Ferran Adria visits the Harvard Physics Department

My week in Food For the food focused, there are good weeks when every meal you east in or out is wonderful. Weeks when you learn new things about what you eat, or meet people who are just as stupidly nuts about the basic stuff of life as you are. This was one of those weeks. It started off with bang where I scored a seat at the Ferran Adria lecture at Harvard’s Physics department. After several years of making snide remarks about foams and tortured food, I was as curious as anyone to get a first-hand look at the famous chef who had channeled Mr. Wizard. I figured that this was about as close as I’d get to eating at El Bulli, so I didn’t mind showing up at 5:00 PM to snag a seat in the lecture hall—even though Adria was supposed to take the mike ninety minutes later. (It’s part of my religion not to be early to things). The room was overflowing, in fact four rooms were overflowing, all networked in to the sage of Spain via satellite TV or some such high tech whoosie. The no-fun Harvard fire marshals wouldn’t allow students to sit in the aisles, or to save seats for friends, so wave after wave of kids slung their backpacks over their shoulders and followed duck like behind the Chemistry graduate assigned to banish them to TV-land. I kept my seat, unmoved by the anguishes and jealous looks of these many students who probably a) all spoke Catalan, and b) had made the Pilgrimage to El Bulli as one of the fifty guests served on the six months each year that El Bulli is open. Aria is credited being the creator of Molecular Gastronomy, (a term I’ve never understood but assumed it was because I barely passed freshman chem.) It’s also a term he disavows. He says he’s just a cook, not a chef, and he doesn’t understand what molecular gastronomy is either. And until he came to Harvard he thought everything he was doing in his lab/kitchen was chemistry only to be re-educated at Harvard by members of the Academic Milky way, that it it’s all physics and physical chemistry. Adria was supremely interesting, even though everything he said was filtered through the translation of a totally charming Catalan-speaking and food-besotted Harvard Chemistry professor. Neither charm nor passion was lost in translation. Adria is a compact, almost burly guy. The kind of guy who bounces on the balls of his feet while he’s talking (or being translated). He’s a little balding, and has the sharp black eyes of a zealot; he might have had an alternate career as a televangelist or cult leader—except that he has a great, self-deprecating sense of humor. But maybe not so self-deprecating. For example, his original life plan was to be the greatest professional soccer player in the world—or at least a first stringer in Spain. When the Spanish national coach disabused him, telling him “with luck, you’d make the third string,” Adrian sorted through his other options, which included going back to the restaurant where he’d washed dishes as a teenager.And the rest, as we say, is history.

Picking up the chalk in a professorial way, Adria circled letters on the board, “Cooking is an alphabet. Each technique is a letter. Several techniques strung together make a word, and words become phrases as you make a meal.” Fair enough. But the techniques Adria uses with as much casualness as you or I might dice an onion use liquid nitrogen, centrifuges, syringes, pipettes, and special order distilling equipment that would shame a high-end industrial Chemistry lab. Adria brought along his videos from Atelier Adria. His focus was on textures. What a mad scientist (or a very careful and curious one) can do with the raw ingredients of food. He takes pains in his talk to remind the audience that nothing but natural ingredients are used –sugar, water, salt – which he reminds us are all chemical compounds in the first place. Simple carbohydrates, potassium chloride, liquid nitrogen. Just the basics.

The films are superb, more science class than cooking class. Adria starts off showing how to make an iced team with lemon (the ice tea is an infusion, jiggered with xanthum gum and reduced to cubes with the texture of three-day old Jello; the lemon is a frozen pea-sized lemon pearl, still liquid on the inside). To Adria, this is the easy stuff. He ramps up the video technique class from iced tea, to frozen eggs shaped inside a balloon, to translucent flourless “pasta” created from essences of tomato, set in paper-thin sheets with a gelatin base, and cut into transparent raviolis and tortellini. He finishes his alphabet with a phrase of beautiful food constructions that look like underwater seascapes with sea sponges, coral reefs and sea anemones. Understanding what makes food and texture respond to temperatures and ingredients fascinates him. We are all fascinated by him––all five rooms of us––and excited that he plans to make working with the Harvard chemists and physicists a regular part of his annual schedule. Last thing –does he eat this at home? No, he says. It’s not really food. It’s an experience with food. At home, Adria says, he “eats like a normal hungry person”. He says, “You can’t eat like this every day, or even once a month. It’s maybe for once or twice a year at most.” Good news since your chance (my chance) of getting in to El Bulli is roughly the same as my getting picked for the next citizen spot on the space shuttle. Here are the stats: El Bulli takes reservations on one day each year –an auction for seats goes up on October 15th (might be the 25th) each year. About half the people who win are guests who’ve never been to the restaurant; the other half are return guests. It takes 70 people to make a meal for 50 people at El Bulli, and the restaurant is only open six days a week for six months of the year. You do the math.

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