Paris. The waiter Javert to your Jean Valjean. So Bravo, MASH. Bravo.
For the £22 theatre menu you get a choice of two courses – a starter and a main, or a main and dessert. I have a sweet tooth, so it wasn’t a difficult choice.
I could have had a Danish sirloin, a Uruguayan Ribeye, or a Uruguayan strip. How am I supposed to choose? I ask the waiter what he recommends.
“For the lady the New York Strip is very lean and tender,” he proposed. “The man must have the strip.”
It just got personal, folks.
“But if you prefer you can share steaks – we’ll carve it for you at the table and you can have whatever you wish.”
Deal! Good idea, we both think.
In a tawdry attempt to keep up a show of manliness I suggest we order the Sirloin and Ribeye. No lady meat at my table, thank you. *Slaps waiter on the back and calls him ‘mate’*
“We can share sides too?”
Fantastic. I was struggling between the mash and chips – who wouldn’t? – but the waiter said we could have both. I haven’t been this excited about having two servings of carbs on one plate since discovering the delights of asking for chips and smiley faces at the school canteen.
While we wait, two glasses of the pricey Pinot Noir arrive in encouragingly large glasses. It was silky and fragrant – based on everything we’d experienced at MASH so far that evening, we weren’t surprised by the quality of the wine.
Following the little bit of theatre in carving the meat, which was done with commendable care and attention, we tucked in.
What is there to say? The meat was exquisite; perfectly cooked, tender, delicious. Everything a steak should be. The Sirloin had a deep, smoky flavour that worked well against the creamy potato and delicate red wine – we both preferred it to the Ribeye.
I imagine the side of mash was a 50:50 blend of potato and butter. The best kind. I wasn’t sold on the chips – were they frozen? – and would certainly just go for the mash next time round. The clue, I guess, was in the name on that one: MASH.
Dessert – mine cheesecake, hers crème brûlée – was average. We were a little pressed for time to get to the theatre and with my eternal disquiet about being late we rushed through it. The cheesecake was fine – how good or bad can a cheesecake really be, right? If I were to be critical I’d say it was too big, but fine.
The bill came in a quaint, MASH-branded envelope – little details make a big difference – and the “damage” wasn’t bad. You’re eating steak so it’s never going to be a cheap meal, but for the quality of the food, the attentive service and experience as a whole it was well worth the £73 debited to my card. I would recommend MASH to anyone; it’s worth that little bit extra … and besides, don’t forget the water’s free.
The next time we go to MASH, both of us will look forward to it. Forget the theatre.
What would McDonald’s in heaven look like?
That’s the concept Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent reflected on nine years ago before establishing their first Leon Restaurant in Carnaby Street. How can you make healthy, fast food?
“There is nothing in the words ‘fast’ and ‘food’ that means it needs to be disgusting or unhealthy,” Leon’s founders Henry and John told Chef Insight in an email interview. “We thought: what would happen if you took the fast food machine but put great ingredients and creativity in one end?”
With 13 restaurants across London, Leon is certainly in fast-food-chain-territory and Henry and John said they plan to continue expanding the Leon brand over the next five years. Year after year the restaurant wins plaudits for its healthy eating menus too.
Before trailblazing the healthy fast food market, Henry and John plied their trade for Bain management consultants. The story goes that one day Henry phoned John and said something to the effect of: “Let’s quit our jobs, work at Burger King for a month for research purposes and then set up a naturally fast food restaurant chain.” They did, and it seems to have all gone to plan. And so, having side-stepped the habitual quagmire of management consulting, and with the success of Leon palpable, earlier this year Henry and John went in search of their next challenge.
“It was a problem that needed to be solved,” they said of the need to differentiate the terms ‘fast food’ and ‘greasy food’ when Leon was just an idea. The same affirmation applied when they decided to tackle the issue of healthy cooking at home with the recently launched Cook 5 programme.
“A large proportion of young adults in this country are leaving home with no idea how to cook and we want to change that with Cook 5.
“The aim is to teach children under 16 how to cook simple, nutritious meals before they leave home.”
With research suggesting that around 60% of 18 to 25 year olds were leaving home without the ability to cook five simple dishes in 2011, Cook 5 aims to instil these basic skills in young children now in order to wipe out this statistic in a decade’s time. Like most of us, a love of food began at a young age for Henry. He notes that his mother, the cookery writer Josceline Dimbleby, has been his biggest culinary inspiration. The Leon founders are hoping to impart a similar passion for food and thirst for knowledge with Cook 5. (And if that wasn’t enough there are various prizes on offer for lucky winners! Take a look at www.cook5.co.uk)
“There is a lot of work to be done on changing the food culture in this county,” Henry told Chef Insight.
I suggest there’s an underlying lack of respect for food in the UK, emanating from the robust American influence on British culture in the mid-20th Century and the post-Thatcher consumer boom. Henry sees it differently, but confesses to there often being little appreciation for the lifecycle of food and ingredients.
“Perhaps it’s not a lack of respect so much as a lack of awareness of where the food we eat comes from and changing that starts at home and in the classroom.”
The Cook 5 programme will be a “big focus” for the Leon pair. Since its launch earlier this year Henry explained that over 1,000 children have already signed up to the scheme and 100 have uploaded their first dishes.
“Our target for this year is to get 100,000 children cooking five dishes but we won’t stop there. We want to get every child in the UK cooking so we’ll keep going until we achieve that.”
I don’t have children (yet). If I did I’d sign them up for Cook 5 in an instant. But in the long-term I suspect that’s not quite the point, is it? Children have to be motivated and enthusiastic about food for this programme to work; they should want to sign up for themselves. Just like Henry’s mother did for him, that interest in the food on our plates begins at home and it’s the responsibility of parents to nurture it. While Cook 5 is aimed at kids, the programme’s success will ultimately be judged against its ability to reach out to parents. It needs to spark a mini food revolution in every home in the UK; encouraging kids to understand the food they eat, encouraging families to sit down and eat together. If it can do that, Cook 5 has the potential to reverse generations of nutritional neglect in Britain.
“When everyone can cook five things this country will be a much better place,” John Vincent states.
It’s an admirable venture. The concept is straightforward and plainly has the capacity to expand and be rolled out nationally. But that essentially depends on people finding out about it. Every headmaster, pediatrician, sports coach and parent in the country needs to have a sign waved in front of their face to make sure they’re getting the message: LOOK, COOK 5!
Let’s all hope they take notice.
Before wrapping up, I just had one final question: Any regrets about leaving Bain all those years ago?
Thanks to Henry, John, and Laura at Leon Restaurants for their help. But a Chef Insight interview wouldn’t be complete without first asking for a recipe, that’s why we’ve created a dedicated tab where we’ll host a recipe from all of the chefs we interview. They all contain 5 ingredients and are explained in 5 easy steps……we call it a 5-in-5 recipe. Have a look at what Henry and John contributed: Perfect scrambled eggs.
Let us know what you think – write in the comment box below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ingredient 1 Five medium eggs
Ingredient 2 A dash of milk
Ingredient 3 A good pinch of chopped fresh parsley, or basil, or coriander, or thyme
Ingredient 4 One tablespoon butter
Ingredient 5 Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Step 1 Crack the eggs into a bowl, add the milk, salt and pepper (and the pinch of chopped herbs, if you’re using them), and beat them all together with a fork.
Step 2 In a heavy-based pan, melt the butter over a medium heat until it starts to foam.
Step 3 Pour in the eggs, and start stirring at once with a fork or a wooden spoon. Keep stirring constantly as the eggs start to come together.
Step 4 The question now is: how runny do you like them? As the eggs begin to come together, start turning down the heat – they’ll keep cooking in the warmth. Keep stirring until you’ve got them just how you like them, and serve out on to plates at once. Bear in mind, the eggs at the bottom of the pan will be firmer than the eggs you serve first – just in case some people prefer them one way or the other.
Step 5 Garnish with an extra grind of black pepper and tuck in.
For further inspiration from the Leon team head over to www.cook5.co.uk/recipes.