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Ferran Adria: Cooking as a Platform for Technological Innovation

The near mythical Catalan restaurateur has not dispensed with his cooking utensils or put away his chef’s toque, but now he is concentrating on developing a theory of creative genius. Three years after closing El Bulli, Ferran Adrià continues to lecture on culinary innovation in particular and technology in general. Panorama of the Americas spoke with him in connection with the exhibit “Innovation Space: Auditing the Creative Process,” which toured the Americas in late 2014 and will return in mid-2015.

By: Juan Abelardo Carles Rosas
Photos: Cristian Camilo Pinzón

The old adage tells us that success is 99% perspiration, but the remaining 1% inspiration is essential in reaching a goal. Given this, how do we ensure that those countless hours of brainwork, sweat, and tears are crowned with glory? In an age in which research and development play an ever more important role in success, a blueprint for turning a novel idea into its practical application —i.e., introducing an innovation— seems to be the holy grail of both individuals and groups in any area of human endeavor. Is it possible to travel the road between the glimmer of inspiration and a practical application methodically and systematically rather than by relying on luck and “feeling”? These are questions that iconic Catalan restaurateur Ferran Adrià has been trying to answer since 2011, when he closed El Bulli, a venue that served strangers and friends as a restaurant, a school of philosophy, and a laboratory.

It would be naive to imagine that closing the restaurant marked the end of Adrià’s search. The flamboyant chef did not head for a Cote d’Azur beach to fritter away the earnings of his fame and genius on a cushy retirement; instead, he set up the El Bulli Foundation, an initiative designed to research the “formula for creativity.”

My first question as we sit down to the interview is: “Had you already closed El Bulli when you started seeking these answers?” We are on the terrace of Casa del Soldado, with the roofs of Panama City’s Old Quarter in the foreground and the skyscrapers of the modern incarnation of the city in the background. Ferran turned up in this canal city in connection with the traveling exhibit “Innovation Space: Auditing the Creative Process,” as it made its way through several Latin American countries under the aegis of the Spanish telecommunications firm Telefónica, his foundation’s technology partner.

“No, it was while I was working at El Bulli. The thing is that in the beginning I didn’t realize what was being created, but in the end I became aware that we were building a world. In 2011, I already had an inkling of how our creative process worked, so we had a basis for developing a theory. We have changed a great deal: everything was intuitive until 2011; now we have research results and a plan outlining the time and resources involved in a creative process.”

Much of this work has been carried out in the El Bulli Lab, the headquarters of the El Bulli Foundation, a Barcelona site that helps create content for Bullipedia, a compendium of culinary knowledge that focuses on creativity. It is no accident that the venue’s slogan is “the food of knowledge nourishes creativity.”

Adrià’s words tumble over themselves in rapid-fire speech: his tongue seems to have trouble keeping up with the ideas that rush into his mind. This celerity might make him look muddled, but the impression could not be more mistaken: only a person obsessed with order and method could have captured an ethereal human characteristic like creativity in charts and diagrams. El Bulli was the birthplace of a series of standardized conceptual symbols that allowed the entire staff to understand novel ways of creating dishes. The exhibit includes these pictograms, as well as an evolutionary analysis of the dishes created at El Bulli, the creative process, and the concept of deconstruction used by the restaurateur to rethink classic cooking methods. The exhibition offers a look at audits of creativity in the strictest sense. Like much of what Adrià does, the idea strikes me as beyond its time.

How do you audit creativity in order to turn it into innovation? 

“Everything can be audited. Right now, I could audit this interview as a creative process. What we assess is the context in which creativity emerges: the resources of individuals engaged in creative activity and their personalities.”

But let’s not get carried away: structuring a way of reviewing creativity doesn’t mean that it magically appears. “What we cannot audit is talent; you cannot separate it from whatever it is that generates ideas. How many ideas do you get per year? Two? Next year, it would be better to pack up and go home.” This is where creativity intersects with competitiveness. “Many people think of creativity only in relation to art, but that’s not accurate. Creativity went into building this place [the bar where we are chatting]. So creativity is not just the province of the Picassos of the world. Since companies everywhere must continually innovate, they need creative people. This Telefónica exhibit is focused on that: creativity from an entrepreneurial point of view.”

The crux of the matter is that a creative person is not necessarily innovative, speaking from the entrepreneurial perspective. “If artists don’t feel inspired, they simply don’t do any work, but a company cannot function like that. What happens is that someone says: ‘I have a great idea,’ but it is not an innovation until it is implemented. In our case, auditing the creative process helped us to not rest on our laurels, but rather to set goals, to push ourselves. We generated a strategy to keep us from falling into a rut. Ruts and repetitiveness are fatal for a business. You need to do these kinds of things to keep the fires burning. On the other hand, you can be innovative without being creative: you may be using another person’s idea, but you have the vision of how and when to implement it.”

Discussions of innovation take on particular relevance in Latin America, where it is common belief that a lack of creativity keeps the region a step behind other latitudes in terms of economic and social progress. “Innovation changes the world. The United States is what it is thanks to its innovations, not because it has tanks and missiles. Innovation changes the world and they have it, they embrace it, they buy it, they pay for it. Latin America is also very innovative, but we have to put it into context: this is a developing region with continuous growth. You need to be very patient. “I have been traveling with Telefónica for four years, and I have seen consistent growth in Latin America year after year. This is a generally accepted viewpoint, not just my own opinion. Each country is different and has its own characteristics: there is no ‘one size fits all’.”

What does this traveling exhibit, “Innovation Space,” contribute to the need for innovation? 

“We organized this exhibit in order to start a dialogue with people and make it easy for them to learn how we developed the creative process at El Bulli. Non-professionals can understand it without too much trouble. The demonstration is entertaining. If I start babbling about deconstruction-reconstruction, people don’t understand. If they see a photo —‘Oh, look at that!’— this expository language reaches people, enabling them to understand quite complex concepts.”

The exhibit ended its trek through the Americas and is once again in Spain, as is Adrià, who continues to work on other El Bulli Foundation initiatives from the El Bulli Lab in Barcelona. The complex is expected to house more than 86,000 square feet of creative spaces and workshops for exhibits, talks, and experimentation with ideas. Adrià has designated Cala Montjoi, the site of the original restaurant, for another of his ventures: El Bulli 1846, designed for creative cuisine workshops. In mid-2015, “Innovation Space” will leave the Telefónica Foundation’s headquarters in Madrid to begin a new swing through the Americas. The original exhibit that toured the Americas in late 2014 will likely see some changes that will showcase new aspects added to the culinary-technological tradition by Ferran Adrià and his team. After all, as he himself says: ‘”This is a work in progress.”

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