Spain's Ferran Adrià likes to play with liquid nitrogen and calcium chloride. He fashions paella out of Rice Krispies, entraps quail eggs in a cage of gold-tinted caramel and turns foie gras into frozen dust. A guru to a new generation of chefs from Chicago to Copenhagen, he's been featured on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of our times and touted by the press as an alchemist and a genius. A 30-odd-course tasting menu at Adrià's restaurant, El Bulli, in the town of Rosas, near Barcelona, is closer to interactive performance art than to anything most of us know as dinner.
So what's the guy doing with take-out rotisserie chicken?
When I came across Adrià's recent cookbook Cocinar en Casa (Cooking at Home), available only in Spain, it was like discovering a volume in which Einstein explains fractions to school children. Yet for a man typecast by the press as a mad scientist, Adrià emerges from the pages as surprisingly practical. Developed in collaboration with the Spanish supermarket chain Caprabo and featuring step-by-step photos and quick recipes using common ingredients like mayonnaise and potato chips, the book combines El Bulli's playful esprit (gazpacho popsicles, coffee ice cubes), with stylish suggestions on what to do with takeout (serve fried rice with a soy sauce sabayon) and realistic advice on everything from the virtues of Microplane graters to the ease of making ice cream without an ice cream machine (just whiz some frozen berries and fromage blanc in a food processor).
"Frozen and canned food, and shortage of time are facts of life," Adrià remarked to me at a cocktail party he hosted in Barcelona. As waiters passed around miniature loaf pans of Parmesan-flavored "frozen air" (cheese that's been aerated, then frozen in a complex process so it dissolves in your mouth), he talked about his desire to help home cooks make fresher, tastier, quicker mealswhile at the same time sneaking a bit of El Bulli philosophy into the kitchens of regular Spaniards. "The recipes in the easy cookbook are different from those at El Bulli, but they share a sensibility: my interest in ingredients that are neither cheap nor fancy; my own particular logic of flavors," Adrià explained. For instance? Toast topped with chocolate, olive oil and sea salt, which sounds wacky but seems completely inevitable once you taste it.
Cocinar en Casa isn't Adrià's only attempt to reach out to the masses. Last year, he opened Fast Good, the first restaurant in a fast-food chain, with Madrid's NH Hotels group. On the menu? Burgers and fries. "Ferran Adrià making hamburgers...some thought it was crazy," Adrià says. "But getting them perfect was a challenge. Plus I'm fascinated by all aspects of food." Judging from the lines, Madrileños can't get enough of the juicy burgers made with freshly ground Spanish beef and topped with tapenade or with tomato confit, Gorgonzola and arugula, or of the stupendous fries cooked in high-quality olive oil. Now that the concept has become such a success, Adrià is leaving the task of turning it into an international chain to NH Hotels.
Adrià's latest foray into accessible food is a series of DVDs called Cocina Fácil (Easy Cuisine). Themed around occasions such as "a candlelit cold supper," "a Japanese dinner" or "eating with an empty fridge," the DVDs were distributed last fall with the Sunday edition of El Periódico de Catalunya newspaper. After a fast-paced MTV-style introduction outlining the El Bulli philosophy, Adrià enters a hyper-sleek kitchen and gets cooking. Here he is making a quick meal for his film crew from take-out rotisserie chicken, which he will finish in a lusty Catalan sauce of dried fruit and pine nuts. There he is improvising on a tortilla de patata, Spain's iconic potato omelet, using a bag of potato chips.
While you might not ever eat at El Bulli (reservations are so scarce, even Adrià's relatives can't get a table), you can enjoy Adrià's simple, ingenious recipes, all of which show that there's more to his cooking than conceptual pyrotechnics. "Food is one of life's greatest pleasures," he says. "And to be happy is easy, so easy."
To order a copy of Ferran Adrià's Spanish-language cookbook Cocinar en Casa, go to elbulli.com.