Howard Chua-Eoan moves heaven and hearth to get the right tables for Ferran Adria in New York City
[Howard Chua-Eoan’s Cocktails and Carnage column runs every Thursday on Roads & Kingdoms.]
Nothing terrifies me more than a message from a particular email address in Barcelona. During the 13 years I was News Director of TIME, I received sudden alerts—over the phone or a stray remark in the corridors of TIME—that have forced me to scramble to fix an emergency or deal with a crisis. I’ve had to fly to Germany to escort a colleague badly injured in Iraq back to the U.S. for treatment. I’ve had to figure out over the phone how to free a correspondent thrown into a provincial Zimbabwean jail before Robert Mugabe’s thugs got to him from the country’s capital. I remember only equanimity in those situations. But every time I receive a message that Ferran Adria is coming to visit New York, I panic.
I love Ferran. I consider him and his wife Isabel dear, dear friends. I loved elBulli and dined there six times (ok, you can hate me). He is immensely generous to me and my friends every time I visit him and Isabel in Spain. So what do you do for the man who almost single-handedly and single-mindedly transformed contemporary cuisine? Where do you take Ferran Adria to eat when he comes to visit?
The kind of praise that would make emperors faint, utterly damned
I’ve had dinner with the Adrias eight times now in New York and once in Boston and, thank God, I have not had to organize each one. But six is still a sizable number—and so was each attendant rise in my norepinephrine levels. He is invariably polite and does not display his displeasure—but he doesn’t hide it very well either. Once, as I stood beside Ferran at a crowded restaurant bar downtown, he looked around, wondering at all the faux European bric-a-brac (well done, I thought) and the noisy boisterous crowd. “So this is what is popular in New York?” he asked me. “It’s a certain type of restaurant that appeals to young people in the financial and technology industries,” I said. “Up-and-comers who believe this is the kind of place and food they should spend their money on to enhance their social standing.” As we finished our dinner of bistro-style food, I glanced at him and saw that he was evincing little emotion over the meal. So I asked him what he thought. “It’s perfect,” he said, “in context.”
That is the kind of praise that would make emperors faint, utterly damned. I am happy to say that someone else chose that restaurant (though I refuse to name it for fear of never having dinner in that particular empire again).
I have been mostly successful in my quest to provide Ferran with satisfying meals. But that’s because I have received a lot of advice from friends in the restaurant business. I try to warn likely targets in the first place that I may drop by with him (knowing Ferran and his schedules, dinner is literally a moveable feast; there are no solid bets on showing up). In any case, a surprise visit by Ferran Adria would be as welcome as one by the city’s health inspector—with potentially graver consequences for the ego of the resident chef. I was advised by a mutual friend—who runs several restaurants—not to take Ferran to one of the poshest places in New York because the Spaniard really did not care for it the only time he was there. I was told to take him to Chinatown—where I am sure he would enjoy the food—but I could see my language skills fading between fighting our way into one of the Canal Street or Flushing palaces with his entourage and translating the menu from Chinese to Spanish. And then the management would scoot us out just as Ferran and his friends were ready to relax and start their extended post-prandial conversations.
And the conversations are what make all the anxiety worth it. Ferran doesn’t really have to speak to make his thoughts known. You can see his brow furrow as he factors in some new observation, measures it, pushes it through the culinary-sociological calculus he has developed over the years. Watching him formulate these thoughts should clarify the way he has created a whole new language of cuisine as a chef, but it also somehow deepens the mystery.
It is a wonder we became friends.
The situation is made more complicated—or more fascinating—by the fact that Ferran speaks in a broad, rough-hewn, gravelly voice that even Spaniards have trouble understanding. It is a wonder we became friends, because my Spanish is tolerable at best. But we were seated next to each other at the TIME100 Gala in 2005 and his wife Isabel, who usually translates for him, was at the opposite side of the round table of 10. And so I became his translator for the night and we bonded. I scored my first table at elBulli the next year, when I took chef Anita Lo of Annisa there for her 40th birthday. It was the height of elBulli’s fame as the most difficult reservation in the world—open just six months, about 40 seats a night, 2 million requests a year. The probabilities are almost Lotto-like.
In any case, after that first meal at Ferran’s restaurant, the choice of where to take him upon his next New York visit was easy: Annisa. That shifted all the anxiety to Anita, of course. My only worry was to find a good translator at the table and found one in the polyglot Nathan Thornburgh (my editor unless he deletes himself from this story Ed. Note: no favors were done to the language of Cervantes that evening; not knowing the Spanish word for ‘emulsion’ or even ‘drizzled’, I had to be bailed out by Annisa staff). Ferran was gracious, whispering to me that, after tasting Anita’s food, he was skeptical about a then-fresh list of the best restaurants in the U.S. Why, he wondered, was one restaurant listed at the top when Annisa was so much better. I shared that with Anita later. Instant stress relief for us all.
An expedition to Momofuku Ssäm Bar organized with the help of Food and Wine’s Restaurant Editor Kate Krader turned out to be a culinary success. How can anyone dislike a huge hunk of pork butt, with oysters and condiments on the side? But the table, which maxes out at 10, grew as people realized who the guest-of-honor was. Ferran added to the crowd by bringing a friend along as well. But who could say no to Jose Andrés, Ferran’s leading acolyte in the U.S.? After most of the meal had been eaten, however, the night ended almost abruptly when Ferran suddenly stood up to pay. I managed to convince Ferran I was the host, coaxed him out of footing any part of the bill and saved my own face. The night ended with smiles. He may not have simply been trying to be generous, however. I discovered later that a guest of mine had morphed into a closetalker and invaded the Adrias’ space at the already crowded table. Ferran may have just been trying to get away, disguising it with the courtesy of paying the bill.
Other episodes of feeding Ferran were less fraught. He enjoyed the smart and tasty chinoiserie of Red Farm. He avidly noshed on the roast pigs at a book party catered by April Bloomfield that I threw for TIME’s Madrid reporter Lisa Abend and her book “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices”—which is all about the stagiaires at elBulli’s kitchen and which is now about to become a movie. The last time he was in town, I took him and Isabel to Hanjan to try Hooni Kim’s take on traditional Korean cooking. He loved not only the food but also the way the restaurant was decorated. He posed with the chef for a photo. The next time I showed up at Hanjan, Hooni called me his hero. In reality, though, I’m just grateful neither of us messed up.
He asked, “Are you sure you called Nobu?”
I came closest to disaster, however, on an hour-long drive from Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns to midtown Manhattan. I had gone up for a presentation by Ferran of “Inedit,” a beer he and his sommeliers had created for Estrella Damm. It had been a long day and Ferran was tired and wanted to go back to his hotel. Still, he allowed me to hitch a ride with his gang back to the city. Less than ten minutes into the trip, however, he changed his mind. He was indeed hungry. I panicked. Where would you like to go? I asked, trying to fob off the choice. He thought a second and quickly said, “Nobu.” It was Friday—one of the worst days to get an off-the-cuff table at a still extremely fashionable restaurant. I called on my cell. No, they did not have a table, the person at the other end said scoffingly. I decided to drop the name. “I am coming with Ferran Adria.” The reply was icy: “Ferran who? I don’t know who that is.”
I informed Ferran I had called Nobu without telling him the inefficacy of invoking his name. He asked, “Are you sure you called Nobu?” I said, “I just called the restaurant.” He laughed. “You should call Nobu.” I looked startled. What? “Call Nobu. He should be in Los Angeles.” One of Ferran’s assistants had the number. I called and, after some 10 minutes of scrambling, all turned out well. The restaurant’s front was admonished in time for the staff to greet us effusively upon our arrival. The kitchen, forewarned by maybe 20 minutes, prepared a wonderful meal for us and trooped out afterward to shake hands with Ferran, bringing with them copies of his books to autograph. People at adjoining tables asked him to pose for pictures with them too. Such is the power of Ferran Adria. And it is an adventure every time he comes to New York.