One of the world’s most celebrated cooks is surprisingly that unassuming guy in a black hoodie or t-shirt and jeans sprinting around the neighborhood that houses the Adria ElBarri collection of restaurants in Barcelona. Eating Suquet (a Catalan fish stew) with brother Ferran and Anthony Bourdain shooting for his next season is all a part of a day’s work for him. Disarmingly honest, even when on the stage at MAD or other venues around the world in sharing his dreams and reservations about his imaginative ventures it is impossible not to like him.
I have witnessed his innate curiosity while exploring a Spice market in Istanbul with him or trying out food at restaurants in Mexico or Peru or even at his own restaurants. He is understated and very low key contrary to the present culture of over glamorized egoistical chefs, considering he is the chef who changed the world of pastry forever. A super creative workaholic who has however learnt the hard way about the importance of down time. When we spoke about how he has changed in his last three decades in the industry he said, “I cannot exactly say but the young chef who started in this business three decades ago who had dreams of opening his own restaurant which took 26 years to materialize as Inopia has evolved. Though now I have years of experience I wouldn’t say I know everything but I have certainly learned a lot. There are some elements like fear and respect for the new that are still there. We are working and learning constantly but I have learnt to take a break, go on vacation and recharge. Self neglect is not beneficial and it is important to take care of yourself. No more fourteen hours daily all year round. It’s all about intensity and you can work ten hours with focus and good energy and still get good results.”
Adria is the fun loving chef who ever since I have known him since his early days has spoken about opening a nightclub. That idea was realized in his 41 Degrees that closed to make way for his latest project Enigma with a bar station of course, as well as a Spanish style wine cellar.
When we spoke about the challenges of juggling multiple functioning projects, he said “I think it is going to be to find different languages for service.”
“What language are you referring to?”, I asked. “The way the servers communicate with the diners” replied Albert. “At Enigma it is all professional while at Tickets more friendly and more casual and at Bodega the waiters are likely to treat guests like family but with respect. At Pakta there is a more delicate and fine tuned service and the language is of slow movements and more Japanese and serene.”
We are also working with smells or aromas in the restaurants and at Pakta we have an incense like aroma. At Hoja Santa we have special candles for the Sam effect. We will have big team going forward to take care of all these aspects in all our projects. (At Pakta, chocolate flavored incense sticks are swung through the dining room in traditional incense burners.)
A portion of this conversation was published on The Daily Meal.
The Enigma of Albert Adria’s Enigma Concept in Barcelona, Spain
by Geeta Bansal
The Enigma Concept has been one of the most talked about restaurant offering from the Adria brothers ElBarri group since it was announced two years ago. After closing the world’s most famous restaurant El Bulli in 2011 they have opened a series of super successful concept restaurants like Tickets Bar, the Peruvian-Japanese restaurant Pakta , Bodega 1900 across the street from Tickets, the two Mexican restaurants of which one is the gastronomic Hoja Santa and the other casual Nino Viejo. Their 41 Degrees Experience opened adjacent to Tickets Bar in 2011 first as a cocktail bar with just sixteen seats and blossomed into a dining space with a 50 course tasting menu paired with over a dozen cocktails. The unique dining experience was accompanied by an audio visual component and very quickly became one of the hottest dining destinations with food lovers from all over the globe vying for the elusive reservations. It closed in 2014 to make way for yet another revolutionary concept from the Adria’s the Enigma restaurant unlike anything anywhere else in the world.
The former 41 Degrees location has since been transformed into a dessert bar accessed from Tickets into an Alice in Wonderland like space, its ceiling festooned with giant strawberries. The desserts, of course since it’s an Albert Adria (The World’s Best Pastry Chef) venture, are unlike any served elsewhere in taste or the wow factor.
Albert Adria, chef turned restaurateur has been holding onto to the name Enigma since the days when he was in the El Bulli kitchen with his brother Ferran. After closing El Bulli Albert has taken over the active management of their six projects and counting, luckily all within sprinting distance of each other. Since last fall it is now possible to tour ElBarri a specially designed map in hand to visit these modern icons of Barcelona. Move over Gaudi! It’s ElBarri on the tourist (gastro) route now.
Over two years in the making it has certainly been an Enigma and in the interim a collaboration with Cirque du Soleil and the Adria brothers has resulted in Heart a mixed media experience on the jet setting island of Ibiza off the coast of Barcelona. When asked what was taking so long with the construction of Enigma Albert Adria said that it had morphed into a bigger venture overtime with money and time consuming details like the twenty five hundred LED lights embedded in the ceiling!
With costs running over 3 million Euros and counting and given Albert Adria’s propensity to perfection his maverick vision has resulted in a spectacular space. Weeks before the opening electrical engineers were still working on the controls to operate the lights imbedded in the cloud like ceiling. Enigma is a cavernous space of over 700 meters and entered through a winding hallway into a series of stations. Albert wanted the effect to be similar to entering a cathedral – a cathedral of food in this instance.
Enigma is a magical space using lights, space and shadows to give an illusion of mystery behind each turn of the ramp leading inside. The expectations of diners are big as the space and during the soft opening in December there were already 2500 names on the interest list for the anticipated opening in January. The structural challenges of building this modern cathedral have been immense and challenging for the engineers and architects. Albert Adria says he didn’t want the culinary aspect to be overwhelmed by the theatrics or proportions and it has indeed been a balancing act. The project has been under a veil of secrecy during its construction phase before being unveiled to a huge response in order to preserve the “enigma” until the final reveal.
The test kitchen behind a hidden doorway is accessed through a private bar area which was already finished and stocked two months before the opening. This test kitchen is the core of the ElBarri projects and where Albert tests out his ideas and tweaks the work of his ElBarri kitchen team before it is presented to the diners in the six projects.
There are seven defined areas for the tasting journey for twenty four lucky guests at each seating and the diners can be seated or standing depending on the station. The seven different themed dining areas leading off the Japanese style reception include a Spanish wine cave, a teppanyaki/plancha style grilling station, a formal dining space, a cocktail bar as well as a kitchen counter. Albert Adria explained that since the sequence of the stations will vary at each service for repeat customers it would still be an unpredictable and unique experience each time. Added to that the fact that the menu is tweaked at each service as is the prerogative of any culinary genius the experience is unique to each diner. The twenty four guests journey from one section to another seated or standing for each magical experience none of them quite predictable so guests are advised to leave all foregone assumptions at home. Guests better be ready to mingle as at some stations the groups of eight each might be seated with other diners. Albert hopes it will inspire new friendships along with the new experience.
The entry to Enigma does not come cheap with an initial €100 charge to reserve that is deducted from the the €230 tasting menu some cocktails and are included and additional wine pairing can be added for €90.
Adria has often spoken of overcoming his fears every time he unveils another revolutionary concept. However it does not stop him from introducing new ideas like why not dessert before savory courses or playing with unexpected flavors and ingredients. Out of the forty dishes that had been worked and painstakingly reworked over months not all made the final cut. Everything is in flux and what is at one service is probably not going to appear at the next or it might.
What should diners expect at Enigma?
The name says it all; It’s an enigma for all!
I have done a disservice by professing in earlier interviews that it will be the new El Bulli and because of that there are a lot of expectations and people will come with pre-conceived notions. However for me in some ways it is going to be a new El Bulli.
Are you excited that Enigma is finally open?
Yes, very happy though the whole process was very stressful as you have seen during construction. We have used stone that needed to be cut to fit the surfaces and stations, a very tedious and expensive process. Getting the effect I wanted was not easy for the design team and engineers.
What do you want your guests at Enigma to experience?
I want them to have fun, be surprised, to tickle their imagination. I create not food but an experience. Subsequently when the guests have a positive experience it transforms into a living art experience. I think it will surprise a lot of people that in the same restaurant we can deliver so many concepts. At the bodega station, we will serve a classical style Spanish cuisine, in the teppanyaki it will be more product oriented and the space in the middle is a fine dining experience.
How many seatings every night that you are open?
I would like to be able to accommodate more but the logistics limit the number of guests each evening to twenty-four. Eventually at every service groups of eight will move two or three times to different parts of the space. There is a teppanyaki or Spanish plancha station for example which could be a stop on one evening and not on another. I must point out that it’s not a thematic restaurant where you move continually.
Is there a set seating time and do people arrive together?
Every forty-five minutes six people arrive and are received in the Japanese inspired Ryokan reception area with a welcome drink and then directed to the chosen station.
Pakta and Tickets are not a white table cloth fine dining concepts, so is this central space more formal?
Yes, it is more formal service because in our business now I am not only thinking about the concepts but also the revenue. Though all our present concepts bring in revenue though some more than others Enigma does need to do that to justify the operation.
Have the time and the cost overruns been a factor in this decision?
As you know I have had the space for three years and for one year I was undecided especially since the Heart project in Ibiza materialized. Then it was difficult to handle two big projects simultaneously. So, we put Enigma on hold for a while and it has been challenging.
Is fine dining still a viable concept, or is it on its way out?
Forty years ago the formal restaurants were always outside the cities and needed a special occasion and a whole day for the experience. It was expensive and not everyone could afford a few hundred Euros and hours at the table and it was also boring for the diners. The numbers of tourists seeking special dining experiences has expanded exponentially in the last few years with people traveling just to eat. Barcelona is a gastronomic city and people land here with a list of places to dine at including fine dining places.
What kind of fine dining service can diners expect at Enigma? Assigned servers or chefs bringing dishes to the table?
More classic service and more serious and fine. We are planning for Enigma to be unconditionally one of the best restaurants in the world so no compromises. The expectations are high and I know it will take time to get there since it takes five to eight years to create something spectacular. Enigma will fulfill the job that Tickets is doing right now and it will be at the top tier of all our restaurants. Do you remember Inopia which you visited before Tickets? It was smaller and unlike Tickets, not serving three hundred people every day. For me though the six restaurants and other projects within ElBarri are all equally important.
What is next after Enigma, or are you going to take a break?
I have the idea to open a tea salon which we are exploring right now. I have been a pastry chef for so long and the dessert bar in the 41 Degrees space has fulfilled one of my biggest dreams. I have been very lucky because I have had the opportunity to see the world of gastronomy through the eyes of a pastry chef and now through the business and service vision.
Has it become easier over the years with so many successful projects under your belt to create new experiences for diners?
It has become easier only because my ideas have become more clear. For example, at Tickets even now the ideas in my mind for my guests are being expressed in new dishes all the time. This is actually true for all my restaurants but my team has become stronger. My former chef and sommelier from 41 Degrees and staff from Tickets are on the Enigma team. I am now working just like at El Bulli in my test kitchen or Taller which is within the Enigma project. It has changed my way of working and with the opening of Enigma the “taller” has become the central core from where we test for all the projects. It is where I work every afternoon with my entire team on new concepts and ideas. Not only cooks but all the service managers also join us.
You are super creative and a quick thinker so are you able to keep up with these constantly evolving ideas?
I have learned to live with this and realized that with time and patience things evolve on their own. I think every night that we are open we are learning and getting better. In 2017 all the restaurants will have progressed as I believe if you have confidence and passion then that is your strength.
Have you and your work evolved with time and maturity?
I have changed so much even in the last five years and am constantly evolving. Now I have a big team that I trust I delegate more and they have trust in me so it has made us stronger. Five years ago, we were all young and finding the way. I practically grew up in El Bulli as you know and it was the high point and central to all gastronomy. It was a dream though not the reality, but a wild ride for sure.
What is coming next in Spanish gastronomy?
It’s impossible to answer it concisely but it’s going to be healthy, and product centric. The more that we learn the more wisely we will use our products and resources. Instead of consuming more chicken, pork or beef depending on the culture there will be more consumption of vegetable products while avoiding waste.
Are you going to use offal at Enigma as is the trend everywhere these days?
Offal is not something I like to use like liver, brain, pig feet etc. Since fifty percent of our customers are from different cultures and parts of the world I don’t want to serve dishes that everyone may not appreciate. Enigma might however be a place where you can use these products not for provocation but for the kind of diners who will come for the experience.
One of the plates I made recently with a modern aesthetic but a classical base for example is a torchon of foie-gras with smoked eel and nori and it’s delicious. The eel is inside the foie and charcoal outside. It will be a similar style of cuisine at Enigma that people don’t expect but I promise that my customers will have taste and flavor in every dish.
What products will appear on the Enigma menu this season?
We are working with jellyfish, with rabbit brain which is a take on a traditional stew which we will serve in a walnut shell since a walnut looks like a brain. The tableware we are using is very simple and the food will be the star. The light is perfect to show off the food and my cooks will be alert and making sure it’s a great experience. I don’t want it to be boring, or too long but definitely full of surprises.
Did the Heart project in Ibiza concept change in the last season, and why?
It is a seasonal project only through the summer season and of course we’re evaluate at the end of each season and after the closing this fall we are already working on the next season. For 2017 we are working to communicate more concisely what people can expect when they visit Heart. 2016 was a transitional year and it was more important to focus on the development of the project and fine tune it.
Has Heart been well received by the Ibiza community?
We have changed the opinions of the locals and we are recognized as a valuable addition to the community. We bring in customers and business to the island and are appreciated and I am very glad about that.