Ferran Adrià didn’t even need to demonstrate anything to get oohs and ahhs from his audience. During the world-renowned Catalan chef’s speech in a Harvard lecture hall last week, videos of his playful, experimental cooking techniques sufficed.
“Caviar” droplets of puréed melon liquid inside a gelatinous shell provoked a subdued murmur. A shot of the melon caviar suspended in ham consommé drew louder expressions of wonderment. And when Adrià showed the melon caviar served over wide, flat pasta—made from the same ham purée as the consommé—people laughed out loud.
Adrià’s visit was part theater, but he had a serious purpose as well. During his four days on campus—in media interviews, in lectures, in lab visits—he repeated the same message: combining cooking and science is nothing new.
“Cooking has always been science—physics and chemistry,” he told undergraduates in a course on innovation in science and engineering, where he was the guest lecturer. “When you lit a fire to cook a million years ago, you were already using science.”
He seemed to be speaking indirectly to critics who have called his methods unnecessarily outlandish and even dangerous. One of his signature techniques, the use of liquid nitrogen, isn’t so different from boiling water, he claimed. He said he uses the cold liquid in much the same way—for example, coating a soup ladle in coconut milk, then dipping it in liquid nitrogen to freeze the coconut milk into a shell that can be used as a dessert cup.
People find liquid nitrogen frightening not because it is dangerous, but because it is unfamiliar, Adrià asserted. Yes, you’ll lose your hand if you plunge it into a liquid nitrogen bath for two minutes—but the same thing will happen if you plunge it for two minutes into boiling water, and yet we don’t deplore using boiling water to cook. He urged his listeners not to confuse what is complicated with what is merely new.
but defending his methods wasn’t the main objective of Adrià’s visit. Rather, the chef hoped to glean scientific knowledge he could use in the kitchen at elBulli, the restaurant near Barcelona where he has been head chef since 1985.
Adrià has had no formal scientific training—in fact, he is fond of saying that at 17, when he first began working as a restaurant dishwasher, and 18, when he became a line cook, he was working in kitchens but thinking about women. But an interest in cooking took hold, and he was soon experimenting with flavor, temperature, and texture. These experiments have taken him into the terrain of physicists and chemists: he uses nitrous oxide to make foam from such unlikely substances such as essence (strained purée) of beet or carrot. He uses alginate (a flour-like starch made from algae), agar agar, xanthan gum, and calcium chloride to straddle the boundary between solid and liquid. His efforts to surprise his customers include the spherical olive (a ball of liquid green-olive essence held together by an almost imperceptibly thin gelatinous shell) and gelatin served warm instead of cold.
Adrià and his staff had made most of their discoveries through trial and error. Frustrated by the fact that liquids containing alcohol would not freeze into sorbet—one could not, for instance, make a sorbet that tasted exactly like a caipirinha cocktail—Adrià began freezing things with liquid nitrogen, thus skirting the thorny issue of different liquids’ freezing points.
The elBulli team’s systematic approach to product development, carried out during the half of each year that the restaurant is closed, is often compared to laboratory science because it is so methodical.
At Harvard, Adrià sought new ideas, but also a better understanding of the principles behind techniques he is already using. Why is it easier to make foam from beets than anything else he’s tried? Why do the melon caviar beads have a soft center at first, but congeal into dense, gummy balls if not eaten right away?
Everywhere he went on campus, scientists were eager to tell him about their work. At a welcome reception, John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at MIT, pulled Adrià aside to show him a laptop presentation that included a physical explanation of the “tears” of wine that run down the edge of a glass when the wine is swirled, and a presentation of “capillary origami”—sheets of flexible material that fold and unfold, due to a physical phenomenon called capillary action, triggered by a change in temperature. Bush suggested that Adrià could make “dynamic desserts” that unfold before restaurant patrons’ eyes when served. Adrià seemed enthusiastic, and invited Bush, Ph.D. ’93, to come meet him in Spain to talk further about the technique.
In the chemistry lab of Flowers University Professor George Whitesides, Adrià received a gift from doctoral student Sindy Tang: a plate that looked plain—but displayed the words “elBulli” when wet. (The restaurant name had been written with a hydrophilic substance and the rest of the surface treated with a hydrophobic substance, which repelled water.)
In the Whitesides lab, Adrià also observed laser printing on meat, and was introduced to a piece of equipment called a spin coater, which uses centrifugal force to coat surfaces with an extremely thin layer of a given substance—a process that has obvious applications in cooking as well as chemistry.
And in the lab of assistant professor of physics and chemical engineering Vinothan Manoharan, researchers explained how they have been able to create foam from oil. By putting particles on the bubble surfaces to keep them from popping, the scientists have been able to keep the oil in a foamy state for one minute—a long time, given that this achievement was once thought impossible.
Adrià hopes that through a continuing relationship with Harvard, he can benefit from discoveries like this. Before leaving, he signed a memorandum of understanding with School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) interim dean Frans Spaepen, SEAS executive dean Fawwaz Habbal, and Mallinckrodt professor of physics and applied physics David Weitz, who directs Harvard’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). Both sides voiced hopes that MRSEC and Adrià’s foundation, Fundació Alimentació i Ciència (“Alícia” for short), might share knowledge—and questions. (The Spanish media picked up on the agreement immediately: see a round-up of coverage on the SEAS website.)
In the lab of Joseph professor of engineering and applied mathematics Howard Stone, Adrià learned from research associate Laurent Courbin why different liquids settle in different ways when poured. (For instance, honey coils, while a stream of shampoo appears to leap back and forth.) Courbin held a fiberglass block underneath a faucet and turned the faucet on to show how the running water fanned out into an umbrella shape upon hitting the block. Adrià’s wife, Isabel Pérez, filmed with a small camera as Courbin poured water onto a metal disk treated with a lighter flame to create a coating of soot. The water beaded up into droplets and bounced off instead of spreading.
Doctoral student Emilie Dressaire showed Adrià how she mixes glucose syrup and sucrose ester molecules in a KitchenAid mixer to produce a foam made up of “nanopatterned cells” that hold their shape and therefore preserve the foamy texture—no fat required. (Dressaire thinks this technique could find an application in fat-free ice cream; see “A Durable Bubble,” in the November-December 2008 issue of Harvard Magazine.)
Dressaire removed a jar of the foam, which looked like marshmallow cream hardened into stiff peaks, from the laboratory refrigerator. Adrià opened it and poked a finger in, then mentioned that glucose syrup had been in use in the kitchen at elBulli since 2005.
He perked up when Dressaire mentioned the discovery of a protein from arctic fish that keeps ice crystals from forming in their bodies as they swim in very cold water. Making notes, Adrià confided as they walked into the next lab that he had been wanting to make an ice cream that is served warm, but hadn’t yet figured out how.
Next, postdoctoral fellow Jiandi Wan told the chef about double emulsions: a tiny bubble inside another tiny bubble, dispersed in a fluid.
José Andrés, a chef who trained with Adrià and operates restaurants in Washington, D.C., was accompanying Adrià on the visit; he asked Wan, “If I do a vinaigrette like this, what will the density be?” Wan looked puzzled. “If you take the dressing and whisk it, it looks one way,” Andrés explained. “If you put it in the blender, it looks different. You don’t get the light going through.”
Adrià wanted to know whether they had used the technique for food yet (no) and how large the bubbles could be. He was visibly excited when Wan told him the bubbles could go up to one millimeter, and wanted to know whether it was possible to buy this machine. No, Wan replied—it was designed and manufactured at Harvard.
Given the memorandum of understanding, that may not be as much of an obstacle as it seems. Besides finding new ways to impress the 8,000 people lucky enough to get a reservation at elBulli each year, Adrià said he hopes to collaborate with Harvard scientists on a dictionary or encyclopedia of cooking and science.
For his part, Weitz said he’d like to develop a course on cooking and science for the undergraduate general-education curriculum. “We want to bring real science, through cooking, to people who are not ordinarily interested in science,” he said in an interview. ”Those of us who do science do it because it’s fun,” he added. Often, he said, professors don’t make enough of an effort to win over students who don’t already consider science fun; this is one arena where collaboration with a world-famous chef could be quite fruitful. He plans to meet with Adrià next month in Spain to discuss how the partnership might unfold.
What do you cook when Ferran Adrià is coming to dinner? This was the question facing chefs at Rialto (in the Charles Hotel) and Clio (in the Eliot Hotel in the Back Bay). Rialto’s Jody Adams stuck to local delights such as Duxbury oysters, Nantucket Bay sea scallops, and egg custard and goat cheese using products from local farms. Clio chef Ken Oringer, who had spent time in the kitchen at elBulli, closed the restaurant and served a 30-course menu with exotic ingredients and preparations à la Adrià. Courses included gelée of yuzu (an East Asian citrus fruit) with black olive dust, fresh mint, olive oil ice cream, and tomato jam; aged goat cheese emulsion and fresh goat cheese snow with pistachio and green tomato chutney; and liquid pumpkin pie with brown butter toffee.
The dinner at Clio started late—after the public lecture ended at 8:30, Adrià stuck around to sign books, and the line wound up the stairs and around the back of the classroom—and stretched past two in the morning. So the next night, Adrià’s hosts kept things low-key: a small group gathered at the Cambridge home of Roberto Kolter, the professor of microbiology and molecular genetics who translated the public lecture.
The menu was tapas cooked by Adrià and Andrés. Also in attendance was Otger Campàs, the postdoctoral fellow in applied physics and applied math who translated for Adrià during most of his time at Harvard, who had done the bulk of organizing the visit, and who had invited him in the first place.
Growing up in Barcelona, Campàs learned to cook with Adrià’s books and DVDs. When Campàs came to Harvard two years ago, he noticed some parallels between what was happening in the science labs and in the elBulli kitchen. What seemed like a crazy idea formed in his head: why not invite Adrià to Harvard?
Campàs composed a message in Catalan, his and Adrià’s native language, attached an official Harvard invitation with professors’ signatures, and sent it off to elBulli. He had been trying for the last several years to get a reservation, to no avail. This time, he got a response the next day. And the answer was yes.
Campàs booked Adrià a hotel room and started lining up appointments. A few months later, he found himself showing Adrià around the Harvard campus. It was a surreal experience for Campàs (who wonders whether he might now have an easier time navigating elBulli’s reservation system). But Adrià seemed to find it a bit surreal too.
Love him or hate him, people recognize Adrià’s creativity. This is why Michael Norton, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, went to elBulli last summer with Luc Wathieu, PMD ’97, a professor at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, and Julian Villanueva, a professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona. ”There are very few people in the world who successfully innovate even once,” says Norton. “And there are a tiny number who innovate year after year—and he’s one.”
This is what has led Restaurant magazine to declare elBulli, which has three Michelin stars, the top restaurant in the world for three years running, and four times in all. This is what brings in two million reservation requests (elBulli books the entire following year’s season on a single day each fall).
“We wanted to know how you come up with an entirely new product line every single year and keep people excited about what you’re up to,” Norton explained in an interview. He and his colleagues chronicled their findings in a case study, and Norton’s students got the rare chance to meet the professional whose work they were studying when Adrià appeared in three sections of a marketing class for first-year MBA students during his visit. Norton said the students were divided between those who thought Adrià could do no wrong and those who were shocked by his restaurant’s inefficiency—investing in enormously expensive equipment, using time-intensive cooking techniques, closing for half the year, employing a staff of 70 to serve 40 to 50 diners each night.
The main lesson from the elBulli case, according to Norton: “If you were trying to optimize the economic model, you’d change tons of things about it. But the brand is all of those things. These things that seem wasteful are, in fact, the things that are creating the experience. When you make it efficient, you make it like every other restaurant.”
Adrià spoke about his creative process in these marketing classes, in the engineering course, and in his public lecture. Since his early days, he has sought out unfamiliar settings in search of ideas. He describes visiting factories to consider how he might use the equipment for fabricating food; he likes to talk about his first visit to Japan in 2002 (“In Japan, people look at a mountain, they look at snow, and they see it in a different way”) and a recent trip to the Amazon. About the only thing he doesn’t recommend is talking with other chefs. “They always talk the same,” he told the engineering students. “There are not going to be new ideas in that.”
He also confided that he changes the trappings of his office each year. “If you have to sit in the same office for 10 years, it’s horrifying,” he said. “You have to make it very simple so it’s easy to change. Change it every year—the color, the furniture. It may seem a silly thing, but it’s not a silly thing.”
For audience members who inquired about the difficulty of booking a table, Adrià offered little hope, but did say that he thinks it’s a shame, and not a point of pride, that it’s so hard to get a reservation.
Another of his answers perhaps offered a clue to why the number of seatings stays the same each year, even as the number of requests mushrooms. When asked if customer feedback influences his creative process, Adrià shook his head vehemently and described an approach to cooking that’s more meditation than performance: he’s happy people like the food, but that isn’t why he does what he does.
Speaking through his translator, Roberto Kolter, the chef who has been dubbed the father of molecular gastronomy and the Dalí of the kitchen told his audience what he thinks of these designations: “It’s important that you know who’s in front of you,” Kolter translated. “He is a cook. The whole world wants to attach adjectives. He wants to be just a cook.”