When you eat a meal like the one served at 41 Degrees, when you tally up all the dishes and run through all the components, when you count all the ingredients and calculate the type of technical mastery and scientific precision that went into it all, you imagine that beyond those swinging doors lies a sprawling kitchen laboratory where beakers and Bunsen burners chase perfection down like an asymptote.
When I visit the kitchen a few days later, the reality is considerably more, well, romantic. It’s 7:45 pm, not long after the first round of snacks and cocktails have gone out to the evening’s guests, and the cooks are gathered around a makeshift charcoal grill. Everyone seems genuinely pleased with the set up, which along with the 4-burner stovetop, the tiny flattop and the small convection burner in the back, leaves them with fewer heat sources than you’d find in the average tapas bar on Las Ramblas. In total, the kitchen is approximately the size and shape of a moderately wealthy woman’s closest.
One of the cooks breaks up the party as he wedges his way in to knife a few sweet potatoes buried in the coals—the same way one might do around a campfire in the woods. “I think they’re almost ready.”
In the corner, a skinny chef with his name scrawled on his whites pays no attention to the line cooks. Sebastián Mazzola is up to his own MacGyver tactics. He takes what looks like an oversize vaporizer, pours eucalyptus oil into the base, switches on the motor, and brings down the tube to cover a tray of micro sprouts. He fiddles and fusses with the delivery system, trying to find ways to concentrate the smoke buildup, and 20 minutes later, he’s laying the cold-smoked sprouts over an oil-poached Jerusalem artichoke painted black with a puree of truffle and huitlacoche, a Mexican corn fungus. He’s been working on this dish every afternoon this week. He takes a bite and rolls it around in his mouth like a good wine. “We’re getting closer.”
As much as the dining public wants to believe that the chef with his or her name on the door seared their pork loin and came up with that genius tweak on their tiramisu, there is always a team behind the chef, and when the team is as big as Albert’s, there is always a chef behind the team—the hand that guides, the mouth that tastes, the eye that watches. Sebastian, 29, Argentine, creative director of the Adrià organization, is that chef.
“Sebastián has the same importance for me as I had for my brother. Ferran was once Guardiola and I was Messi,” says Albert, reverting to the age-old Catalan tradition of using the FC Barcelona soccer team as metaphor for everything in life. “Now he is my Messi. Everything goes through him.”
He is my Messi. Everything goes through him.
Sebastián’s path to the top of the food chain doesn’t look like most young chefs’: he didn’t spend years at an upscale culinary school, he didn’t systematically work his way through the Michelin temples of Europe. At 14, he manned the grill at his grandma’s restaurant in Buenos Aires. He cooked road kill for truckers in Patagonia. He was the drummer and cook for a roving band, a gypsy circus that scraped their way through Peru and Bolivia on loose change and rotting produce. He took on more formal gigs, too: roasting prime rib for Americans at a private club in Florida, pureeing borscht for Poles in Buenos Aires, stuffing pasta for wealthy Mexicans in Playa del Carmen. Finally, in 2007, he washed up on the shores of Cala Monjoi, home of El Bulli, and eventually fell into Albert’s sphere. After bouncing around Barcelona in the post-Bulli days, he ended up at Tickets.
“He had never worked here and now he’s the boss,” says Albert. “It’s animal law. The macho lion comes with all his hair and the rest shut up because he’s shown he’s the macho and he deserves respect. That’s Sebas.”
People talk about Sebastián now the way people used to talk about Albert—hell, the way some people still talk about Albert. “He’s probably the greatest cook I’ve ever known,” says Kaya Jacobs, former sous chef at 41 Degrees, who now runs his own restaurant in Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. “Albert saw that right away and said ‘okay, you’re no longer working for the restaurant, you’re working for me.’ In 5 years, he’ll be famous.”
You see a lot of Albert in Sebastián: he’s animated and insatiable, with a wild streak and an enormous intellect. Above all, he’s a hyper-talented amorphous cook, as comfortable working pastry as grilling caveman steaks as cold-smoking sprouts with a vaporizer. To create a universe as complex and far-reaching as that which Albert intends to build, you need a Sebastián Mazzola.
Back in the kitchen at 41 Degrees, the Journeys part of dinner is underway. Russia goes out the door; Japan is on deck. Juan Carlos Iglesias, one of three Iglesias brothers who are partners with Adrià in all of his new ventures, pops his head in to salute the team. He sees Sebastián working on his latest dish and beams like a proud padre.
“These guys have created and cataloged over 300 recipes in one year in this space. In this fucking space! All of the best kitchens in Spain combined haven’t created that many. These guys are wild animals.”
It sounds a bit like the bravado of a man with a nest egg invested in the restaurant, but when he pulls me aside periodically throughout the night to reiterate his belief in this enterprise, his body literally shaking with conviction, it’s hard not to take him seriously.
Shortly after, Albert walks in. Without saying a word, he settles beside one of the young line cooks and sticks out his hand. The cook grabs a squeeze bottle and deposits a dollop of sauce right at the base of Albert’s thumb. He grabs another bottle and does the same. Albert, tasting both, seems satisfied and eventually moves on. The whole room relaxes a bit, save for Sebastian, who barely noticed his boss standing over his shoulder as he peeled Jerusalem artichokes.
Later, when I talk with Sebastian, he is careful about how he describes their ambitions. “Yes, we’ve created a ton of dishes and this team can do just about anything, but this isn’t El Bulli. We’re not trying to invent new techniques, not yet at least. We just don’t have the space for it.”
Of course, Albert’s working on that, too. He plans to move the entire 41 Degrees operation down the road to a larger space, where they can feed more people and have kitchen space dedicated solely for R&D. There they could incubate ideas and push cooking in a new direction, but for now, until a new lease is worked out, it’s a mixture of careful conception and surgical precision, not boundless innovation, that defines dinner at the restaurant.
For the diners, that may not be such a bad thing. What they are experiencing right now is the best of the El Bulli techniques combined with the best of Albert and Sebastian’s imaginations. Technical maneuvers, like the olive spheres or a new method they use to dehydrate soy sauce into edible sheets, intensify rather than obfuscate flavor, and taste never labors under the weight of the next interesting technique. When I ate at El Bulli, I found I didn’t like 25 percent of the dishes (still, an admirable ratio for a restaurant that hit the type of unthinkable high notes that El Bulli did). Of 46 plates at 41 Degrees, a handful are timid or meandering or a touch too abstract, but there are precisely zero duds in the entire meal.
And yet somehow, even with Albert’s reputation, Ferran’s blessing, and the staggering talent filling up its tiny kitchen, 41 Degrees has gotten relatively little love from the international press. During its last year in operation, El Bulli received nearly 8 million reservation requests for just 10,000 seats. As I type this, you can still book a table at 41˚ next week.
Maybe this is just an anomaly, a rare case of word traveling slowly as 41 Degrees settles into its role as a restaurant with huge aspirations. Or maybe there’s another explanation: Has the withered economy threatened the 200 Euro dinner? Has the post-Bulli public soured on the dinner table pyrotechnics? Do people just want their food to be food and that’s it? What’s clear is that these are high stakes here in Barcelona, not just for Albert, but for an entire generation of chefs wondering just how far they can bend the dining experience until it breaks.
To walk through Tickets, the tapas emporium that serves as the nerve center of the Adrià enterprise, is to step into the mind of Albert. The space is divided into distinct environments: a raw section with a smooth ivory bar and broken tile floors, a modern tapas bar with a screen showing footage of some of El Bulli’s most famous techniques, a dessert area made to look like a carnival, complete with a red and white circus tent and cotton candy trees. A stock ticker announces the restaurant like a summer premiere, and everywhere you turn, golden Chinese money cats paw at the air menacingly. The restaurant is loud and bright and utterly confounding in that it somehow achieves the feeling of being both meticulously curated and totally unharnessed at the same time.
Albert doesn’t have an office, so when he has work to do, he takes a corner table at the restaurant, fills it with books and folders and loose scraps of paper, and opens up his laptop.
This afternoon he’s tackling the business of the forthcoming Tickets book, which demands a good amount of writing from its fearless leader.
“Are you serious? You mean to tell me there’s really no information about razor clams on Wikipedia?”
Across the various corners of the restaurant you’ll find the capos in his crew working through their own individual problems. Kioko Li, the Japanese chef at Pakta, is in the kitchen, playing around with different nigiri preparations. Jorge Muñoz, the Peruvian part of the two-headed Pakta dragon, is over by the modern tapas bar, talking to suppliers about pisco. Paco Mendez, the chef from Mexico in charge of getting Yaguarcan open by this summer, is grooming the menu, trying to find a way to fit the entire eating experience of Mexico into a three-story restaurant on a small side street in Barcelona.
To watch how a dish is created in this system, you need only pull up a seat at the bar in Tickets in the middle of the day and wait. Usually, it starts like a vibration in the corner of the room, as Albert, planted at his table, begins to shuffle papers. Eventually his voice grows as he calls out the seedling of an idea. If he’s really excited, he’ll jump up and go directly to the person, often walking all the way across Tickets and down the little corridor connecting the restaurant to 41 Degrees to find Sebastián.
This first stage is the genesis: Albert likes to say that he’s a better creator than a cook, but his brand of creativity requires interpreters, people like Sebastián who are uniquely skilled at metabolizing the vagaries of an idea and turning them into meat and bones. Later comes the editing, the constant tasting and refining that sharpens the edges of a blurry idea until they can break skin. In this way, he keeps his hand in every pot, makes sure that every piece of food—whether a pork taco, a foie gras nigiri, or a ten-component modernist masterpiece—tastes like what the world has come to expect of an Adrià.
Spring is coming and today Albert has peas on his mind; he finds Sebastián and gives him the basic sketch. “I’m thinking Maresme peas with wasabi and some touch of rose.”
Sebastián looks skeptical, but he knows all too well that Albert’s strangest ideas can often be his best. So he goes to work, first making a pea stock with the pea pods, but he wanted more flavor and color, so he eventually combines the stock with pea juice: perfect. The wasabi pairs nicely with the sweetness of the peas, but it’s missing texture; Sebastián and one of the 41 Degree cooks talk and he comes up with this: raw lychee fruit, cut in strips to look like pieces of squid (of course!). As for the rose? That comes last, the petals turned into an aire, a featherweight foam used to crown the dish at the last second.
The process takes days of testing and refining to complete, but at the end, they have a new dish to run in the early spring at 41 Degrees. “None of it really makes sense conceptually, but it came out incredible.”
“I have a huge mental palate that I draw from. I can visualize how something will taste before it’s been cooked,” says Albert. “But I don’t cook now. I say how it should be done and I taste. It’s better the rest of them cook, in the kitchen with my hand, like Remy from Ratatouille.”
In this way, they’ve created more than 500 dishes between Tickets, 41 Degrees and Pakta over the past year. 41 Degrees dishes are the most labor-intensive (there are 17 employees for just 16 nightly diners, after all), but Pakta, being the newest restaurant in the mix, requires the bulk of time and attention, with most of Albert’s top team members dedicated to bringing the Japanese-Peruvian experiment to life.
At just over two years old, Tickets is the big brother of the group, a mature and confident restaurant that knows exactly what it is. It wasn’t always this way; my first few meals at Tickets a few years back were awkward and underwhelming. Like the setting itself, it tried too hard to be all things to all people.
Albert always said he wanted to find the middle ground between a traditional tapas bar and El Bulli, and judging by two recent dinners, he finally occupies that zip code. In terms of pure flavor, few restaurants can touch this type of cooking: sheets of marbled tuna painted with melted jamón fat that rival the greatest sushi creations of Tokyo, a tomato tartar somehow more meaty than versions made with beef, a piece of fish fried so beautifully that it literally made me well up.
You get the feeling that no matter what happens in the years ahead, that Tickets will be home for Albert, the place where he feels most comfortable, the doppelganger for his many mysterious facets. The restaurant remains the toughest reservation in Spain, overflowing with a funky mix of foreigners and locals living la vida tapa. Behind the trees of cotton candy, the smoke of liquid nitrogen, the ringing bells of a rolling ice cream cart and the din of plates being scraped clean by a room full of happy diners, there’s Albert, a Willy Wonka for overgrown kids.
Even before El Bulli officially closed, the international press began the predictable search for its successor, the chef and the restaurant that would lead the culinary world through dark times and into a new age of deliciousness. Many looked to the north, where Mugaritz chieftain Andoni Aduriz mixes Spanish modernist technique with a certain type of Nordic naturalism to create an idiosyncratic brand of avant-garde cooking. Or to the south, to the coastal down of Denia, home to Quique Dacosta, a big-thinking chef with an alchemical touch with seafood and vegetables and rice. Or to El Bulli’s neighbor, El Celler de Can Roca, currently second behind only Noma on San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World list, where the three Roca brothers conspire to create a dining experience that is at turns shocking, refined, classic, and deeply moving.
But few mentioned the most obvious heir to the throne, the guy who helped build the kingdom in the first place. As of today, Albert possesses no Michelin stars, has no restaurant on any of the big lists of global favorites. But he says he’s not worried. “My restaurants are full and my diners are happy. Besides, these days, a comment on Trip Advisor or a blog or the rumblings of the press matter more to a restaurant than Michelin.”
It’s hard to imagine, though, that deep down, it’s not about more than just making people happy. After all, people are plenty happy at Tickets. So why 41 Degrees? And why Pakta? And why everything else so fast?
“Because one day I’ll wake up and I’ll no longer want to do anything.” Reasonable enough, but it’s one of three or four different answers he gives to the same question, as if he’s probing the surface for a soft spot.
After all, this is a man who began to change the culinary world before he could legally drive. This is a man who cracked more kitchen codes than any cook that came before him. This is the man who turned solids into air, liquids into caviar, sesame into humming birds. This is a man who spent 25 years working beside his brother, a cook who casts a shadow so large that even to this day, the restaurants that Albert has worked disgustingly hard to create from scratch are still referred to as “Ferran Adrià’s new restaurant” in headlines around the world.
So I try a different question, and I ask it to both Ferran and Albert on separate occasions: Is it hard being the brother of Ferran Adrià?
Both answers come so fast and forcefully they feel like an echo.
Ferran is no longer in the kitchen with Albert. Though he is technically a partner on all of these new ventures, he’s no longer driving the machine. “At El Bulli, I was the ying and Albert was the yang. Now, I am the yang and Albert is the ying ying ying.” Ferran’s yang services mostly amount to brotherly council and professional feedback on the food. He may not put in work in the kitchen, but he spends plenty of time in Albert’s dining rooms.
When I finally make it to Pakta, it’s well past midnight and there is only one table left lingering over drinks and desserts. This the last night of trials, where Albert and his team run through the new menu for a group of close friends, families and local dining royalty.
Ferran has been in every night the past two weeks, and he’s offered plenty of feedback. The Spanish press has been in, too, along with a handful of big names here and there. Tonight’s last guests certainly qualify: Joan Laporta, the former president of FC Barça, Xavier Sala i Martín, a famous Catalan economist, and, at the head of the six-top, Pep Guardiola, former coach of FC Barça and patron saint of Catalan soccer lovers everywhere. (In the many mixed metaphors of Albert’s life, his brother was once Guardiola and now he is, so what does that make the real Pep?)
Albert bounces in and out of the conversation, putting his hand on Guardiola’s shoulder with an ease that few men anywhere can claim.
A round of pisco sours arrive with a thick egg white cap speckled with Angosturra bitters. Then a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream spotted with cocoa nibs and a glass jar of passion fruit meringues.
Sebastián sits down at the bar next to me, tired but clearly buzzing. “Service was incredible.”
Finally, Albert comes over and takes a seat. “It’s amazing what we’ve done in the past two weeks. You wouldn’t believe it.”
It’s clear that both of these men live for this moment, when they can look at the space and the menu and the team behind them and see a hundred different realities sparkling before them. It’s also clear that neither of them will be happy when the menu is fully set and the Pakta team is on cruise control. Yaguarcan will be next, then, in theory, the big 41 Degrees move, then a vermouth bar. Then, who knows.
After years of talking and planning, months of testing dishes, and a few weeks of live trials with friends, family and dignitaries, Pakta is ready to open to the public in 10 days. First, though, comes Holy Week, when all of Spain grinds to a halt.
Sebastián is headed to Sicily. He wants to eat sardines and pistachios and find a grandma who will teach him how to cook Sicilian pastas.
Albert will spend the week on the Canary Islands, the last breath before the big storm.
“My friend has a place in Tenerife. Amazing spot with a pool. I’ll have my computer and my books. Can’t wait. Time moves slow down there. It’s like every minute feels like an hour.”