Few restaurants in history have been as lauded as the Michelin 3-starred Spanish foodie Mecca elBulli, which closed its doors in 2011 at the peak of its renown. Almost as impressive as its cuisine was the fact that head chef Ferran Adrià and his team meticulously documented every detail of elBulli's operation along the way, the results of which have been published in a seven-part series of coffee table books by Phaidon, elBulli 2005-2011. The seventh volume is about food, but really it’s about creativity, and the ways in which it can be nurtured and streamlined. We spoke to Ferran last week in Soho, through an interpreter ...
Creative people aren’t generally known for their organizational skills, though it seems like the most successful ones find a way to be organized. Was it your general frustration with the messiness of creativity that propelled you to make such a thorough record of your creative process? Were you trying to bring order to an inherently messy thing?
The really good creative people are always organized, it’s true. The difference is efficiency. If you have an agenda—a schedule—you will be better. In order to have moments of chaos and anarchy and creativity, you have to be very ordered so that when the moment arrives it doesn’t put things out of whack.
Did you have to learn those skills?
You don’t have to learn it. It’s just logic.
Well, chefs have a slight advantage. The world of restaurants is by nature very scheduled and synchronized. But I think if you take these ideas to another field you can get the same results. Many people from other disciplines would come and spend a week working at elBulli because they found the level of efficiency incredible.
But isn’t the creative process supposed to be magical? Pablo Picasso goes up a hill and comes down with a masterpiece?
No, no, no. There’s a part of it that’s magical, but most of it is not.
Explain to us your process.
First, you decide what you want to dedicate yourself to. It’s not only what you do, or what your job is, it’s at what level of creativity you’re trying to reach. If you’re a painter, do you want to be Picasso, or just a good painter? Next, it’s the personnel aspect. Are you on your own, or do you have a team, do you have collaborators? If you think of a sculptor, sometimes it’s just as important who is actually producing the sculpture. Then, you have the personalities of the people involved. We all have attitudes and aptitudes and emotions and virtues.
Then, there’s your mental energy—your passion. This part you can develop. How do you introduce passion into a team? You must figure that out. Then, you have what’s available to you—your work space, your funding, your organizational structure, and your tools. With the tools, you have material tools, and you have your creative techniques. There are phases to the creative process. At elBulli, we had to come up with a creative method for generating ideas, another one to create the dishes, and another to make the menus. We had three different processes. With this book I’m really just organizing information that already exists.
What about talent? That’s a pretty major variable, no?
It is, yes. If the talent doesn’t have all those other aspects and they’re disorganized, your longevity will be short. Talent is the only thing you can’t teach, but it’s the magical input.
Why did you write this book?
In the end I do this because I enjoy the process. It appeals to me to share it with the world; to be here now talking to you. I like that people are interested. If I was sharing this information and didn’t see any interest I would go and do something else. The only surprising thing is that I’m a chef doing this. There are other disciplines where it is more logical to come up with an idea like this. It should be people who are in the world of the arts talking about this, not a chef! But if you go on the Internet and look for information on the creative process you won’t find much. This is not the only map, but this is what worked for us and I think it will work for others.
Why do you think you were able to make so many great strides at elBulli?
In painting, from 1880 to around 1950, there were so many avant-garde things going on. Thousands of painters were experimenting and doing things. You could say the same about photography. To do something new today would be almost impossible. But a butcher? They haven’t been that creative. Let’s say it’s a butcher shop that in the evening turns into a restaurant. Tomorrow, that person would be all over the press because he’s doing something new and disruptive. Even a really, really great painter will have trouble getting noticed unless he’s doing something truly radical. You could say that this is unjust, but it’s true.
Are you sure you’re not German?
That’s a mistake to think! People don’t know this but in Spain we are super organized. I’m more punctual than many of the people I meet from countries that are supposedly on time. People think we just take siestas, but it’s not true.
The passion and the creativity I get. It’s the drudgery of going back and documenting that creativity in such brilliant detail that seems … obsessive.
It was a way for us to try to understand what were were doing. If you analyzed the most creative kitchens, and compared the creative leaps elBulli made in 25 years to another chef who had the same scope of work, you would see the clear advantage. Over 750 dishes! I don’t think you can argue with the results.
Cooking is ephemeral. Is this series also a way to make yourself immortal, the dream of any true artist?
I’m not dumb. I know this is going to be part of history, but we haven’t done it for that reason. Everyone has the right to do things for that reason, but for me it was to share my ideas. Life is very hard. It’s good to do nice things.