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Albert Adrià: The Legend Continues

Though he devised some of El Bulli's iconic dishes, Albert Adrià has mainly been known as Ferran's younger brother. Now, he's continuing the family tradition of wild innovation at a handful of new Barcelona restaurants. A look at his growing empire.

It is time for a moratorium on the phrases Albert Adrià and kid brother. True, Albert was born in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat—a suburb outside Barcelona—on October 20, 1969, to Ginés Adrià and Josefa Acosta, a plasterer and a housewife who, seven years earlier, bore a son named Ferran. Ferran was a prodigy—at soccer. If you ask Albert about his childhood, what he remembers most vividly is el vermut—the golden hour after the family got home from picking Ferran up from practice, when the children would sneak potato chips and olives stuffed with anchovies while the grown-ups exchanged the day’s gossip over small tumblers of vermouth.

Ferran would go on, at El Bulli, to become the world’s most important chef. When Albert was 15 and flailing at school, his father said, “If you don’t want to study, you must go to work.” In 1985, Albert joined Ferran at El Bulli, where he worked for 23 years—most notably in pastry, creating such dishes as parmesan marshmallows and a provocation of a sorbet called Strawberries or Roses? Albert was the brilliant but unseen consigliere, a technical powerhouse who oversaw the restaurant’s seminal research and development division. It’s as difficult to attribute El Bulli’s dishes to specific cooks as it is to figure out who wrote the Gospels, but many of the restaurant’s most mind-blowing tricks, like pumpkin-seed oil encapsulated in sugar bubbles, are reputedly Albert’s brainchildren. He was the quieter, more poetic brother, the savant with the earring.

Alex Stupak, who was a pastry chef at Chicago’s groundbreaking Alinea before opening the Empellón restaurants in Manhattan, has said that he admires Albert more than any other cook. He told me, “I believe that Albert’s work drove the entire kitchen at El Bulli.” Albert is a revered figure in the international brotherhood of chefs. “Getting to cook with Albert was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life,” says David Chang of the New York City–based Momofuku empire. “If Ferran is God, then Albert is Jesus.” Ferran himself adds, “I’ve always said that Albert has had the great misfortune of being my brother. I sincerely believe he is the best cook I’ve ever known.”

El Bulli closed in 2011. “We had to kill the beast,” Albert said. “After so many years, there was a fear of the passion dying.” In the manner of people loosed from long periods of monogamy, they have become men of many ventures. In 2011 they opened Tickets, a madcap bar de tapas in Barcelona’s Eixample Esquerra district. Around the corner is 41°—a high-concept cocktail bar that morphed, once the groupies showed up, into an impossible-to-get-into restaurant, serving elaborate tasting menus that reprise some of the greatest dishes served at El Bulli.

Now, as Ferran burnishes his legacy—building the El Bulli Foundation, a multimillion-dollar center for culinary innovation, and BulliPedia, an online food encyclopedia—Albert is staking his individual reputation on several ambitious projects, all in Barcelona. (Ferran, as ever, is an investor and an ally, but these are Albert’s gigs.) They include Bodega 1900, which will open this summer and feature turn-of-the-century Spanish cooking; a big, rambunctious Mexican place called Yauarcan, which is set to open this fall; and a 32-seat spot called Pakta, where the menu is Nikkei, a hybrid cooking style that Japanese settlers developed in Peru.

I met Albert at Tickets one sunny morning in March, as the restaurant was slowly coming to life. His longtime girlfriend, Silvia Fernández, had set up the meeting; she oversees the little PR that Albert does. A porter was sweeping the floor, a cook was shucking clams. Albert, an intense but puckish man in a black T-shirt, greeted me with abrazos. He was distractedly warm, with short hair that crested to a powder puff at the crown of his forehead, and a friendship bracelet gone dishwatery around one of his wrists. Standing at a counter, he flicked through mail. “Look, a newspaper with edible ink!” he said, showing around a prototype from a supplier.

Whoever called the Adriàs’ school of gastronomy “molecular” got it wrong, at least in a tonal sense. Albert is all soul. His decision to cook Japanese-Peruvian and Mexican food seemed puzzling, until I realized that, after a quarter-
century of maintaining El Bulli’s impossible standards, perhaps he sought a new challenge. “If you’re working at El Bulli, you travel the world,” Stupak observed. “But it’s to find one hyper-unique element to use at El Bulli. What about everything else you learn?” (Albert has been to Mexico 14 times, Japan three times and Peru twice.) Above all, Albert said, he wants his restaurants to be fun, and to get people excited. The prerogative of spectacle is especially strong at this moment of dire morale in Spain. He explained, “I might get criticism for having these kinds of restaurants at a time of financial crisis, but I want to make something that will get people out of their homes.”

That night, the atmosphere at Tickets was electric, more full at midnight than at 9 p.m. (The first shift, Albert admitted, was a concession to tourists.) Incandescent bulbs 
garlanded the ceiling. Pinwheels and dirigibles, fashioned from Coke cans, dangled from a dessert station tented in big-top stripes. We ate burbling peas from a plastic bag that, when snipped open, released a blast of sweet-smelling steam. A waiter trundled up to the table with an ice cream cart, presenting us with a dollhouse-size cone of fish-and-chips. Yet: The fries were pineapple, and the ketchup was raspberry syrup. And over there, sprouting three feet into the air: trees made out of cotton candy! The playful vulnerability of Albert’s dishes, which depend on both remembering and forgetting, reminded me of filmmaker Michel Gondry and his film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Tickets was just the sort of communal escape from workaday life that people say the movies once were.

Vamos!” Albert said the next morning. We were at an unfashionable coffee shop across the street from Tickets. He typically begins the day there, drinking the first of many espressos and plotting strategy with Juan Carlos Iglesias—a business partner of the Adriàs’ who, with his brothers, owns the seafood restaurant Rías de Galicia. As they talked, Albert pulled out his iPhone and took a picture of a crockery cabinet, a heavy wooden number that brought to mind a bourgeois turn-of-the century household. Later, outside on the sidewalk, he snapped a photo of a pair of dilapidated green shutters. These would serve as inspiration for Bodega 1900, which he has conceived, in almost genealogical terms, as a forebear of Tickets. (If Tickets was the offspring of El Bulli, Bodega 1900 will be its grandparent.) “Bodega 1900 will be the Tickets that, if we lived 100 years ago, we would have opened,” he explained.

His sinuous manner of thinking, his ever-permutating array of partners and potentials, reminded me of one of Barcelona’s many Gaudí buildings. This was not idle Catalan exoticism. As instrumental as Albert has been in the avant-garde of gastronomy, he remains deeply connected to the vernacular traditions of Spain. “I want anything that can transport me back to the 1900s,” he said, lining up his camera to shoot a swooping awning.

Later, he discussed the menu for Bodega 1900 with a huddle of his cooks.

“Do you want me to put some herb sprigs in the bowl?” asked one, who had been charged with preparing a dish of Gordal olives.

“I think just the olives,” Albert replied. “I prefer to do it how it was done in the old days.” He added, “So we have el vermut under control,” bringing the meeting to a close.

After coffee, Albert retrieved his car, an electric-blue Audi, from the garage. He put on a pair of Ray-Bans. We set off for a ceramics atelier in the suburb of Castelldefels, where he would choose the plates for his new restaurants. We drove under the sun on a highway lined with buttercups for 20 minutes, then parked. Walking toward the atelier, I realized I had lost Albert. I glimpsed him crouched on the side of the road, rooting around in underbrush. Often, his dishes seem to encompass worlds—miniature terrariums of leaves, grass, “snow.” He waved, a little sheepishly. “I thought 
I might be able to use one of these sticks,” he said.

Que fabuloso!” he said, once we were inside the shop. Its proprietress, a wizened woman in an apron, wrote down his orders, which he spun off 
the top of his head at rapid speed. For Yauarcan, he selected a set of small plates whose texture brought to mind the skin of an avocado. “I think the rustic finish will reflect how I’ve been so naive”—the Spanish word was inocente—“in getting into a cuisine that’s so foreign to me,” he said. Then he explained his thinking behind his Nikkei menu at Pakta.

“Why Nikkei?” Albert said. “If we called ourselves Japanese, then the Japanese people would be looking into the food. And if we called ourselves Peruvian—no, in all seriousness, I like the idea of the immigrant in a new country creating a new cuisine.”

“Will it be Japanese-Peruvian, or Japanese-Peruvian-Spanish?” I asked.

“There are only two kinds of cuisine,” he declared. “Good and bad.”

That night, Albert unveiled Pakta’s 22-course tasting menu, with which he’d been tinkering for six months, along with the restaurant’s co-chefs, Kyoko Ii and Jorge Muñoz. I was among the first members of the press to taste it.

The dining room was beautiful. Warm wooden ribs crisscrossed strands of colored yarn—it was like being inside the belly of a whale that had swallowed a loom. Classic pisco sours arrived first. Next, llangueta (tiny fried fish) with kimchi. Then, smoked mackerel in a tidal pool of seaweed juice; attenuated carrots on the fronds of a fern; gyoza stuffed with suckling pig. The tuna nigiri torqued like the fins of a fancy car. The dish that Albert 
said was “the most markedly Nikkei” was a pot of pale green tofu—soy milk “flan,” flavored with avocado and topped with salmon roe, yuzu and a coil of sea urchin. The texture was indescribably soft. Forget marrying sweet and savory—it seemed as though Albert had conjured a fifth element, one beyond earth, air, fire and water. For once, I was happy that I had never gotten to eat at El Bulli; Pakta might have made it have seem like a less memorable experience.

Lauren Collins is a staff writer for the New Yorker.

Published July 2013
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