My love affair with food television (not the same thing as Food Network) goes back to the 1970’s – Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Jacques Pépin, Martin Yan, Jeff Smith and Justin Wilson. Watching PBS on Saturday afternoon was magical, and I’d sit, glued to the 13” TV, soaking it all in.
Fast forward thirty years. Here in the U.S. the Food Network (when it actually was about food and not imbecilic programming like Food Truck Wars, or Cupcake Wars) was new. Remember when it was actually about how to cook? New stars emerged, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Jack McDavid.
Since then, the age of celebrity chef has exploded. In his interesting book “The Reach of a Chef: Professional Cooks in the Age of Celebrity.” Michael Ruhlman discusses the changes in public perception of a vocation that not so long ago would have been anonymous toil. No longer just sweating over a stove but now savvy marketers, empire builders, rock-star persona’s.
Chefs are now household names: Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck, Masaharu Morimoto, Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver, Joël Robuchon, the list is much longer than this.
Perhaps there is perhaps no bigger rock star in the culinary world than Ferran Adriá. Creative force behind elBulli in Catalonia, Spain. Innovator, culinary chemist, mentor, inspiration. elBulli topped the 50 best restaurants in the world five times before 2011 when it closed.
When I heard Chef Adriá was swinging through Chicago on his five city North American tour, promoting the new book “elBulli 2005-2011”, I jumped at the chance. Sure it cost a few bucks but I thought it was a once in a life time opportunity. And what a day it was…..
Let me preface the story by saying I take the train into the city every work day. Been doing it since 1996. I’ve calculated I’ve spent about a year of my life on the train since then. So a train ride into the big city is not an adventure, but rather a bit of purgatory to be endured, though I can sleep, read, or work on emails. But taking the train on a weekend is a whole different animal, for day trippers the train is exciting, different and fun. We daily commuters tolerate them, after all it is public transportation, and if there are young children it is fun to watch their thrilled expressions and enjoy the new experience vicariously through them.
But the day I met Chef Adriá was no ordinary Saturday. You see, it was the Saturday of Chicago’s St. Patrick’s celebration.
I arrived at the station, the sun was warm on my face and I basked on the platform with about ten minutes to kill before the train arrived.
Then it happened.
In dribs and drabs they started showing up.
They were the green clad late teens / early twenty-somethings eager to get their drunk on with ten thousand of their closest friends. Loud, obnoxious, and just getting started.
By the time we were halfway to the city, it was standing room only, and as is often the case, as they got drunker, they got louder, more profane, more intolerable. I felt bad for the family seated just ahead of me who along with their small children were subjected to this boorish mob. Loud talking turned into shouting as the youthful revelers competed to be heard.
Fortunately I had anticipated what car to board, and which seat to choose to be able to make a quick getaway, down the stairs on the platform and out the door the moment the train came to a stop.
Just that fast I was in a taxi and headed to the lecture and book signing.
Ten minutes later I stepped through the front door of the restaurant where I was handed a glass of champagne by a young man in a crisp white shirt. A young woman took my coat and gave me a coat check ticket and a ticket for a copy of the book “A Day at elBulli.” I turned around to have a small serving of braised rabbit with escargot put in my hand. All this within two minutes of arriving.
Say…… this place was swell! And a far cry from the cacophonic train ride too!
I walked in.
I swear the beautiful people bus must have broken down and they all wandered in there before I did.
It’s been decades since I’ve hung out in the upscale restaurant scene and I’d forgotten the pretentiousness of it all.
I totally felt like the hayseed country mouse in with all the rich and famous. Fortunately there were things to eat and drink. Beautiful slices of Jamon, small servings of the rabbit I mentioned, an interesting Tuna escabeche, a shrimp dish, some tiny delicate olives.
The staff was professional and extremely friendly. As they should be.
Chef Adriá was scheduled to go on at 12:30 but did not. He was a full 40 minutes late, and when he took the stage, he was accompanied by an attractive brunette woman and a slight red haired guy who proceeded to do the introductions. Huh, who’s he?
Holy crap! It’s Grant Achatz! Only the biggest star in the Chicago Restaurant scene.
Anyway… In regards to his translator assisted speech. – a couple of things… Adriá spoke about how cooking is a relatively new in the history of man, but that the documentation of techniques is even newer. After elBulli one of his projects is not only to document what they did at elBulli (hence the book, and the tour) and further to document cooking techniques through history. But that begs the question.
What is cooking?
He used the example of the finest Japanese restaurants where a meal can be a thousand dollars and dessert is a small bowl of perfect strawberries. Is that cooking? What if the strawberries were sliced? What if there were a dollop of whipped cream? Is that cooking? – Interesting philosophical questions. Requires a campfire and a bottle of whiskey to work that one out I think.
The second thing that really stuck (and maybe I misunderstood) was his comment about the importance of trying things that had never been done and to see if they could do it, but that taste was (at least initially) secondary.
I really like food to taste good. I get the forging new techniques and science part and unquenchable curiosity but… really? I like to eat what I like. Having favorites and reliable recipes are part of the comfort of food to me. Perhaps Chef is just coming from so far away that I don’t understand. That is possible.
In any event the receiving and book signing line went very quickly, and here I am shaking hands with the man himself.
I’m glad I went.
By the way, the train home was far more subdued. Those rowdies? They were sleeping.
After reading the book, I have a little different perspective than what I got at the lecture, unfortunately between the translated speech and my understanding, I must admit I missed some of the point. Perhaps most of it.
It is not that he was not interested in making food taste good, it is that they know how to make food taste good; but exploring new techniques is paramount to adding to the catalog of food prep & presentation.
March 20, 2014
Very interesting. I share many of the views you express – particularly that food should taste good. I think sometimes the Michelin-starred breed of chef is a bit TOO preoccupied with presentation and complexity at the expense of taste and simplicity (though what could be more simple than a bowl of strawberries?). If I was paying $1000 for a meal, I would be disappointed if my dessert was just that!
What is the book like? Does it explain why the restaurant closed?
March 20, 2014
As I work my way through the book, my opinion is changing. He is not doing things necessarily at the expense of the taste, but views the experience and interaction between the diner and the eating, therefore the presentation, therefore the technical merits as just as important as flavor. Interesting concept. From what I gather elBulli closed because it was losing money – 40 chefs for 50 diners is not cost effective, and also that he’d been working 15 hour days for 30 years straight. He also is reinventing the brand and the concept. It will reopen in another iteration.
March 20, 2014
that is amazing! wow! what a day – talk about worlds colliding. and the snacks… that would have been worth it alone. i’m always fascinated by the ‘new food’ – some of it tries to be non-food. but it is all spectacular. i miss the food scene in my old city but then i realized that – aside from the fish – we can grow/make most of it here. it’s an odd thing. but i’m glad you had a good time – a day to remember for sure.
March 25, 2014
Good for you, Dave, though I don’t envy you that train ride. Who booked that chef on St Pat’s? I’m glad you got to meet him, though, and to shake his hand. What a great day that turned out to be, eh?
I so agree about the Food Channel. I once watched it daily but now I rarely tune it in. Luckily, there are other stations with shows where people actually cook. They just take a little searching to find them.
March 25, 2014
It was pretty cool to meet him John.