Avant-Garde Cuisine

The Genius Behind elBulli: Ferran Adria Reveals His Creative Process

The chef behind one of the world’s best restaurants shares the sketches, models, and innovative designs that fueled his mind-blowing cuisine. Pass the spherical olives, please!


Some meals fade from our memories as soon as the plates are cleared, while others are remembered for a lifetime. For Brett Littman, the executive director of the Drawing Center, a New York art institution dedicated to exhibiting drawings, it was a wondrous eight-hour dinner in 2010 at elBulli, the famed three-Michelin-star restaurant located in Roses, Spain, helmed by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, that stayed with him.

After taking over the elBulli kitchen in the mid-’80s, Adrià would carefully plot out the now-shuttered restaurant’s 35+-course tasting menus. Through drawings, diagrams, and models, he composed innovative dishes that used molecular gastronomy to create mind-blowing experiences, like a dry martini sprayed into the mouth from a container modeled after a Comme des Garçons perfume bottle, or the famed spherical olives made of a green olive solution in a jelly-like shell that burst in your mouth. “It was just a part of the daily work we were doing,” said Adrià through a translator. “It helps [to] visualize the dish before you do it, it helps you with your daily process, it helps putting it together.”

Littmann found his dining experience to be so profound and exciting that he reached out to Adrià about the possibility of exhibiting his process at the Drawing Center. Adrià agreed, and for the past two years Littman traveled to Barcelona four times so that the pair could work together to cull drawings and ephemera from Adrià’s archive for the exhibition, Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity, which runs at the Drawing Center through February 28, before it heads to Los Angeles, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and Maastricht, the Netherlands.

“His process and everything that he does is in service of creativity,” said Littmann. “Visualization, drawing, list making, diagrams—are very much at the basis of the way that he expresses himself. I think that he wouldn’t have been able to make 1,846 new dishes in the history of gastronomy unless this whole visual world existed as the foundation.”

Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity is a paradigm shifting exhibition that changes the way we look at the conception of the intricate recipes served at elBulli by displaying Adrià’s drawings and visual creative process as art. “It will give people a different vision of creativity in the kitchen,” Adrià explained. “People don’t just imagine what’s behind all the work that we do.”

The planning process involved in creating the complex dishes that gave elBulli its reputation as one of the world’s best restaurants involved a team of around 45 people, including graphic designer Marta Méndez Blaya and industrial designer Luki Haber. At the Drawing Center, a series of vitrines displays concept sketches out of Adrià’s notebooks, the three-dimensional plasticine models that were formed in the kitchen, the innovative serving vessels designed by the elBulli team, and colorful diagrams detailing plating ideas. For the exhibition, styrofoam boards just like the ones used in the elBulli atelier show illustrated instructions on how to create each dish, along with a photograph of the finished product, and are propped up against walls comprised of large-scale photographs of the elBulli library. Also in the exhibit is a caricature of Adrià by Simpsons creator Matt Groening, as well as a Polaroid by the chef of the late British artist Richard Hamilton, an elBulli regular who connected Adrià to the art world.

Adrià will be spending plenty of time in the United States this year. On February 15, the Museum of Science in Boston will open elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food, an exhibition that focuses on the restaurant’s evolution. “They are two different exhibitions, two different ways of seeing the art of cooking,” said Adrià. And this spring Phaidon is releasing a mammoth seven-volume, 2,720-page catalogue raisonée, elBulli: 2005-2011, that details all the recipes and techniques of the restaurant from its final seven years. Just don’t try to make them at home. Adrià said that the set is meant to be more of an archive. “People wouldn’t think of making avant-garde cuisine at home,” he said, comparing them to the best in another field. “When people play basketball at home, they can’t play like Michael Jordan.”

Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity is on display at the Drawing Center through February 28.