Every time Albert Adrià opens his mouth to say something, another plate of food arrives and slams it shut.
We’ve been at a table in his Barcelona tapas restaurant Tickets for 20 minutes and he’s rattled off maybe three complete sentences.
“It seems like a lot, but really we can handle it…”
A plate of potato chips arrives, still hot from the oil, dusted in a burgundy drift of chipotle powder. “The spicy touch is very elegant,” he tells the cook who delivers them. Then he jumps up and follows him back towards the kitchen, putting his hand on his shoulder and whispering secrets about frying temperature and spice distribution into his ear. Finally, he makes his way back to the table.
“The team does everything. I just direct…”
A forest green sphere of olive juice and jalapeño interrupts him. It sits on a perforated spoon, jiggling like a Brazilian Carnival starlet. Albert slides it slowly into his mouth, his eyelids at half-mast. When they open fully again, they’re glazed with disappointment. “Good, but it should be cleaner, more assertive. I want to be in Mexico when I eat it.”
He turns back to me.
“You see, one day I woke up and realized that I wasn’t afraid anymore…”
The last plate looks like a mistake: a small, sad lump of pale flesh bathed in black. Baby squid stuffed with braised veal’s head and sauced with its own ink. He takes a cautious bite, then immediately shovels the rest into his mouth. He closes his eyes, lowers his head and lifts up both of his arms, pinching together his fingers and rolling his wrists like a symphony conductor. He jumps out of his chair and high fives the chef.
“Fuck. Brutal. You nailed it. Make sure you save that for my brother. Yes, please, save that for my brother! He’s coming in tomorrow!”
He sits back down, picks a piece of veal head from his teeth, wipes a squirt of squid ink from his lip, and looks up.
“Where was I? Ah, yes… it’s the metamorphosis concluded.”
If you know anything about Albert Adrià, you know that he is the younger brother of Ferran Adrià. You know this because Ferran is the world’s most famous chef, and because every time Albert has ever been mentioned anywhere, it is always always with these four words dangling around his neck like a leash: el hermano de Ferran.
Don’t believe me? Seven of the first ten results for an Albert Adrià Google search refer to the 43-year-old chef this way.
But talk to chefs and restaurant people around the world and they know Albert not just as the little brother of the most important chef of the past 20 years, but as the brain behind Ferran’s empire, the wizard who helped establish the terms of avant-garde cuisine, and the man as responsible as any other for turning El Bulli into the most influential restaurant of the modern cooking era. Start asking around about Albert and chefs will stand in line to tell you about his brilliance. And the first in line will be Ferran himself.
“He is without a doubt the most complete cook working in the world today.”
When I tell Jose Andrés, who parlayed his El Bulli experience into a 10-restaurant Spanish domain in the States, about Ferran’s opinion of his younger brother, Andrés objects. “Ferran stole that from me. I’ve been saying that for years. Ferran may be an incredible chef, but there is no better cook in the world than Albert.”
The reason Albert is unknown to most people (including pretty much everyone in Spain, where grandmas stop Ferran on the street but Albert remains nearly anonymous) is partly due to human tendency to heap all praise on one recognizable face rather than give credit to a more opaque team of cooks and collaborators. “Understanding and explaining El Bulli was complicated enough, let alone having to explain not one genius but two,” the great Catalan food critic Pau Arenós once said. Thus, Ferran famously graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 2003; thus Ferran was labeled “the greatest chef on the planet” by Joel Robuchon, a man who himself had carried the label of “greatest chef of the century” for years; thus Albert was pegged with an entirely different endorsement, “the greatest unknown cook in the world.”
But the other, possibly more powerful deterrent in Albert’s public ascendance is Albert himself, who, deep down is a shy, introverted soul. A few years ago, I spent weeks with Albert in the run up to the opening of Tickets, documenting the progress as part of what would have been a splashy profile on him in the Wall Street Journal Magazine. The idea was something along the lines of “the man behind the man finally gets his due”—a clean and uncomplicated pronouncement of his life beyond El Bulli. Only, a few days before opening, Albert disappeared entirely. Stopped returning phone calls, stopped answering emails. When he surfaced months later, after the restaurant had opened and the story had been shelved, he acted as if nothing had happened. He never mentioned the article.
In 2009, when it was known among the inner sanctum that El Bulli was going to close, Albert left the restaurant and began plotting the next stage of his culinary career. He had opened Inopia, a bustling tapas bar, in Barcelona in 2006, but he left the restaurant three years later and began looking for another place to call home. This time around, he wanted something more permanent. Things happened fast: Tickets, an 80-seat modern tapas restaurant, opened in late 2010, followed shortly thereafter by 41 Degrees, a cocktail bar serving a mixture of classic and highfalutin concoctions, along with a sampling of some of the most famous snacks from El Bulli.
That would be more than enough to keep a man busy and the world well fed in a post-Bulli world, but Albert was still hungry. First, he decided to turn 41 Degrees from a cocktail den into a high-concept tasting extravaganza, with one 16-person, 45-course four-hour feast per night. Then he cooked up the idea for Pakta, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant with Michelin aspirations and transcontinental tasting menus. Still in the wings are two new projects, the more modest a small spot across the street from Tickets celebrating Catalan vermouth culture, the more ambitious a three-story Mexican restaurant divided into a taqueria, a mezcal bar and an ambitious, tapas-style restaurant serving hyper-stylized regional fare to a few hundred people a night.
“I’m not trying to create an empire or fulfill some kind of egocentric needs. Nothing like that,” he tells me when I float the idea that maybe all this sudden movement might be a perfectly understandable, albeit over-the-top, reaction to spending 25 years in Ferran’s shadow. No, he says, he just sees some holes in the market and he wants to fill them. “If I open five restaurants, it’s because I receive 40 offers.”
Aggressive empire expansion isn’t a new phenomenon in the modern restaurant world. Alain Ducasse owns 25 restaurants across the globe, Joel Robuchon holds 25 Michelin stars across six countries and three continents, and at the current rate of Italian impresario Mario Batali’s expansion, it’s only a matter of time before he opens a mozzarella bar in Pyongyang with Dennis Rodman. What makes Albert different is that this isn’t a brand expansion that spans across continents; he hasn’t deployed an A-team of Spanish chefs to plant the Adrià flag around the world. No, Albert has decided to carve out his kingdom in a few-block radius in Barcelona’s Parallel theater district.
There are other factors that make Albert’s emerging empire unique, as well. The scope of the food being served falls well beyond the Spanish food he built his name on. He is now putting his stamp on high-end Mexican food, on kaiseki-style Japanese cuisine, on spice-charged Peruvian food. These are new and strange waters, even for a guy of his outsize talent. To top it off, he’s making this push in one of the worst economies in Europe, if not the entire developed world. Unemployment in Spain stands at an all-time high of 25 percent (a staggering 40 percent for youth) and GDP is shrinking now at its fastest pace since the recession began. Walk the streets of Barcelona at 2:30 and 9:00 pm, the peak eating hours of the day, and you will find a city full of empty restaurants.
So what does Albert do? He converts a cocktail bar into one of the most ambitious restaurants in Europe, opens up three or four more multi-concept establishments at a head-spinning clip, imports a team of Mexican and Peruvian and Japanese chefs to help him fuse his brand of Spanish modernism with global flavors, and he does it all during the worst economic crisis Spain has seen since the Civil War.
Not a gamble? Not aggressive? Not a “look at me now” moment?
No, he says, as if these ideas never crossed his mind. To Albert, this is a story of a man doing what comes most natural to him: creating food in a way that nobody else ever has.
I remember the first time I experienced the genius of Albert. I was in Arlington, Virginia, staying with a close friend who had spent years in the kitchen working beside him at El Bulli. Before he went to work, he left me a book called Natura, along with a note. “Albert’s a madman. Enjoy.” It took me two hours to get through a bowl of cereal, another 90 minutes to get off the toilet. Later, I brought it to the pool with me, then to a coffee shop and generally spent the day in a state of slack-jawed disbelief. I had never seen anything like it before: translucent flower petals fashioned from crystallized raspberry; a chocolate moon landing with a perfect footprint impressed into the edible lunar surface; jagged candy trees, soils and sands, a hummingbird of elderflower and sesame—the natural world funneled through a feverish LSD dream and turned edible on the other end.
Natura was basically a dynamite stick crammed into a creme brulee, exploding the pastry world into a million little pieces. Desserts didn’t just take new shapes—sponge cakes made in the microwave, liquids fashioned from solids, solids morphed into liquids—but the entire idea of dessert as a uniformly sweet experience suddenly seemed open to interpretation. Talk to any chef about Natura today and they’re likely to close their eyes, bow their heads, and whisper warm, unintelligible things.
What people don’t remember is that Albert arrived to El Bulli just one year after Ferran, a fresh-faced 15 year old with exactly two months’ worth of experience in a Barcelona kitchen. He spent a few years working the seafood station, but because of an allergy to shellfish (a cruel fate for a man who loves seafood above all, but which is mild enough that he still eats whatever he wants), he eventually moved over to pastry, where he set about slowly redefining the idea of dessert.
Those early years, before the entire world was watching their every move, were heady times for the Adrià brothers and young cooks like José Andrés. “Guys who know how to have a good time are always better creators,” says Andrés, “and Albert knows how to have a good time. We would party like there was no tomorrow. Then we’d come back to the kitchen at four in the morning and experiment with things like fried chicken, how to make the skin extra extra crispy. Even in those moments he was figuring things out.”
The radical stuff didn’t come immediately. They still needed to learn the rules before they could break them.
“We had a traditional French-style dessert cart, and it was the best cart in the world at the time, and Albert was behind every one of those desserts,” says Andrés. “I remember a strawberry and kiwi coulis and I’d watch him get it ready—a puree of strawberry, a touch of sugar, a bit of lemon—with a love and a patience I had never seen. One day I asked him, ‘Isn’t this too simple?’ And he said, ‘It’s the simple things that require the most skill.’”
The mathematical precision he brought to the pastry world changed the way the entire kitchen operated as the line between the sweet and savory worlds at El Bulli slowly dissolved. Eventually Albert moved on to be creative director of the restaurant, in charge of El Bulli’s formidable research and development program. Along with longtime El Bulli chef Oriol Castro, he ran El Taller, the Barcelona creative workshop where the most innovative El Bulli techniques—spherification, hot gelatins—came from. And with every new discovery, the legend of the restaurant, and the importance of Albert, grew.
“Without Albert, El Bulli as we know it now would never have existed,” Ferran told me recently by email.
It wasn’t all hot gelatins and dessert carts, of course. There were fights with his brother, moments of personal doubt, that year he left the most important kitchen in the world to sell mussels to other restaurants. He burnt out a few times, wanted to get back to his family in Barcelona, tried to walk away from haute cuisine entirely, but he always came back.
“Albert is a creative beast,” says Andrés. “A beast is always a beast. A beast can never be domesticated.”
When Albert announced the conversion of 41 Degrees from a bar into a full-service restaurant at a culinary conference in Mexico City, he did so with an 8-minute video of some of the lustiest food porn you’ll ever witness. Set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a camera follows young, good-looking couples as they nibble and poke, sniff and suck their way through an astounding amount of food in dark corners of the restaurant. Nearly every bite registers that combination of emotions that has defined the food of the Adrià brothers since the early days of El Bulli: confusion, followed almost immediately by delight.
It’s that first part, that moment of hesitation, that sensation of doubt—that is what makes the Adrià brothers different than other chefs. That’s what makes them important. That’s what makes them famous. If the camera were to hang around for just a split second longer, it would capture the last of the series of emotions evoked by the Adrià experience: a laugh or a clap or a quick shake of the head, as if to say “I get it!” Or, “I don’t quite get it, but I know you’re fucking with me… and I like it.”
I know you’re fucking with me… and I like it.
Much of the Adrià brothers’ genius has been in subverting expectations. Lots of words have been used to describe their style of cooking: deconstructionism, reconstructionism, avant-garde, hypermodern, culinary Cubism, and, yes, the universally loathed molecular gastronomy. As grown-up as all of this sounds, at the core of their creations is a child-like joy in taking food that looks like one thing and making it taste like something else entirely.
That sleight-of-hand is at the core of the nearly four dozen courses served at 41 Degrees. During the night’s journey, you will eat tree branches made out of marshmallows, caviar made from hazelnuts, walnuts made from white chocolate, pearls fashioned from black sesame, beans made out of a puree of beans, noodles out of sea cucumbers, octopus made from purple corn, and, most famously, wobbly olive spheres made from pureed olives and olive oil. By the time the bill comes, you’re surprised to find out that it’s not printed on white asparagus.
Of course, this is what also makes this style of food controversial. Some people want their walnuts to taste like walnuts, their caviar to taste like fish eggs, their beans to be real beans and not made from concentrated bean essence encased in a thin membrane of bean juice solidified in a bath of sodium alginate. Indeed, there were moments in an El Bulli marathon where the only response you could muster was, “Why?” And cheap imitations around the world—often from young chefs who haven’t learned how to properly braise a piece of meat but nevertheless feel compelled to break out the hydrocolloid kits—have somewhat diluted the Adrià brand of blowing minds. But at its best, there is no food more provocative and generous and challenging—and even the disagreements and criticisms and doubts that ring out from many corners of the culinary world prove what Albert and Ferran have, deep down, always wanted people to believe: that eating with them is as much an art experience as it is a food experience. (To wit: When 41 Degrees changed from bar to restaurant, the name changed, too. Now, officially, it is called 41 Degrees Experience.)
There are no knives and forks at 41 Degrees. No plates either, really. Most dishes—none more than a few bites big—arrive perched on rocks, resting on leaves, suspended from trees. The first 15 or so are snacks, and they come out firing: a cloud of caramelized raspberry meringue dusted with wasabi, crispy seaweed dotted with puffed quinoa, the famous air baguette, a crisp shell of bread sheathed in jamón iberico that has been aged for five years, an impossibly long cure that turns the protein into a sheen of umami and the fat into some type of sacred lipstick.
Owing to the space’s first life as a cocktail bar, and to the long tradition of snacks-and-cocktails as an opening salvo at El Bulli, high-concept libations pepper the meal like exclamation points: shochu with yuzu and wisps of shiso smoke, a pisco sour made with celery and apple, a semi-solid margarita shot with a single shard of sea salt that slides off an avocado leaf and into your mouth. Wine would be a tough match for most of these dishes, but cocktails like this can stand up to the force of this food.
The second part of the meal is called Journeys, and as the name implies, dinner soon unfolds as a series of passport stamps. The Adrià brothers were among the first to tap into the pantries of the world—incorporating flavors of the Far East, Mexico and Peru into El Bulli menus years before the rest of the world followed suit—but this represents a more measured, deliberate attempt to tackle the world’s grand cuisines. While in Russia, you’ll eat smoked eggplant bathed in pearls of fish and hazelnut caviar (false caviar, made the same way the olives are, is an Albert obsession). In Japan, lobes of sea urchin meet cubes of roasted sweet potato, the brine and the sweetness set of by little depth charges of mandarin gelatin. A trip to the streets of Saigon delivers the best bahn mi you will ever eat, a two-bite sandwich made with bread fried to a puffy crisp in olive oil, then stuffed with tender chunks of suckling pig rubbed with lemongrass and fish sauce. The Nordic plate may be an homage to Noma, but considering the quality of the two bites—carrots covered in a candied beet shell covered in crème fraiche, a rye crisp paved with raw Kobe beef and dotted with pickled onions and smoked cheese—it could easily be construed as a challenge to the Danish throne.
In lesser hands, all of this would feel like a parlor trick, a dash to the food court or a stroll through the concession stands of Epcot Center, but with Adrià and his able-bodied crew, every far-flung bite feels well earned. Baked into the meal are interviewing narratives about the origins of food, about time and place, about the mutability of it all in this modern age. Combined with the smoking cocktails, the glittering art installation, the carefully chosen music, the little moments beyond the bites themselves that push and pull on your emotions, you come to realize that 41 Degrees isn’t dinner; it’s theater.