Albert Adria… The World’s Best Pastry Chef

Perhaps if there had been a reality television series called “Keeping up with the Adriàs”, the name Albert Adrià would have been as familiar as that of his older brother, Ferran Adrià, before now. But after being awarded the coveted title of S. Pellegrino World’s Best Pastry Chef earlier this year and with a slew of restaurants under his belt, no one in the culinary stratosphere is in any doubt about the talent that the 45 year old chef’s chef has been keeping quiet under his toque for the last 30 years.

“Before, people used to say I’m the brother of Ferran, and then people knew me as the pastry chef at elBulli, and now I’m known because I have five restaurants,” he says sanguinely as he sits at a table in Hoja Santa, his Mexican restaurant in the Eixample Esquerra district of Barcelona with his PA Claudia Ferreres on hand to help with translation. “The World’s Best Pastry Chef award was very nice to get because it is a recognition of my career, and for me that’s very important because it means that my colleagues and the people in the same field as me have recognised what I have done as an achievement, and that makes me very happy.”

Albert Adria, The World’s Best Pastry Chef at Hoja Santa in Barcelona. Photograph by Corinna Hardgrave, foodwriter.

Albert Adria, The World’s Best Pastry Chef

In general, it would be fair to say that Adrià is a happy sort of guy. With an intense look that can turn into an impish grin, he is unassumingly straightforward, in a relaxed, chatty way. I was talking to him in Barcelona in advance of his visit to Galway in Ireland for the Food on the Edge Symposium and later had a chance to catch up with him again at the event.

Heart in Ibiza… Cirque du Soleil collaboration

In July, he launched the latest of the restaurants in his burgeoning group, Heart – a dining and nightclub concept in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil which he describes as a collision between art, gastronomy and music – and he is refreshingly candid about how they experienced a serious learning curve when they ventured out of Catalonia. “The first thing is, we’ve got two big brands with that project; the Adrià brand and Cirque du Soleil which are both very strong, and that’s a lot of pressure and expectations,” he says. “Secondly, you have the world, and then you have Ibiza. We had to learn these things, we were not used to how Ibiza works, and how people in Ibiza are. That for us was a learning process. We had no idea going there.

“Heart is the collision between art, gastronomy and music. That’s the concept. Also in these terms, Ibiza is a place where people want to have fun, not to think, it’s easy and quick happiness. That’s something that maybe this year we had to work out, with music and everything that we had to work together. We knew that it was going to be difficult because it was the first time to work with such a huge number of people in different departments,” he says.

“For the food, we have changed the concept so many times. What we thought, and what they told us is that people like to be surprised. And this is true, people want to be surprised in things that they will like and enjoy, but not crazy things. So now we know that it needs to be easy food, and international as well, because there are a lot of people from all over the world there, so ceviche, nigiri, spicy lobster, tataki, beef tartare, meat and fish; it’s very international. I have made a lot of tests to see if a dish works out or not, and in Ibiza there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans and people who eat very plain food, for them and for us there was a lot of work that went into that. In Ibiza, everyone is into healthy food, so that was new to us.”

Enigma… the new restaurant for Adria’s BCN 5.0 project

Although an Adrià being surprised may be a culinary turning of tables, work continues on BCN 5.0, his project for five restaurants in Barcelona which started in 2010. Now with four restaurants offering unique experiences – Tickets, which serves innovative tapas and many of the iconic elBulli signature dishes; Pakta, a fine dining restaurant serving Peruvian food with a Japanese influence, La Bodega 1900, a traditional tapas bar in the spirit of the old fashioned El Vermut; and Hoja Santa, an understated fine dining Mexican restaurant – every globe-trotting gastronaut is eagerly awaiting the opening of his new restaurant there, Enigma.

Appropriately named, and located a walking distance from the other four restaurants, it will be allowed to evolve fluidly. “Enigma is going to have new dishes, but our challenge is to present things in the way that people eat; the way they enjoy food and have an experience when eating,” he says. “The logical thing to do is to look backwards rather than to the future, like the way people used to eat before. It is raw and simple – my idea is futurist but raw. That’s the idea, but maybe it will change in two weeks, we’re starting from scratch.”

Adrià says that “there will be no olives at Enigma”, the tantalising bite most closely associated with elBulli, an olive made using a spherification technique, which is served on a spoon and surprises the diner when it dissolves into a stream of intensely olive flavoured liquid as soon as it hits the palate. It is the most talked about snack in Tickets and a version with a spike of chilli is on the menu in Hoja Santa.

“At the moment, we’re going to focus on the way we eat rather than create new dishes and new techniques and new things. We should think about what we have and where we have been because at the end of it we are animals so we have to focus on the nature of how things work in the wild and from there take focus and inspiration on what we can eat and how we can eat,” he says. “We also want to create emotions, let people feel and impact them. People tell me I’m crazy to open a restaurant like that, including my brother – there will only be 28 people for dinner although it is a large space and we could easily have 70.

“We will have table cloths when we open, but maybe it will change because what I have in mind is to change and try new things. Ideally I would change everything every year, but that’s expensive so may not be possible, so we’ll see. But at the moment I don’t want to say anything because I don’t know, maybe we start like this and then we change our minds and create new things. It’s important that we have no fear of making mistakes or creating something that doesn’t make sense, because it is the way that you actually learn and create new things,” he says.

Exclusive preview of Enigma

The following day, Ferreres takes me to see the latest developments at the new Enigma restaurant which is still a building site of 7,000 square metres. White opaque veils of material are draped to delineate the various areas of a 5000 square metre restaurant that is designed to reveal new spaces to the diner as they walk through the maze that eventually leads to their dining table. There will be stops along the way to prepare the diner for their meal, so a snack by the bar or if a diner is returning for a second time, the experience will be tweaked to be a little different. The kitchen will be visible through glass, but the chefs will not be able to see out so that they are not distracted as they work. Everything will be geared to make this a unique experience and Adria has an exceptional team lined up, which may include Luis Garcia, the former elBulli maître d’, who was also called in to manage the surge of bookings at Heart in Ibiza when it opened in the summer.

At the back of the restaurant, I get an exclusive look at the 200 square metre Taller, the experimental lab which has its own development kitchen. Adrià is at work on his laptop, and he typically spends 15 to 17 hours working there each day. An L-shaped countertop is the bar from 41, the former bar beside Tickets restaurant, which will be used to develop all the cocktails for the restaurants. On top of it are huge metal letters that spell out the word Enigma, and Adrià is excited because it has just occurred to him that they look very like typewriter keys, which serendipitously has brought a new meaning to the word, tying it to the German Enigma encoding machines in the Second World War, and the early mechanical computers used by the British to break those codes. On the wall are tiles which will be used as a 365 days calendar and an opaque glass panel looking into the Enigma kitchen.

Adria plans to open the restaurant in early- to mid-2016, possibly in February, before the summer season starts, but he is reluctant to set a definitive date as invariably there are setbacks.

He also talks about the elBulli Foundation, set up by Ferran Adrià after he closed his famed elBulli restaurant in 2011. “There are now 50 people working in the elBulli Foundation. They are doing research. When they started the project they thought that it was not going to take long, they wanted to create a basic place where people would talk about something and everybody would understand. They just thought that everybody would be on the same page, but when they started working they saw that it was way more difficult than they expected. So now they have started from scratch, to take every discipline, not just gastronomy, and create a method to learn and to create creativity. There are a lot of people working for them, not just cooks, there are people from all the disciplines bringing their insights to this project; it is very interesting,” he says.

“At the beginning the idea was that the headquarters were going to be at elBulli in Cala Montjoi, but then there were some problems with the planning because it’s in a national park. So now, the museum and practical research will be there and the idea is that in the future, elBulli will be open for one month a year to create these dinners. The project has changed a lot, but I think the main things will stay the same – the structure of the elBulli restaurant will be the same and it will be a museum site, and then there will be two more building next to it.  But it is good to have the Foundation here because we’re 10 minutes away. The building is huge, 2000 sq. meters, it’s crazy! It used to be a storage venue.”

At Food on the Edge, Albert Adria talked to a packed room about the issues we face with fish. Over the last 15 years, he has seen species disappear; species like sea urchins, lobsters and mussels, that before were very common and now are very difficult to find. He urged for rapid change to ensure that our oceans don’t become completely depleted. Food on the Edge… food for thought.




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