Ferran Adriá on creativity in gastronomy

Ferran Adriá and his team etched Spain on the global gastronomic map from the kitchen of elBulli where they pursued creativity and inspired a new generation of chefs. Today the restaurant is a museum and Adriá dedicates his time to learning what creativity means in gastronomy

Few can claim to change the world in any real sense, but most people in gastronomy would agree that elBulli genuinely changed the culinary world. At its peak, the kitchens of elBulli, five times voted the best restaurant in the world, wowed the world with its boundary-breaking creations, as they played with textures and techniques – and conventions.

Foams and spherifications were served alongside savory ice creams and granita salads. Pushing the boundaries does not begin to cover what Adriá and his team started in elBulli.

If Spain’s ascent to the top of the tree of world gastronomy came as a surprise, that Adriá found himself at the center of it surprised no one more than the man himself. He entered the profession by chance. The story goes that, as an 18-year-old with a desire to travel to Ibiza for the summer holidays he looked for a job to fund his trip. He found one as a kitchen porter and it turned out to be his way into life as a chef.

Today he is considered the pioneer of creative gastronomy in Spain – and beyond – and his restaurant the birthplace of the creativity that is seen in restaurants across the world today.

The restaurant closed in 2011 and in 2023 elBulli was converted into the first museum of a fine dining restaurant in the world. But elBulli Foundation, established in 2013 and located on the site of the restaurant in Cala Montjoi, Roses in north-east Spain, is much more than a home for the relics of times gone by.

The elBulli foundation was launched to preserve the legacy and the spirit of the restaurant – it consists of the museum, elBulli1846; elBulliDNA, the project dedicated to the investigation of innovation in gastronomy; the Bulliniano community of the people who worked in the restaurant over time; as well as the elBullistore which offers a vast selection of publications related to elBulli and the investigations that have come out of the restaurant . 

Growing and learning 

Today, Adriá is focused on creativity in gastronomy. “It is something we talk about a lot but it is not analyzed very much,” he said during a chat hosted by the Michelin Guide Spain, taking place at Disfrutar, the Barcelona restaurant owned by chefs Oriol Castro, Mateu Casañas, and Eduard Xatruch. The three are Bullinianos and worked with Adriá and his brother Albert during the years of wild success. 

“If we ask ChatGPT to outline creativity in gastronomy in the last 60 years you will see it is a disaster,” said Adriá

After taking the reins of elBulli he went on to push at every boundary that existed in gastronomy, a field indisputably dominated by France at the time. Adriá started cooking in 1980 and in 1984 he became the head chef of elBulli, which was already the holder of two Michelin stars. “Spain was nowhere in gastronomic terms in the world at the time, it was all about France,” he recalled. 

In those days Spain did not enjoy the sense of being at the top of the table – that came later. When Adriá went to events with the few other globally recognized chefs in Spain such as Juan Mari Arzak from the Basque Country, they were always seated at the last table. “This is really important to know because young people think that things have always been the way they are now and they weren’t always this way,” he said.

As a young chef Adriá was inspired by the French greats, such as Michel Bras and Pierre Gagnaire. Nouvellu cuisine, with its lighter and fresher flavors, arrived in the 1970s and was practiced by giants of the French kitchen including Paul Bocuse. It continued to be the dominant cuisine in the early 1980s and when Adriá joined elBulli it was not about creativity but imitation. “I became head chef and we started to make nouvelle cuisine. We reproduced.”

Finding a new language

But the Adriá brothers wanted to change this. After pursuing the so-called New Catalan Cuisine in the late 1980s and early 1990s they broadened the scope and decided to change.

“We said, ‘we don’t want to do this for the rest of our lives’. We wanted to find our own language,” he explained. 

“In a very naïve way we began to try to understand that this is all about the language of cooking. If you add new products or a new vision, new tools, new techniques, you make a different version of the dish. We started to create.”

The philosophy of the team, by this point hyper focused on invention and pushing the boundaries, was clear: “Every day when we got up, we set out to do something new; something that had never before been done,” he said. 

In 1995 elBulli started to gain recognition beyond the borders of Spain. “We had no money but we were very happy; it was like playing and there was no strategy. We had fun” he said. Exciting things started to happen in the mid-1990s. In 1995, Joel Robuchon retired and Adriá assumed the place as the world’s best chef. That the crown went to Spain, he said, “was the most important shift in world gastronomy in 300 years.” 

The world would shift a bit more two years later in 1997 when elBulli received the third star from the Michelin guide. “The first time they awarded three stars to a restaurant that was so radical,” he said.

While elBulli was the number one driver of a new generation and a movement of new chefs and creative kitchens, Adriá points to one element that elBulli did different from everyone; what changed the course of gastronomy.

“We taught one thing and that was freedom. We said, ‘Do whatever you want’. We were not dogmatic. We never said ‘you must do it the elBulli way and replicate what we did’,’” he said. “The global gastronomic map changed at the point., If it had not been for that there would not be the René Redzepi at Noma that we know today. It was the most important thing that happened at elBulli.” The workshop was prolific, producing 140-150 new recipes every year.

Then in 2003 came another major moment for Adriá, elBulli, and Spanish gastronomy. Adriá appeared on the cover of The New York Times Sunday magazine with the line ‘The new nouvelle cuisine, how Spain became the new France’.

“I have always said that I am who I am because of France. And I still say this, but this was a bomb and I became the most hated man in France,” he said. “It wasn’t because of me but for the first time France lost its monopoly on gastronomy in the world and it was an economic, social and political issue.”

Disruption and curiosity

Amid this attention, elBulli continued to break down barriers, working across disciplines with science, art and design and education, driven by a curiosity for what was possible. 

Of all the disruptive things Adriá and his team did – the techniques, the workflows, the culture of sharing and collaboration – he says one stands above them all. “The tasting menu was the single most important element that we did at elBulli. Up to that point menus had been á la carte,” he said. With elBulli came snacks eaten with the fingers at the start of the dish and then a long sequence of elaborations, “We pushed it right to the limit – at one point we had 44 elaborations on the menu.”

His life today is in great part about learning again – he talked of spending weeks studying Noma to understand how it worked. All in the search for knowledge and always with an eye on the future. “This is the work we do to help new generations,” he concluded. “If you understand properly, you will cook well, and if you cook well, you will create well.”  

Tina Nielsen