Geeta Bansal Interviews Albert Adria, Pastry Genius

In the latest installment of Clay Oven chef-owner Geeta Bansal's interviews with master European chefs, she sits down with Albert Adrià, the younger brother of Ferran of El Bullí fame and the man behind the legendary restaurant's magnificent desserts.Enjoy!

La Vida Tapa!
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef at Clay Oven Irvine

Albert Adria is a visionary, an artist, an alchemist. He is a young cuisiniar who looks at the world with eyes full of wonder, an accomplished chef with the heart of a child. I first got to know Albert when my husband Praveen and I used to hang out at his bar Inopia every night that we were in Barcelona, Spain.

Quiet and unassuming, he ensured that every guest was well taken care of and enjoying every bite coming their way. Inopia was a small neighborhood tapas bar that was a far cry from El Bulli, his brother Ferran Adria's restaurant near Girona, north of Barcelona. I remember the first time we visited there, unaware of the fact that such spectacular food existed and that it was possible to present and serve food that way. Albert was the man behind the multiple deserts served at El Bulli, that when presented to us, we didn't know if they were meant to be eaten or just looked at and photographed.

Albert gets excited when he talks about food. His eyes brighten up and the hand gestures get more spirited. I applaud the fact that despite being one of the most well known people in the culinary world, he has not taken on the persona of a celebrity chef.

A few months ago we were excited to visit Ticketsbar, his new venture in Barcelona with his hermano Ferran, and within hours of landing at the airport we were seated at the main serving bar (my seat of choice, as I had always done at Inopia), where Albert was at the pass checking every plate on the way out to diners in the restaurant. Having waved us in at the door, he soon came over and I could see that he was genuinely happy to see me as were some members of the team who had come over from Inopia and El Bulli. Needless to say, we returned every subsequent night that we were in Barcelona. Albert inscribed his book Natura to me with, “Tickets and 41: Your real home.” Like Inopia, at Tickets I have a feeling they understand that I can never have enough of the Joselito, the Spanish Iberico ham (Tip: Go for the Jamon Joselito Gran Reserva and definitely the Racion portion, washed down with cava or Inedit beer. The fact that I have attended a Joselito and Tattinger tasting should prove my point).

The vibe at Tickets is very hip and happening (not necessarily in a LA kind of way). Their decor is kitschy and carnival-like, but you have to visit to get the real atmosphere: loud conversations buzzing in many languages, the bell of the little ice cream cart making music as it is wheeled around the dining room, and platters of tapas flying around in the hands of the friendly servers. There are guests from every continent and every city, some already seated while others wait outside for their table to open up, excited about having wrangled an impossible reservation to Tickets, or the even more exclusive 41 Degrees next door. If you are heading to Barcelona, start planning your reservation at least few months in advance.

After our meal and having caught up on our mutual news, we talked about attending the Gastronomika in San Sebastian up north the following week. Albert loves to demonstrate his art and his presentations on stage are the most well-attended at any food symposium or congress of culinaires the world over. I was very touched when he was up on stage after a spectacular talk and demonstration of some of the cocktails and tapas served at 41 Degrees and he asked me, despite the press and cameras all around, if I liked his presentation.

Albert is so good at what he does because he genuinely cares and wants to please. We had walked the convention floors the previous day along with his 41 Degrees chef Sebastian, discussing the various displays and also all the questions that I had for him, to which he replied, “Are sure you haven't changed into a press reporter?” 41 Degrees is the new restaurant venture in Barcelona by the Adria brothers which serves a lot of the El Bulli signature dishes (a version of the liquid olives, their most talked about dish, is served at Ticketsbar as well). More about 41 in a later segment with Sebastian, the young chef of 41.

My questions for Albert and his responses:

What is your philosophy about food?

I do not worry about having a philosophy about the way I cook. I believe you should be happy while cooking and do cheerful cooking demonstrations. (As he quotes in his book Natura, “These are my principles, and if you don't like them, well I have others.” – Groucho Marx) Albert says that it is all about the sensation, the taste, and the imagination to blow your mind. At Tickets and 41, his food is a synthesis of snacks and bites, with the aforementioned elements in play.[

Is there anything about restaurant menus universally that you do not like?

I do not care for pretentious menus. One must know the limits and offer menus according to what it is possible to accomplish. As Albert said in his talk at the conference, “In our restaurants we did not start with a lot of money but aim to transmit pure feeling from the heart to our guests. Children and animals teach us a lot about it. Firstly the content and quality of ingredients has to be great. A finished dish should have elegance, good taste and be fragile.”

What is your favorite meal that you eat to de-stress, what we call comfort food in the US?

As everyone else in the most general sense, it is what you enjoy the most. I love vegetables. So a dish-based on vegetables is my go to.

I know that you have travelled all over the world and tried various cuisines. Is there any cuisine in the world that you would like to master besides your own?

Other cuisines, of course Chinese and Thai cuisine. It would be good to learn about and from them.

What is the most unusual cuisine that you have experienced?

The Asian cuisine of course, even though I know more about it now, I would like to know the food of countries like Vietnam, China and especially the deep south of Japan even better. (As evident in the Peruvian-Japanese concept of his upcoming venture that had not been formally announced yet).

Which one of your peers do you respect and admire the most?

A tantos, I admire so many. I do not specifically like one over another (I don't why but most chefs choose to exercise diplomacy when asked this question).

Which female chef do you think is most innovative?

I do not think there is a gender involved in cooking, it seems sexist to differentiate between one professional cook and another based on sex.

I am so glad to hear you say that, it truly shows the change in the food profession for women. I know you have visited the US many times but what are your favorite places that like to go back to?

Definitely New York and Chicago.
The last time we met was at a lunch hosted by Chef Aduriz of Mugaritz. He was driving 5 hours from San Sebastian to Barcelona to hop on a flight to New York for the opening of the Mossimo Dutti store the next day.

When is your next planned visit after this brief trip tomorrow to the US?

I don't know. You know that I am planning to open three new restaurants in Barcelona this year and it will be an extremely busy year for me.

(Pakta, his new restaurant that will present Peruvian-Japanese fusion, was slated to open on January 15th but has been postponed to early March. I was updated this morning by Silvia, his lovely wife. The Adria brothers are moving 41 Degrees, their avant-garde collaboration, to a larger location as the present one has only 16 seats and a meteor shower of reservation requests. They are also opening a Mexican tapas style restaurant in the Raval quarter of Barcelona. Food enthusiasts all over the world are waiting to find a seat at these illustrious tables and bar counters)

What is a vacation that you are looking forward to taking in the future?

An extensive journey through Asia which in fact would be a journey through gastronomy.

What are your views on collaborations with other chefs and cuisines?

I made collaborations with many other chefs during RAW in Japan where chefs from different countries came together for several days. It was one of the topmost experiences of my professional life. (I have seen the camaraderie amongst these guys, they genuinly appreciate and share techniques and information with each other, but always giving due credit. They imitate as a compliment and share out of a joyful spirit of their profession. Whether it is Mauro Colagreco Of Mirazur,Menton, France or Dani Garcia of Calima in Marbella, Spain, I have seen chefs publically compliment Albert Adria on their use of his techniques and presentations. I wish more chefs did that and would give credit where it is due)

How do you feel about other chefs putting your creations on their menus?

It is a compliment! I get a smile on my face when I see things directly inspired by my work.

I cannot wait to visit my young friend again very soon, maybe at Pakta later this spring, but I will always be a member of his fan club.

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