Chef Albert Adria of El Bulli, Inopia, and 41° (now closed), Pakta, Tickets, Bodega 1900 and his two new Mexican restaurants Hoja Santa and Niño Viejo was the closing speaker at MAD Food Symposium in Copenhagen last month. The subject of his presentation to the surprise of the audience was fear. First off he confided that he was not happy with the pants he had chosen to wear that day and was concerned that they were not the most flattering. Only an extremely confident and honest person like Albert Adria would broach such a subject!
According to this brilliant chef you are never too old or too enlightened to experience fear. Fear is a creative engine and in order to achieve your dreams you have to overcome your fears. Fear according to him also makes you careful and prevents you from making mistakes. Adria went on to quote Coronel Kurtz who said that horror has a face and you must learn to befriend this horror or Dracula as he called it. He said he overcame his fears with every creative attempt and actually is the first person to make a living by being creative in the kitchen. After El Bulli he was fearful of the response to his new ventures though that didn’t stop him from opening Tickets and 41° bringing an original concept in both instances into play.
Adria stated that his last name does not make him fearless but more trepidatious since a certain standard of excellence is expected from him. Evidently it has not stopped him from opening an array of restaurants in a very short time, each highly successful and anticipated by fans of his cuisine and fawned on by food critics all over the world.
Adria said he kept on going and opening restaurants constantly not always by prior planning but sometimes by chance similar to accidental pregnancies. His humor is not confined to his conversation but extends into his work. Whimsy apart he is meticulous and very precise in marrying flavors, creating taste, and having visited every restaurant of his except the last two that were projected to open in September I have to admit that I have never tasted anything less than perfection. Tickets and 41° Experience received a Michelin star each and Tickets which is the most sought after table in Barcelona will probably add another one soon.
We have had many conversations where he discussed upcoming projects and plans for the future but things are fluid as he constantly tweaks and changes his plans. Pakta, his Peruvian- Japanese restaurant, and Tickets and 41° were not enough and then came Bodega 1900 and he closed 41° in August to announce Enigma to open in 2015. A project in the jet set vacation paradise of Ibiza was announced this year with other investors and is slated to open in the summer of 2015. The concept is an interactive experience meant to cater to 1000 people every day for six months of the year. We will have to wait to see if this fun fair for adults in the Casino de Ibiza has any more surprises besides the multi-disciplinary spectacle announced so far.
In an earlier conversation with me he had disclosed plans to move 41° to a new rooftop location with a New York night club vibe but that plan has now changed with its closing and having had the 41° Experience I wonder how he will top it but knowing him he will somehow make that happen. Adria says his fears positively control his creative engine and spur him on to keep going ahead. Fear makes you humble, it makes you reflect, it makes you respectful, honest and at the same time more daring. Then when you overcome your fears you overcome Dracula. He certainly has overcome his personal Dracula and is constantly striving to new unimaginable heights.
There were plans for one Mexican themed restaurant in the Raval area of Barcelona until last year, but no surprise that they morphed into two now. We had a conversation at Pakta and I asked him about his plans and then we met again at MAD a few weeks ago:
Pakta has been so well received. Are you happy with the response you got?
It has been very surprising considering it is a new proposition with ingredients that people are not used to seeing here. Guests who come in are wowed and surprised at the same time. Tickets and Pakta are both enjoyable experiences according to our guests. Culturally Japanese food is well known but Peruvian is new to people here. I have two cooks here Kyoki Li who was in Tickets before and Jorge Munoz who are jointly running this kitchen.
Now you are constantly expanding your restaurant empire, are you becoming more of a businessman than a chef?
No my first priority is my cooking and I am happiest when cooking. It is hard for me now because I have to take care of every aspect of all the restaurants. Now we are talking here in Pakta then after this I will be at Tickets and check into the other two restaurants so I am constantly running back and forth.
Is that the reason you are in such good shape?
Probably! This morning I was working on a new plate at Tickets and that is the time when I am happy and though I have a lot of things to take care of now but I still like to be in the kitchen. Now I have to take care of numbers as everything revolves around numbers. I don’t have a restaurant in Las Vegas, or one in Beijing or London and all my operations are close by allowing me to be hands on in each operation. One can move easily from one to the other and that gives me control over everything.
A very important aspect of a restaurant according to me is its soul. Every restaurant of mine has its own distinct personality. I don’t like the idea of all my restaurants to give a similar sensation and I want each one to be its own unique experience. Many guests now make reservations in a different restaurant of mine few nights in a row as each offer something different.
So when is the Mexican restaurant opening?
Probably in a few months as it is a big project. Earlier I thought I had found space in a building which didn’t pan out. So now we have worked on a new space.
So are you still going to move 41° to another location?
Tickets as you know is so popular and we need more space so it is practical to move 41 and extend Tickets in that space.
So what are your plans for the new 41° (which is now closed and replaced by the Enigma concept) is going to have a new concept?
My plan is to have a lounge with a DJ so after people dine at one of my restaurants they go there to hang out. It is not easy to feed 200 people every night and I have to make sure that financially it is a viable proposition.
It’s not easy and when I planned Pakta the cost exceeded the original estimate, fortunately it is not a big space and though I had no interest from investors so I went ahead and kept it simple.
How did Bodega come about because you didn’t disclose any projected plans for it?
In fact Bodega was always in my mind and I had a good location across from Tickets and I went for it. It has been doing really well and we are booked out with reservations. People seem to enjoy the more relaxed neighborhood feel.
So are you going to start listing the address and make public the phone numbers for your restaurants as earlier there were not available for Tickets and 41°?
We are now working to have a new website with all the information and a new system of reservations. The problem us the sheer number of people looking for reservations up to two million.
That is a good problem to have?
Of course it’s good for me but difficult for our customers to find a reservation.
Has the economy impacted your restaurants and is it improving?
Fortunately tourism is doing great and we have people visiting us from all over the world. No one knows the real picture and for us summer was good with the tourists and I believe personally that a lot of restaurants closed after summer because in winter you depend on the local guests. We are surviving in this moment and I am always concerned about the future. I am very lucky thanks to the tourists. For example out of 32 seats twenty are for international guests tonight. Fewer people are venturing out and spending more carefully but our expenses are the same. Prices for products are going up for example tuna is 20 euros/kilo.
Is it correct to say that you never compromise on quality as I have noticed in all your restaurants?
It is also because of the clientele we have for example here our Japanese guests expect the best and expensive tuna. I don’t look at the cost but the quality as it has to be the best quality. In the Pakta kitchen we use different ingredients than the Tickets kitchen so we make different choices in each operation. In Pakta we have 32 seats and 16 employees and the quality is very high so cost is more. Here I use only some parts of a fish while in Ticket we might utilize the whole fish.
Is it hard to source products for the Peruvian kitchen?
We have a plot of land where we are growing a lot of vegetables, aji’s, and herbs for our use. We also have farmers growing just for us like potatoes, herbs etc. even our wasabi is from horseradish we grow ourselves. 60% to 70% of products we can find locally just like you can in California where it is easy to grow everything.
Are awards and recognition by Michelin important to you?
I am busy and fully booked every day and my guests appreciate my food and that is the most important for me to make my guests happy.
What do you think of the “less is more” approach to food by chefs these days?
I prefer a kitchen to make good food and not just show technique. I don’t like just one style of cooking in the kitchen for me it more important to make good food than to just put on a show. Styles are trendy for a short time like five years ago Nordic style and now something else and in the future another approach.
Since most techniques used in kitchens these days go back to you are kitchens becoming less or more technical?
In my opinion we are slowing down as last ten years have been like a race and we were looking for more and more. At this time we are in a moment where we need to look back. What was new ten years ago is classic now and I am working more on these techniques. My work in the last twenty years has become classic.
You have influenced every kitchen in the world with your work are you satisfied with all that you have achieved?
Now when I travel to international congresses I see people using my techniques and I feel happy.
Do you feel pressure to live up to people’s expectations of you?
All the time like when Time magazine says I am one of the most influential people in the kitchen I feel I have more responsibility to do even better.
Then it was time for him to sprint to Tickets down the block and he is at the pass every night checking on plates, tasting and tweaking , posing for pictures with guests, signing autographs and wowing guests with his spectacular food. He is a perfect role model for young chefs since as he says the young are not the future but they are the present. For someone who will go down in history for changing the face of cuisine internationally he is humble and exemplifies passion i