Friday, November 21, 2014

My Dinner with Adrià

I’m not exactly sure when I first heard about Ferran Adrià and El Bulli, his three-star restaurant near the town of Roses, Catalonia, Spain (El Bulli closed in 2011). But once I became familiar with his reputation, I don’t think I could ignore any article, video or book that featured Adrià or El Bulli. Among my favorite reviews ever written about El Bulli is one by Cleveland's own food writer Linda Griffith, based on her five-plus-hour experience there with her husband, Fred, one glorious evening in early summer 1999 — a dinner that almost didn’t happen due to bad directions and poor signage. Fred and Linda circled the mountain several times before finally coming upon the ever elusive rock with “El Bulli” and an arrow inscribed on it. Once there, Griffith says they were treated as if they were visiting royalty.

The entire meal was noteworthy and her review is attached at the end of this post. I recently asked Griffith which dish was the most memorable. She recalls the wonderful sensation of drinking hot pea soup from a glass. Patrons were instructed not to set the glass down once they began to drink from it. The contents began as hot pea soup and gradually changed to a refreshing, chilled mint soup by the time they got to the bottom.

The experience was both extraordinary and exhilarating, since Adrià was so little known here then. And totally satisfying, I might also add. According to Ferran Adrià my review was to be the first review of his restaurant published in the U.S. It has been fascinating to watch all of the press over the years … all of the foam, etc. Revolutionary! —Linda Griffith

When El Bulli reopens some time in 2015 it will be a “Creative Culinary Institute.” Adrià doesn't know exactly where this journey will lead. It’s probably safe to predict El Bulli’s future will continue on a path similar to its past; a road that is not merely less travelled, but one that is virtually unpaved and unknown.

El Bulli was blessed both with good location overlooking Cala Montjol, a bay on Catalonia’s Costa Brava, and a good following. Perhaps the restaurant’s success can be best expressed in numbers: during a typical seven-month-long season from June through December, El Bulli might accommodate 8,000 diners from a reservation request list of over a million. One of the qualities I most admire in Adrià is that despite his monumental success and fame, he is the antithesis of a “celebrity chef.” Adrià is a man who knows who he is and what he is about. He chooses not to be defined by possessions and eschews the trappings of fame. He prefers to immerse himself (fifteen hour days) in his life’s work.

I am not a multimillionaire. I don't own a yacht or a Ferrari. I live in a 60-square metre flat. My needs are simple. —Ferran Adrià

This past Sunday, I attended Adrià’s interview at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA). MOCA's exhibit Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the visualization and drawing practices of master chef Ferran Adrià.The exhibit runs through January 18, 2014. Author Michael Ruhlman had the daunting task of sharing the stage with a man who not only speaks a foreign language (Catalan), but speaks about many foreign concepts. Initially, I thought that Adrià was a contrarian. As the interview progressed, I realized this is the nature of his creative process. It is this questioning and challenging that has led him to his unique vision: a comingling of art, food, theater, science and innovation. Essentially, Adrià is a minimalist with a thorough knowledge and understanding of various disciplines and their interplay.

For me, creativity is not a job; it’s a way of understanding life. I’ve used cooking as a language to develop that creativity and also to have a dialogue with other disciplines like design, science, art and architecture. —Ferran Adrià

Ferran Adrià and Michael Ruhlman MOCA Cleveland/Photo:Edsel Little

Ferran Adrià and Michael Ruhlman MOCA Cleveland/Photo:Edsel Little

It is always surprising to me that at the heart of nearly all genius is not complexity but rather simplicity. For example, rather than rattle off a laundry list of techniques and skills to explain what it takes to be a good chef, Adrià explained it in this way.

What makes a good chef is a person with a great desire to eat well. Everything else can be taught. —Ferran Adrià

How’s that for clarity? As he signed books after the interview, I enjoyed challenging Adrià on his assertion that Italians say they don’t like corn yet eat polenta. I asked him if corn once refined and processed is still corn, and added that in Southern Italy, corn is merely chicken feed. He laughed. I concluded that he has little patience or respect for universal truths. No absolutes. There’s no pushing envelopes or boundaries if you accept the status quo.

I don’t worry about things I can’t change. —Ferran Adrià

Book signing Ferran Adrià and Michael Ruhlman MOCA Cleveland

Energized by his words and presence, I looked forward to cocktails and dinner on the following evening. Our inclusion to this “by invitation only” event can best be explained in one word: serendipity (my mother’s term for it is “by the grace of God”). The golden tickets in Willy Wonka may have been an easy get by comparison. To be one of the 60 invited quests was thrilling not only because of the exclusivity, but also because it was an opportunity to spend an evening dining with arguably the best chef in the world while experiencing what ten “rising star” chefs would create for the occasion. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance at Babette’s Feast.

The Invitation/Photo: Stephen Tokar

The evening began with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at MOCA, but not before a gallery talk by Adrià that explained some pieces in the exhibit. You could tell he was proud of his drawings. They are crude renderings and representations of many of his theories, and he made a point to say that they are one of the reasons he shuns the title of “artist.”

Clearly, I am no artist. —Ferran Adrià

Ferran Adrià Exhibit MOCA Cleveland/Photo:Edsel Little

After cocktails, we were shuttled to Trentina and ushered into a tent that had been erected on their patio for the occasion. Once inside, we were warmly received by MOCA Trustee / Event Host Dick Cahoon and MOCA Director Jill Snyder. The Dom Pérignon began to flow …

Arrival at Trentina
Jill Snyder MOCA Cleveland Director and her brother Gary Snyder

New and old friends

Already feeling sorry for the dishwashers/Photo:Keith Humphrey

Dick Cahoon, Host and MOCA Trustee, toasting

Ferran Adrià having the menu read and translated

The invitation listed the names of eight highly esteemed, rising Midwestern chefs who were invited to participate. For me, there was one name on the list with a bit more distinction than the rest: Curtis Duffy of Grace in Chicago, who received his third Michelin star less than a week before coming to Cleveland. At last count, ten chefs traveled to Cleveland to cook for a man who is considered to be the world’s best. In his remarks, Adrià mentioned how touched he was by their willingness to make the journey on his account.

The Menu

We were off to the races and no better place to start then at the top, with the first course by Curtis Duffy of Grace in Chicago: “Sunchoke, Concord Grape, Beluga Lentil Nasturtium.” The dish was just what we needed to warm ourselves on a bitter cold November evening. The flavors were delicate and nuanced. The plate was presented with dry goods beautifully arranged and warm broth was poured table side.

Dom Pérignon Blanc de Blans Champagne 2004

Curtis Duffy: “Sunchoke, Concord Grape, Beluga Lentil Nasturtium” 

Dom Pérignon Blanc de Blans Champagne 2004

As you might imagine, we were not anticipating a typical dining experience. This was instantly verified when each diner was presented with a pair of wireless headphones. The second course was prepared by locals Jonathon Sawyer and Matt Danko of Trentina. “Chicken of the Trees, Leaves, Foraged Goods.” We all put our headphones on and listened to a tutorial about foraging in Northeast Ohio. As interesting and educational as the headphone experience was, I was at dinner and found the company and conversation across the table to be more entertaining and fleeting. The headphones placed a higher demand on my attention then I was willing to give. The dish itself, however, was full of novelty and surprise — a cornucopia of unique ingredients that included petrified duck heart, snail caviar, aged beef chain, hay charred grouse breast and farce of acorn fed squirrel. It was an impressive performance to the maestro. But Sawyer and Danko weren't finished yet: They planned a surreal finale before exiting the stage.

Headphones accompanied the Sawyer Danko course
Jonathon Sawyer and Matt Danko Trentina: “Chicken of the Trees, Leaves, Foraged Goods"

Jonathon Sawyer and Matt DankoTrentina: “Chicken of the Trees, Leaves, Foraged Goods"
Intermezzo (sort of): A swarm of servers filled the tent, each holding a single spoonful of something or other, and stood behind every seated diner. Each one of us was then spoon-fed, in unison. Nobody could identify what we were eating; it was an interesting flavor and not at all unpleasant. We were then told that it was foraged common mallow meringue, served with an edible, sugared honeybee perched on its own wax & comb. I wonder if I would have eaten it had they told me what it was in advance, or had I seen the picture below. No wonder it was served “blind!”

Rare Wine Company Historic Series Charleston Sercial Madeira NV

A swarm of people

Foraged Common Mallow Meringue, served with an edible, sugared honeybee perched on its own wax & comb Sawyer/Danko/Photo: BurkleHagen Photography

The third course may have been my favorite, although I find myself changing my mind every time I reminisce about the evening. Perhaps it has something to do with being born on the Mediterranean; when given a choice, I gravitate toward fish and seafood. Gerard Craft of Niche, in St. Louis prepared “Confit of White Fish, Lemon Purée, Potato.” The dish’s visual allure quickly took second place to its delicately balanced and subtle flavor. The velvety purée bound and elevated the dish to another level while reinforcing the genius of sheer simplicity. A study in contrast: this was as basic as the previous dish was complex.

Weingut Prager ‘Hinter Der Burg’ Grüner Vetliner Wachau 2013

Gerard Craft of Niche, in St. Louis: “Confit of White Fish, Lemon Purée, Potato”

 Gerard Craft of Niche, in St. Louis: “Confit of White Fish, Lemon Purée, Potato”
Bringing us to mid-meal was Brandon Baltzley of Ceia in Newburyport with the fourth course: “Overlooked Lobster Trap: Lobster, Squid Ink, Carrot, Reindeer Lichen.” The jovial name set the tone and the whimsy spilled onto the plate with a lobster trap constructed out of squid ink that mimics a cloche plat. The briny saltiness of the fragile trap served to enhance the savory richness of the meat. The logistics of making sixty squid ink lobster traps is mind-blowing, but that may have been the intended effect. It succeeded: it was an exquisite sight and luxurious on the palate. 
Tempier Bandol Rose Provence 2013

Brandon Baltzley of Cela in Newburyport: "Overlooked Lobster Trap: Lobster, Squid Ink, Carrot, Reindeer Lichen"

Brandon Baltzley of Cela in Newburyport: "Overlooked Lobster Trap: Lobster, Squid Ink, Carrot, Reindeer Lichen"

This course was a bit difficult for me and I think it actually had to do more with the sequence of my evening rather than the chef’s ability or choice of ingredients. Kevin Sousa of Superior Motors in Pittsburgh served “Beef Heart, Steelhead Roe, Matsutake, Pine, Dashi.” Earlier, at the cocktail reception, I enjoyed my first experience eating heart prepared by Michael Nowak and Adam Lambert of The Black Pig in Ohio City. The appetizer consisted of ground Ohio venison heart, bull’s blood beets, capers, shallots, Dijon, parsley and sherry vinegar served on crusty bread. It was an exotic, rich concoction with just the right amount of tang. In contrast, the texture of the sliced beef heart in Sousa’s presentation was dense and chewy. None of it due to any error in technique, it’s merely the nature of beef heart. This was quickly becoming a night of firsts. Add petrified duck, beef and venison heart to my list — right below sugared honeybee!

Kamoizumi Kome Kome ‘Happy Bride’

Kevin Sousa of Superior Motors in Pittsburgh: “Beef Heart, Steelhead Roe, Matsutake, Pine, Dashi.” 

I knew they'd get around to something recognizable at some point.The following course was by Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis:“Risotto, Blood Sausage, Pumpkin, Apple.” It was seasonably appropriate, buttery and creamy, with the most vibrant colors. The deep, royal purple-ish sausage perfectly complemented the saffron-orange-colored rice. The flavors were well married and it had all the warmth and comfort I’ve come to expect from a starch-based dish. (I recently read that there are two things that Adrià will not eat: green bell pepper and blood sausage. I happened to mention this earlier at the cocktail reception to one of the waiters from Trentina. Glad I did.)

Renato Ratti ‘Battaglione’ Barbera d’Alba Piedmont 2012

 Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis:“Risotto, Blood Sausage, Pumpkin, Apple"/Photo: Anu Ramakushnan

Renato Ratti ‘Battaglione’ Barbera d’Alba Piedmont 2012

Once again, I found myself in uncharted territory with the seventh course, which was created by Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson of Brut in Minneapolis: “Pigeon Matsutake, Roasted Hay, Preserved Berries, Liver.” I’ve had quail, pheasant and grouse. I’m not sure why I previously thought pigeon would be any less of a delicacy. It was the gourmet version of Thanksgiving on a plate. Squab is a young pigeon of about four weeks and is not the easiest fowl to find these days. The pigeon leg on my plate had dark, tender meat full of rich, gamy flavor. The berries performed the same role as cranberry sauce does with turkey. Believe me: if I could pull off this dish, our Thanksgiving menu might be very different.

Domaine Follin-Arbelet Aloxe-Cochon 1er Cru Burgundy 2011

Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson of Brut in Minneapolis: “Pigeon Matsutake, Roasted Hay, Preserved Berries, Liver"

Jamie Malone and Erik Anderson of Brut in Minneapolis: “Pigeon Matsutake, Roasted Hay, Preserved Berries, Liver"
Domaine Follin-Arbelet Aloxe-Cochon 1er Cru Burgundy 2011

The eighth and final course was created by Garrett Lipar of Torino in Detroit: “Mackenzie Creamery Goat Cheese, Spruce Tips, Sorrel, Strawberry.” It was a sublime, fabulous finish — a light and creamy dessert with the perfect measure of sweetness. The spruce tips, with their woodsy, citrusy notes, and the flavor of sorrel, with its kiwi and sour strawberries overtones, served to enhance the rich essence of strawberry. It was a sensational end to a dolce notte.

Lustau ‘San Emilio’ Pedro Ximénez Sherry NV

Phoenix Coffee Ethiopian Ardi

Garrett Lipar of Torino in Detroit: “Mackenzie Creamery Goat Cheese, Spruce Tips, Sorrel, Strawberry”
Lustau ‘San Emilio’ Pedro Ximénez Sherry NV/Phoenix Coffee Ethiopian Ardi

For me to go to a restaurant and eat something that is not only good, but totally new, is a double thrill. Double the enjoyment. —Ferran Adrià

Ferran Adrià and Mary Manno Sweeney/Photo:Keith Humphrey
Keith Humphrey, Mary Manno Sweeney and Dick Cahoon MOCA Trustee and Event Host
Never underestimate the kindness of strangers.

For more pictures from the evening click here.
To view pictures of the Ruhlman/Adrià Interview and MOCA Symposium click here.


Linda Griffith’s article as published in Currents:

The Hottest restaurant in the world in 2004!!

 Printed in Currents in 1999

 Linda Griffith       On Food & Wine         August 1999 El Bulli

          I almost missed the most extraordinary meal of my life. I’ve never had a facility for languages, a real disappointment for someone who loves travel as I do.  My love for all things French grew from my ability to ask questions and usually understand the answers, although even at my best, I’m seriously grammatically challenged.

          Also, maps make sense there; and the French have logic to their one way streets. But not in Italy.  Much as I adore my husband, our fights were especially vivid visiting the hill towns of Tuscany!  When in doubt, he hurtles forward at an illogical speed.  We almost killed each other in Arezzo struggling to find Piero della Francesca’s fabled frescoes in the church of San Francesco.  The map made it look easy.  But, a plethora of narrow streets, all running in the same direction, made the church impossible to find.  A sudden downpour did nothing to facilitate our efforts. And, while perhaps I sounded intelligent in asking passersby for directions, their rapid speech in a language I know not did nothing to assist us. I can still see my frantic husband yanking the car into a parking space.  “There,” he said. “We’ll walk!”  And so we did, until soaking wet, we eventually found the church.  I could read enough Italian to understand that our battles had been in vain.  “Sorry, the church is closed while the frescoes are cleaned and restored.”

          My beloved studied Spanish in high school.  Lest I hurt his feelings, those classes were more than a few years ago.  So it was with some trepidation that we planned a small foray into Spain during our June trip to France.  We would explore the Catalonian countryside and the breathtakingly beautiful Costa Brava.

“ No matter what, you have to eat at El Bulli, one of Spain’s few Michelin 3-star restaurants,” our friends wrote. “You must have the tasting menu.”  Later we learned that El Bulli means “the bulldog.” Only those with the tenacity of a bulldog will ever find it!

Locating this restaurant was a summary of all of our worst hilltown battles.  Only this time, the roads were few, the mountain steep, and the Mediterranean right at the bottom. We understand no one’s directions.  Not even those from an English-speaking policeman. I begged my dear driver to give up; murder was just around the corner. Luckily he ignored me. And a kindly soul led us by car to a narrow mountain road we had some how missed. 

Up the narrow, stony, mountain road we drove for about 5 miles.  As we began to work our way down, we saw it!  Clinging to the hillside and overlooking a spectacular azure bay was our destination.

          Only an hour late, with nerves badly frayed, we were profuse in apologies to co-owner Juli Soler as he rushed us into the enormous stainless steel and marble state-of-art kitchen.  Well into the lunch hour, the young 40-person staff was busily engrossed in well-orchestrated culinary frenzy.  The maestro of it all, owner-chef Ferran Adrià, paused a moment to welcome us. With Señor Soler’s translation aid we agree to put ourselves in the chef’s hands, assuring them there is little we won’t eat other than cockscomb and sea slugs.  
          Several terra-cotta tiled diningrooms are marked by dark wooden beams, wonderful old credenzas and handsome contemporary accessories. Large windows overlook the bay.  Our table was next to one of them.    We mellowed very quickly.

          Moments after we sat, we were each served a “cocktail.” Short glasses were filled with bourbon and passion fruit---quite welcome after that frenetic drive.  Then came an array of small, handsomely designed serving containers---a china cup, a silver “flour shovel,” a pewter bowl and a small glass.  In each was a remarkable nibble: curry-flavored caramelized hazelnuts; transparently thin strips of shrimp cracklings; thin slices of lotus root crisps; and wafers of codfish and Parmesan.

          The shrimp wafer was an extraction of the most intense flavor a shrimp has to offer. From the very crunchy sweet crunchy hazelnut with their aroma of curry, we moved to the salty combination cod and cheese. And this was just for starters.

We knew then that this would be a meal unlike all others.  Ferran Adrià is dedicated to presenting dishes that excite all the senses.  Contrasts of flavors and textures are important.  Aromas are also important. There are daring combinations of ingredients, some that made us chuckle, others that just blew us away.  There is a rhythm to his tasting menu; slowly it builds to particular points, ebbs a bit and builds again.

          Following the array of  nibbles, we marveled at the lush white sorbet of tomato water served with a diminutive pillow of crisp fried bread “to be eaten in one bite following the sorbet”--- an amusing play on a tomato bread salad.

          Next came a single silver spoon with a seductively silken raw sea scallop surrounded by light-as air-seawater mousse.  Another spoon appeared bearing a small round potato that had a coffee-filled center on a bed of mascarpone.  Each was a study in contrasts within itself as well as with the other. 

          Our excitement reached a new level with the next dish, a flûte of an opaque, brilliant green, liquid.  “Drink it slowly but all at one time,” our smiling server said.  Imagine this: the first few swallows are of hot soup of fresh peas, but as you drink the temperature gradually cools, the mint is slowly introduced,  until you reach a chilled mint soup at the bottom.  Our groans of pleasure soon gave way to happy chuckles when we finished.  What a brilliant hoot!

          That was followed by a small jade bowl with a small puddle of milky parmesan “water” marked by a luscious golden olive oil.  Mounded up one side is seriously aromatic polenta.  But wait—the polenta is frigid, dissolving instantly in your mouth. How does he do this?

          Speaking of “how does he,”  our subsequent dish was a Tagliatelle carbonara.  These were transparent noodles, tasting intensely of everything one experiences in a pasta carbonara.  Along with the nest of noodles were a fine dice of ham and Parmesan, a small egg yolk and a touch of cream.  The whole was perfumed by an oil of white truffles.

          And now my notes become somewhat incomplete.  Forgiveness, I beg.
I wrote: “A salad like no other!  This vegetable terrine is layers of color and contrasting flavors, lavishly perfumed with mint, accompanied by strips of basil gelatin sprinkled with chervil, a delicate milk foam and bursts of sea salt.”

          Another rectangular plate appeared bearing 5 mussels, each lightly glazed with a tomato-water gelatin.  A highly concentrated tomato mousse as well as a garlic cream “soup” provide the harmony.

          The crescendo built higher with the Napoleon-shaped tarte of shaved white truffles over apples two ways-- gelatin and diced.  The pastry was paper thin and crisply tender. Aromas were enticing.

          The next plate held six small duck tongues (totally tender and delicious), each punctuated by bites of pear and litchi.  A sinful caramel sauce knit the whole together.

          A series of variations on the cuttlefish came next: (1) a slice braised with its juice; (2) Fried;  (3) light as air cuttlefish ravioli; (4) sautéed with artichokes; (5) noodles with a sauce of garlic, peanuts, almonds, cuttlefish ink and saffron.

          Two lightly grilled scampi served with a scampi jelly served as a delicate palate refresher.  These were followed by sardines over a square of sardine gelatin, garnished by an onion cassis sauce and smoky grilled scallions. And finally,  a small piece of duck with a peanut sesame sauce, turnip, and seaweed that is marked by tiny bursts of saltwater jelly.

          Soon thereafter we moved to the garden for a series of refreshing sweets.  First an ephemeral and refreshing combination of jellies of coconut over coffee, over passion fruit.  Next was chocolate with coffee mousse, passion fruit sorbet and a Campari jelly.  And finally, a tantalizing variety of little sweets, each a luscious juxtaposition of flavors.  Desserts, by the way, are the creation of the chef’s younger brother, Albert.

          My simple notes don’t do this experience justice.  Every bite was exciting and satisfying.  This was as much an intellectual experience as a dining one.  Each dish was perfectly sized.  And when we were finished we were exhilarated, not stuffed.  After nearly five hours (!) we were ready to leave.  The kitchen was beginning to prepare for their evening meal, but the brothers Adrià took time to sign the handsomely illustrated book that each has published. They will be in Chicago sometime in November.  We promised that we would try to be there. 

          Ferran Adrià is a brilliant chef who has taken his finely honed culinary skills and pushed them to an entirely new level. Others have tried with some success---Charlie Trotter in Chicago, Michel Trama in France.  But none has put it all together into a clearly articulated culinary philosophy except Adrià.

          We have to return soon.  Now that we know the way.        

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