After a visit to Pompeii, it blew my mind, a culture; a city of merchants, sophistication and brilliance surrounds us. Back sitting in the garden of Don Alfonso, it is a cool fall night, some traffic in the village, while friends and family begin to gather for the last dinner of the season. Talking with the chef Ernesto these past days, we discussed molecular cuisine and share many of the same thoughts. We spent a week here, trying the cuisine of a chef, and family that are traditional, passionate and committed to hospitality.
Thinking back, I talk less and less about Ferran, yet our visits to El Bulli, are still ever-present. We adored Juli Soler, the founder and business partner of Ferran. He was a wonderful friend who eventually disappeared from the food scene due to a sudden failure to communicate, a sickness that plagued his son who was handicapped since a teenager. The little news we have about Juli is frustrating, a sad reality we live with.
I admired the work of Ferran, seated beside him at his helm in the kitchen in roses, I said to him, “what genius” and he shrugged his shoulder and replied, “this is 19th Century”. I assumed he was being very modest but he wasn’t kidding.
Marie-Antoine Carême, 1784–1833, signified molecular gastronomy as one of the most famous French chefs. He said in the early 19th century that when making a food stock “the broth must come to a boil very slowly, otherwise the albumin coagulates, hardens; the water, not having time to penetrate the meat, prevents the gelatinous part of the osmazome from detaching itself.” Osmazome was a substance formerly supposed to give to soup and broth their characteristic odor.
It is ever more obvious that Ferran had the insight to look back into history, he was a chef that was in search of ideas, so he turned outside the kitchen, talked to scientists, historians who lead him down a pathway in search of a new improved way to formulate. If you think about it, many of the substances he used were natural, e.g. seaweeds. Where he caught some off guard was his use of medical tools, equipment that belonged in a laboratory and not in a kitchen. This intimidated many of his colleagues; I recall one important French food scientist told me he was insane to use liquid nitrogen at the dinner table of guests.
It is obvious that Ferran is one of the most illustrious chefs of the 20th Century. He developed his own kitchen from scratch, a marvel that created a renewed text and language. He gave a place for young chefs to “think out of the box”, a new way to work and experiment.
Ferran’s kitchen looked deeper into the history of science, extracted the ideas, and applied them in a practical manner. He deconstructed, and then re-built foods with a new twist. He had a good imagination, his spheres at the time when first launched were exciting, they made people look very closely to what he was doing. There had never been a time when food geometry played such an important role in cuisine.
His eyes were attached to macro but fixed on the micro details, and for the same reason, Japanese cuisine is so intriguing. But the main difference is the principle foundation of Japanese cuisine is based on tradition, while Ferran’s kitchen was based more of novelty, a freedom of expression.
His cuisine still respected by most chefs around the globe has died away, it is not nearly as important as before. Even Ferran was cleaver enough to figure it out and quit. Nowadays, molecular cuisine has been transformed into a new edition, the sign of a real meaningful addition to the kitchen, yet at the same time, it is passé, and the novelty has worn off.
When we visited his test laboratory and his office in Barcelona ten years ago, I was fixated on his array of industrial materials. I couldn’t understand what he was trying to do. I asked myself, how could a famous chef work with those materials, what can he find in them? He used industrial materials as a basis to extract ideas, those idea he needed to progress.
He tried to figure out how industrial tastes were constructed, the details of aromas, how flavors could be turned upside down and altered. I think this is a very Spanish way of thinking when you consider the genius of the artist Rene Magritte. He deconstructed and reconstructed, Ferran too did the same with foods. He was amongst the first to widely apply molecular theories to gourmet cuisine. He understood that without the specific details there are no real specific meaning, influenced by science he gave meaning to his food. I couldn’t understand when Robuchon explained to me why he felt Ferran had disappointed him, but I now understand.
Ferran’s cuisine was difficult for many guests, it left some with a hollow feeling, or others intrigued by his genius. After thirty courses you were barely filled. Ferran had a mission, he was one of the few chefs that were detached from his clients in a way that most chefs couldn’t do, or they would go out of business. Clients visited El Bulli because it was a place to visit, a place to try, a new experience, excitement and novelty. .
What Ferran finally gave chefs was a new way to approach to looking at process, the creation process, a wise new way, or as some thought, twisted thinking. For for us, he was a super genius at the time, his fresh ideas evolved and exciting new dishes appeared time and time again. These dishes were always molecular, and to cook molecular you needed to change your way of thinking. It is like the clutch in a car, you can have a foot clutch or a steering hand paddle, and they are both very different.
He was going more outside the standard food universe to create new dishes. I think the struggle for Ferran was trying to find a balance between the excellent raw materials and his focus with trying to dissect dishes into multiple courses. Through inventing there is always a blur and some foods were blurred by his intense desire to move forward his foods.
I continue to observe chefs around the globe who were fascinated by his language in the kitchen, nevertheless some started to see through it as if it was a gimmick. In hindsight, it was not a gimmick although many dishes were too complex to prepare or seemed over sophisticated for most gourmets.
Ferran was the innovator, the chef who introduced molecular thinking to the international scene and for better or for worse it changed the way we see food forever.
Categories: Life Cycles