Last Thursday evening, eight of New York’s leading chefs were AWOL from their kitchens. They went to the movies.
The invitation-only event was the screening of a documentary about Ferran Adrià, the Spanish culinary alchemist who in recent years has enjoyed more press than a rich man’s suit. Just last month, the 42-year-old’s boyish face graced the cover of The Wine Spectator magazine carrying the headline “World’s Best Chef?”, and in the current issue of Food and Wine magazine he is hailed as a “guru to a new generation of chefs.” Even Time magazine anointed Mr. Adrià “one of the 100 most influential people of our times.”
The other chefs didn’t want to miss this.
The film, called Decoding Ferran Adrià, was produced, financed and reported by the omnipresent Anthony Bourdain ( Kitchen Confidential, Food Network personality). The screening, at Tribeca Grill, was organized by the Myriad Restaurant Group.
In the film, Mr. Bourdain sets out to demystify the chef and his food, most of which is so otherworldly-ice powder of foie gras?-that it can make America’s “Best Chef” Thomas Keller, of Per Se, look like a California grill cook.
I have yet to pay obeisance to El Bulli, Mr. Adrià’s world-renowned restaurant north of Barcelona, on the Costa Brava. That is partly because I have overdosed on his image. What is a “Best Chef in the World,” anyway? At this level of achievement, it’s irrelevant-more a question of style than skill. (Another reason I have not been there is that when I asked my wife Amy if she would like to indulge in a 30-plus-course, four-and-a-half-hour repast at El Bulli, she replied, without contemplation: “I’d rather be buried alive.”)
Among the kitchen royalty on hand for the screening and reception: Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin), Alfred Portale (Gotham Bar and Grill), Ed Brown (Sea Grill), Terrance Brennan (Picholine, Artisanal), Wylie DuFresne (WD-50) and Mario Batali (every other restaurant in town, it seems). A number of them had been to El Bulli, and all opined that, for the most part, they were astonished by the experience.
Before Mr. Bourdain, no American film crew had infiltrated Mr. Adrià’s famous laboratory, where he spends six months of the year conjuring victuals that lend new meaning to the term outré: cotton candy of a tiny fish carcass, caramelized egg yolks, essence of ravioli pea suspended in liquid, mango caviar, cherries swathed in ham fat. Then there are his trademark vegetable foams, which had a short, clichéd run in many upscale Manhattan eateries.
Much of the movie revolved around Mr. Adrià’s taller, or laboratory. For six months of the year, he closes El Bulli and repairs to a bright and modern lab with a handful of assistants to come up with the next season’s menu offerings, like tangerine “air” and mango caviar.
Before seeing the film, I was under the impression that Mr. Adrià was largely a sleight-of-hand artist, someone who could show an audience something familiar, like a peach, then hide it under his cap and return with a gerbil. But as the film reveals, his craft is much more than making one thing look like another. For example, Mr. Adrià takes the peach and obsessively studies its texture, its color, its flavor, its weight-all through the lens of modern science. This is deconstruction to an extreme. As he maintains in the film, after breaking down a peach into all of its multifarious ingredients, he asks himself, “Now what can I do with this peach that has never been done before?” Thus, peach foam. Or peach “glass.” Or peach ravioli.
The foie-gras ice is another example. Is foie gras reduced to tiny ice shards better than a nicely seared slab of fresh foie gras?
The film follows Mr. Bourdain as he dines with Mr. Adrià at the kitchen’s chef’s table at El Bulli. The dining room holds 55 guests. There are 55 cooks. A meal runs about 145 euros, or $189, reasonable by high-ticket New York standards-especially if you divide by 32 courses. The revelry generally runs about four and a half hours.
“Mine was more than five hours,” Albert Portale remarked to me at the post-film reception. “I think it went on for 46 courses.”
“Would you do it again?” I asked.
“Not everything was great, to my taste,” he replied. “But for the experience, yes, definitely.”
Mr. Bourdain oohed and aahed respectfully as one dazzling dish after another rolled out-he even applauded a dish or two that he’d just as soon pass on.
“Were there any dishes that you didn’t like?” I asked him.
“I have to say I didn’t like that cherry coated with fat,” he allowed after the movie. “It didn’t work for me.”
“They were awful,” Mr. Portale chimed in.
Mr. Bourdain explained that, before making the documentary, he was skeptical-even a little hostile-to the food science of this eccentric professor he had read so much about. But he conceded that he has come around to respecting Mr. Adrià’s approach to food-the creativity, the technique, and his absolute dedication to the integrity of food products.
Like Mr. Bourdain, I left the theater reassured that Mr. Adrià was not a nefarious scientist trying to reduce dining to test tubes and ice trays. Nonetheless, was what I had just seen a suggestion of the future, or just a gee-whiz sideshow? I asked Mario Batali, who attended the affair wearing his signature insulated vest and wrinkled white shirt and sneakers, if he thought that Mr. Adrià’s concepts would influence cooking in this country.
“Those guys live so far out of the box,” he said. “In the middle of this country, no way it will mean anything. Maybe some guys on the coasts will be influenced here and there, but it’s not about ideology. You have to bring it down to the level of the customers. And they have been coming down. Sure, apple caviar looks very special-but in the end, who wants to eat it for dinner?”
That was more or less the consensus of the chefs and other moviegoers I spoke with. Unfortunately, the film as yet does not have an American distributor, although it has been acquired by several European outlets.
As I was leaving, I couldn’t resist asking Mr. Portale-who said that overall, he was awed by Mr. Adrià’s food-if he had a least-favorite dish.
“That sea-cucumber skin,” he said, grimacing. “It was vile.”