There may not have been any foam, but there was at least a whiff of smoke as media guests piled into a rented 12-passenger van with Ferran Adrià.
It was a Sunday morning at the end of March, and Adrià — the Spanish chef widely considered the world’s greatest culinary mind — was in Kansas City as part of his “Notes on Creativity” exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Haven’t heard of Adrià? Or El Bulli, his now shuttered restaurant in the remote reaches of Catalonia?
Think of foams and airs (made with liquid nitrogen to concentrate flavor), sous vide (cooking in a vacuum), thickeners (like agar, xathan or carageenen) and mind-bending, deconstructionist presentations that convince the eye they are sweet but are savory (or vice versa).
Adrià invented, perfected or took these to the next level.
Perhaps no one summed up Adrià’s importance more succinctly than Aaron Prater, an associate chef professor at Johnson County Community College and co-owner of the Sundry. “It’s like if the physics professors at the college got to meet Einstein,” he told me a few weeks before Adrià’s arrival.
I first became aware of Adrià during a dinner at the American Restaurant in 2001. José Andrés of Jaleo in Washington, D.C., had worked for Adrià and was a guest chef. To elaborate (a favorite word of Adrià’s) on his mentor’s ideas, Andrés served a cold, deconstructed clam chowder.
The juice of the clams was gelatinized to concentrate the briny flavor and then whipped with vanilla into an ethereal espuma, an intensely flavored foam that dissolved instantly on the tongue. “The flavor in your mouth is like phwoosh! Like sea water. Very pure,” Andrés, the rising chef star, explained.
Now, as I rode shotgun in the van, I waited for a break in the animated conversation going on in Spanish between Adrià and Nelson director Julián Zugazagoitia (who speaks six languages). My burning question? What were his thoughts on smoke, Kansas City’s most iconic culinary ingredient?
In “Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food” (Gotham Books, 2010), Saveur co-founder Colman Andrews wrote about a 1997 Adrià creation — “lightly gelatinized froth of nothing but woodsmoke, served in a glass with a few drops of olive oil and some strips of toast.” The dish was widely panned, but Adrià told Andrews the “iconic dish” was “used to arouse a reaction.”
“(Smoke) is the first technique,” he said, as Zugazagoitia interpreted. “The first technology of history, thanks to heat. It is not a sense. It doesn’t taste sweet or different, but it is very unique.”
“Is it difficult to capture?” I countered, thinking of the smoked cocktails, smoked bitters, smoked ice cubes, smoked salads featured in Chow Town’s Food Issue 2015, many of them made using a gadget known as the Smoking Gun by PolyScience.
“There are so many gradations, from something very saturated of smoke flavor to one that is so tenuous,” he said. “There is no one way of doing it, or one truth about it. Just which one you prefer.”
“What about wood flavoring and color of the smoke: How does that impact smoke flavor?” I continued.
“Wood smoking is such a specialty, and I would have to devote a year to doing it just to master that,” he said. “I would need to do it scientifically, to test every kind of wood.”
“When I first knew him, he wasn’t Ferran Adrià.”
— Spanish food critic Carmen Casas in “Ferran”
Adrià has curly salt-and-pepper hair and intense eyes. During his whirlwind 48-hour visit, he wore all black, punctuated by a pair of blue Nike tennis shoes.
After a walk through the Nelson’s sculpture garden and a quick photo with waiting paparazzi, Adrià embarked on his Sunday of “foraging” in Kansas City. Included were stops at J. Rieger & Co., Local Pig, Urban Provisions, Happy Gillis and Amigoni Winery.
Everywhere Adrià went, he got a taste of Chow Town’s unique terroir: Kansas City-style whiskey blended with sherry from Bodegas Williams & Humbert (a Spanish sherry producer), locally made charcuterie and Boulevard beer, a pork cheek appetizer featuring Kansas City Canning Co. grapes (pronounced “Fantastico!” by the maestro), a three-course lunch that included a kale salad with sardines and breadcrumbs and locally produced Green Dirt cheese with sips of Urban Bianco wine.
As he entered Local Pig, Cynthia Planet of Kansas City visibly swooned. She and her husband, Joan Planet, were perched along the back wall of the artisan butcher shop waiting for a glimpse of Adrià.
Cynthia is American and a vegetarian. Joan is Spanish and hails from a family of butchers. They once lived 20 minutes away from Adrià’s El Bulli, but they never had a chance to eat there.
The Planets, customers of Local Pig and fans of Adrià, listened on the sidelines as Adrià chatted with owner Alex Pope, who bowed out of participation in a 10-course private dinner to be held in the Nelson’s Cloisters the next night. He wanted to show off his butcher shop more than he wanted to cook.
“It’s so lovely to hear Catalan again,” Cynthia said as Adrià dug into plates of charcuterie and took a few gulps of Boulevard beer before he was asked to pose again for the scrum of photographers and fans.
“I’m on cloud nine!” said teacher and part-time Local Pig employee Chelsea Tedlock, whose hands were shaking after her photo op with Adrià.
In 2010, Adrià announced he was almost done conjuring 35-course meals at El Bulli. Instead, he would create the El Bulli Foundation, the goal of which would be to record his complex taste experiments.
That’s why when Zugazagoitia proposed the Kansas City exhibit, Adrià readily accepted. “He liked that we strive to offer an encyclopedic knowledge.… I think for the museum it’s very important to open up the idea of experimentation in all the fields of creativity,” he said as Adrià, media entourage in tow, made a quick circle around the City Market before heading to Happy Gillis for lunch. “He’s in a constant quest of knowledge and pushing boundaries.”
Eventually, everything produced by the El Bulli Foundation will be cataloged and made available to the public on the Internet at Bullipedia.
Adrià is a fan of doodles and charts to map out the creative process. At lunch, he found himself without paper, so someone tore a few sheets for him from a notepad. He jotted something down and folded it up, sliding it into his breast pocket. Later, I asked if taking the creative process from analog to digital had been a difficult leap.
“You can live with both tools,” he said. “You don’t have to choose.”
“Could a scientist also be an artist.…? I didn’t think so. And then came Ferran Adrià.”
— Anthony Bourdain, “No Reservations”
After a day of foraging, Adrià was the guest of honor at a private party for chefs at the Boulevard Brewing Co. event space featuring barbecue by Joe’s Kansas City. The evening included more beer — a good choice, because Adrià is a bit of a beer geek. In 2008, he created his own Inedit Damm, a malt and wheat beer with spices designed to be served in a wine glass.
Every important chef in the city appeared to be in attendance. Each chef invited could bring three guests. By now, Adrià was looking seriously jet-lagged, but he continued to chat with folks through his interpreter, New York-based food journalist Sofia Perez.
I ran into Jennifer Maloney, chef of Cafe Sebastienne in the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Maloney was chosen to cook for Adrià, and she was slated to serve coconut ginger broth with spring greens and pickled mangoes, a favorite ingredient of Adrià’s that also appeared on a dessert served at a luncheon the following day by Johnson County Community College culinary students.
Although honored to be among the handful of chefs chosen for the private dinner, Maloney was less starstruck than many others in the room. When I asked her about how Adrià’s innovations have influenced her own cooking she admitted: “I’ve never related to that. I do not understand it. I cook from my heart. I cook the way my grandmother cooked. I cook very simply, and I think my food tastes good.”
So far, the majority of Adrià proteges happen to be men.
James Beard award winner Debbie Gold, one of the few women chefs in Kansas City who uses a number of his culinary methods, thinks the divide has more to do with the gender gap in math and science education than a gender-specific way of cooking.
“I do some of that, and I get it,” Gold said. “I like it — and I do old-fashioned stuff.”
For instance, cooking vegetables at 155 degrees using sous vide, a gentle boil in bag technique — “that part interests me more than manipulating food.”
“I just cook to order,” Maloney countered. “I don’t need to sous vide.”
Is Adrià’s scientific tinkering the future of food?
“In my opinion, you always have to have people who push the boundaries, like Jackson Pollock did for painting,” Gold said.
“He’s a genius at playing and creating, though it’s not something I would follow,” said Lidia Bastianich, who was in Kansas City a few weeks before Adrià’s visit and currently is working on an encyclopedic cookbook of classical Italian recipes due out in October 2016. “A food needs to mature on a tree. You can’t push everything with nitrogen.”
“You don’t have to be passionate to be creative; you can just be professional about innovation.”
— Ferran Adrià
Adrià is the subject of “1846,” a film that records 1,846 unique dishes that Adrià created between 1985 and 2011. As Zugazagoitia introduced Adrià to a sold-out crowd eager to listen to a Monday night lecture on creativity, he noted that what Adrià feared most about continuing to run El Bulli was copying himself.
These days Adrià spends his time working with a 30-member team of chefs as well as artists from a variety of disciplines to create and codify a cuisine that, as the exhibit notes suggest, “provokes sustained study and emotional responses and values the visual over the sense of taste. Dishes are not only delicious; they are visually compelling and full of surprises.”
To that end, the exhibit features sketches, notebooks, bulletin boards and plasticine models. A display case of unorthodox kitchen tools — such as a drill with an adapter to produce candy thread or a draining spoon to eat spherical concoctions resembling caviar — hints most directly at his thought processes.
Zugazagoitia acknowledged the challenges of an exhibit featuring food. “I know that this is the most frustrating exhibit that we have had at the Nelson,” he told the crowd. “You see things and you want to taste them.”
As Adrià took the stage he was, again, dressed in black. But he had swapped the Nikes for dress shoes. As he paced, he wrote on an easel, stopping frequently to let his translator catch up. At one point, he held a tomato in one hand and cherry tomatoes in another.
“Those of us 52 and older don’t remember having these tomatoes,” he said, holding up the bag of cherry tomatoes.
Cherry tomatoes are a human invention. But so was the whole tomato in his other hand. So which is better?
“It’s a lie to say that everything natural is good,” he said. “The worst supermarket tomato is better than the best tomato in nature.”
Adrià argued that history, biology and technology cannot be separated from our understanding of the plant and the ways that is shaped through time. “People have criticized El Bulli a lot because they said we did technical food,” he said. “If someone says that today, I’ll say, ‘You’re dumb.’”
The problem, Adrià said, is that people confuse technology with tools. Then he held up his iPhone.
“People think the cellphone is a technology, but it’s a tool,” he said. “If we understand this, we understand gastronomy in different ways.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is Chow Town’s food editor, lead restaurant critic and blog curator. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @kcstarfood @chowtownkc and Instagram @jillwsilva.
Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from a story Jill Wendholt Silva wrote following a James Beard dinner at the American Restaurant in 2001 that included Ferran Adrià’s protege José Andrés of Jaleo in Washington, D.C. He served a deconstructed clam chowder. (Andres has gone on to create many restaurants and projects; see thinkfoodgroup.com.)
José Andrés likes to push the envelope.
At times the chef has pushed his food so far out that most meat-and-potatoes purists would have a hard time recognizing a bowl — make that a plate — of his “deconstructed” clam chowder served at — shudder — room temperature!
“I've tweaked something people already know,” Andrés says of the avant-garde first course he prepared for the sixth annual James Beard Foundation dinner last month at the American Restaurant.
In the Spaniard’s futuristic play on the New England classic, tender morsels of clam meat are scattered over a pool of potato, butter and cream sauce infused with Jamon serrano, a Spanish-style smoked ham. The juice of the clams is gelatinized to concentrate their briny flavor and then whipped with vanilla into an ethereal espuma, an intensely flavored foam that dissolves instantly on the tongue.
“The flavor in your mouth is like phwoosh! Like sea water. Very pure,” says Andrés, a 28-year-old rising chef star and a student of world-renowned chef Ferran Adrià, the originator of foam, a trend that has won supporters and detractors in the world of fine dining.
“Everything is very separated,” says Andrés, owner of Jaleo, a Washington, D.C., restaurant featuring traditional Spanish cuisine from paella to gazpacho. “You’re experiencing a clam chowder but in a completely different form.”
Jill Wendholt Silva | The Star
“Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity” continues through Aug. 2 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525, Oak St. Tickets to the exhibit are $6-$12. For more, go to nelson-atkins.org.