If you were to ask any 10 chefs in the Western world to name the most influential living practitioners of their craft, chances are good that Ferran Adrià of Barcelona's elBulli would head up many of those lists.
Adrià's influence upon how we think about food is undeniable.
When I got a press invitation to hear Adrià talk about coffee at Eataly's La Scuola last Friday, I couldn't say no.
Adrià is collaborating with Lavazza…but on what, exactly, I'm a little vague. It has something to do with understanding coffee, which Adrià told us, we know nothing about. Absolutely nothing.
"What IS cooking?" Adrià asked a largely dumbfounded audience. Adding shortly thereafter, "Everything you know about cooking is a lie. We are all confused and mixed up. Especially me...The first thing to know is that you know nothing."
Throughout the presentation – which involved a discussion of the "cooking genome" and much parsing of the words "tool" and "technique" – I had the same feeling I used to get in grad school when I'd sit in on philosophy lectures in the Divinity School. Lots and lots of definitions and re-definitions, challenges, ambiguity, and an overall sense that though we were discussing matters of great significance with extremely important implications, there were, ultimately, no answers, and we were just fiddling with vocabulary.
A key point of Adrià's presentation was that what most of us think of as cooking is actually "elaboración," as he put it in his elegant Spanish, and which his translator understandably translated as "elaboration." This, I believe, is an instance of what we call in Italian "falsi amici," false friends. "Elaboración" sounds like "elaboration" but a more literal translation would likely be "making."
And that's what Adrià is: a maker, a creator, an artist, a chef who uses food – who "makes" food – that is expressive.
Whether Adrià is a good philosopher or not, I can't say, but I will say this: nothing he said at this get-together was anything less than highly interesting and frequently amusing. And even if he seemed to over-think -- or over-elaborate -- what might be fundamentally simple ideas, he's clearly a guy who spends a lot of time thinking about food, and there's no doubt his efforts have influenced Western cuisine to an almost incalculable extent.
During the course of his presentation, we were served "coffee caviar," which I liked a lot: caffeinated bomblets of coffee essence, encased (I'm guessing) in one of Adrià's signature alginates, served on cream, a very light and perky dessert.
There was much discussion of the "siphon," a soda jerk's friend that Adrià had used to make the first foams (a culinary practice which now, twenty years later, almost seems quaint). The genesis of foam, as explained by Adrià, was that "In 1994, I had a dream of making mousse without milk or eggs." At the presentation, he used the siphon it to make a foamed coffee, a delightful dessert. The literature explained that this confection, called Èspesso, is "a pure and full-bodied espresso with all the flavor and aroma of traditional coffee, but in a solid format."
Obviously, Lavazza is eager to develop line extensions that would feature coffee as gas, solid, or perhaps even liquid. As Vice-Chairman Giuseppe Lavazza said in his opening remarks, "Coffee is not just a beverage. It's much more complex."
Overall, it was a lunch hour well-spent with one of the most adventurous chefs perhaps in the history of cooking …or elaboration…or whatever. Most importantly, it was joyous, lively and fun – which clearly take precedence over the philosophical foundations of what's being eaten…or anything else, for that matter.