Deconstructing the tomato: elBulli mastermind Ferran Adrià’s academic fixation with food

elBulli's new project will "shift the paradigm" in molecular gastronomy.

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Above an Indian restaurant, close to the former bullring of the Plaça d’Espanya in Barcelona, there stand roughly a hundred office cubicle walls, arranged to make rudimentary corridors inside an airy warehouse. Attached to each panel are sheets of A4 paper, photographs, screenshots of web pages, pamphlets and maps: anything and everything to do with food.

This museum to food exists because of Ferran Adrià, widely considered one of the greatest chefs alive. From 1994 to 2011 Adrià’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant on the Catalan coast north of the city, elBulli, was a place of pilgrimage for lovers of haute cuisine. It pioneered a unique brand of molecular gastronomy – taking food apart and putting it back together in new forms and combinations. Adrià surprised everyone when he announced its closure. There were reports that he was bored: a chef who’d taken food as far as he thought possible.

He has spent the past four years attempting to turn his experience into something approaching a new academic discipline, with elBulli as an umbrella brand. There is the former restaurant – under extensive renovation to mark its scheduled 2017 reopening as “elBulli 1846”, a cultural and educational centre – and this place, the non-profit elBulli Foundation, which will soon be 8,000 square metres of . . . something. Part think tank, part creative consultancy, part tech start-up: a collection of writers, scientists, cooks, historians and more, sitting at desks, heads down, while flat-screen TVs play glossy promo ads on a loop. We could be in any hip, white-walled agency anywhere from Brooklyn to Berlin.

“A tomato, is it a natural thing?” Adrià asks us, the press. “Only if it’s organic,” someone suggests. Adrià chuckles. “It’s the least natural thing in the world,” he says, “because it’s been domesticated by man. A natural tomato does exist in the Andes mountains but it’s inedible, it’s disgusting. Your preconceptions about what is natural are false.”

Adrià aims to deconstruct the idea of food, using a “neo-methodology” that he refers to as “Sapiens”. The problem he faced as a chef – the problem he thinks all serious chefs face – is that although he could “create something with a tomato, [he couldn’t] create a new tomato”. To be able to do that, he wants to understand what a tomato truly is – where it came from, its molecular biology – but also broader factors: the influence on European cuisine of the transfer of plants and animals to the New World, the changes to staple crops that came with the agricultural revolution, why we learn extensively from French cuisine but take little or nothing from the native nations of the Americas.

The products being built by the foundation – including BulliPedia, intended to be a kind of Wikipedia for food – are part of this offering. So are collaborations such as an ongoing research partnership with Dom Pérignon, in which an Adrià-created bar snack will be parachuted into the menus of Spring in London and other restaurants in cities such as New York.

Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, has been friends with Adrià for years and they clearly relish the chance to work with one another, even if their partnership is at heart a marketing campaign. Dom Pérignon is ur-champagne; it’s the opposite of a new tomato. That’s the strangeness of the next stage for elBulli – its openly and proudly pretentious mission contrasts with the humble task of going back to basics without having a fixed game plan.

“Explaining all this is not easy,” Adrià says, with a shrug. “We’ve had a journalist working with us for a month. He says he’s still unable to explain what we’re doing.” 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article appears in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle