Podcast #13: Building Your Wave with Ferran Adria
Hailed as a genius and a prophet by fellow chefs, worshipped (if often misunderstood) by critics and lay diners alike, imitated and paid homage to in restaurant kitchens all over the world, Ferran Adrià is easily the most influential serious chef of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Quite simply, he changed the game.
—Colman Andrews, food critic
It wasn’t always that way.
Fernando Adrià Acosta, a/k/a Ferran Adrià, was born on May 14,1962, in a crowded, demographically diverse area southwest of Barcelona. His father, Gines, was a painter and plasterer, and his mother, Josefa, a housewife. He did well in his studies but was also a regular at the local discos. Ferran more or less lived for Thursday nights—there was no school on Fridays, so that was when the long weekend would begin. After three years of upper school, he dropped out.
“If you asked me why,” he says, “I couldn’t tell you. It was just a decision I made one day.” Ferran didn’t leave school with a plan; he wanted to play as much soccer as possible and make some money so he could go to Ibiza in the summer. Ferran’s father had an old friend named Miquel Moy who was the chef at the Hotel Playafels, a seaside resort. As Gines tells it, “Miquel and I went to a bar to have a beer one day, and I said to him, ‘My son has quit school and needs to find a job. Maybe he would like to work at your hotel.’” Miquel mentioned kitchen work. Gines replied, “Miquel, I have to warn you: Fernando doesn’t know anything about cooking at all.” Just then, Ferran arrived. His father explained that Miquel had agreed to hire him. With nothing else to do, Ferran said, “Okay, let’s go.”
On Sunday, June 15, 1980—my first birthday, as it happens— Ferran started work in the kitchen. At this point he had to make a decision: soccer or cooking. “They wanted me to work on Sundays, and Sunday was the day we played soccer, so I had to choose between the job and the playing field,” said Ferran. Before deciding, he went to his soccer coach to ask for a realistic analysis of his skills. The coach told him the Third Division was probably the best he could hope for, so Ferran decided to put his energy toward his new job. He started as a fregador, basically a dishwasher, and he did that for about three months. Eventually, Miquel Moy, a good, classically trained Spanish chef, let him help with the cooking. Moy’s bible was El Práctico, a collection of 6,500 recipes from Spain, France, and elsewhere, written in 1895 by two Argentinian chefs. He gave a copy to Ferran, and for the next nine months Ferran spent his mornings studying El Práctico, his days in the kitchen, and his evenings in the discos. “Under Moy,” Ferran remembers, “we could be up until eight a.m. [partying], but an hour later, we had to be in, and shape up to work normally and seriously. The rule was to arrive on time and stay right till the end.”
One day, Moy called Gines and said, “Please take your son back, because now this boy knows more than me.” Having saved some money, Ferran headed to Ibiza, then ended up back in a kitchen at a resort hotel. He spent four months cooking, partying, and lounging on the beach before heading home. In Barcelona and environs, he did brief culinary stages in multiple places, including a tapas bar inside a bingo parlor; a conference and party venue in a fourteenth-century villa; Martinica, where Ferran had what he call his first contact with “modern cooking”; and Finisterre, an elegant, old-style restaurant then considered to be among Barcelona’s best.
In 1982, Ferran was drafted into Spain’s military and posted to a naval base in Cartagena, Colombia. He volunteered for culinary service and spent a month in the barracks kitchen, preparing massive quantities of simple food for the sailors. During his time there, he was scouted by the head butler for the household of the base commander, Admiral Ángel Liberal Lucini. Lucini liked good food, and the butler was his talent scout. After a few culinary tests, such as making mayonnaise, paella, and vichyssoise, Ferran was ranked bien and asked to join the admiral’s kitchen.
Although he expected it to be a cushy posting, he quickly realized he not only had to think up new menus every day for the admiral’s family, but also to conceive and execute serious banquets for visiting dignitaries. It was here, alongside his close friend and future collaborator Fermí Puig, that Ferran began experimenting with new techniques. Puig came armed with an arsenal of books on haute cuisine, and they used them to prepare meals for the admiral and his guests. They prepared everything from salmon terrine with green peppercorns and rich aspic to Loup en Croûte, legendary chef Paul Bocuse’s preparation of bass in a pastry shell. The work would eventually result in Ferran’s first book, El Sabor del Mediterráneo, a combination of the recipes used for the banquets and some “daydreams” Ferran never even prepared.
When it came time for Ferran to take his summer leave from the navy, Puig convinced him to do a stage at the Spanish restaurant he worked in prior to the military, El Bullí. Ferran initially had no interest in spending his vacation in the kitchen. But the combination of two Michelin stars and a beautiful beach eventually got him to relent. Ferran traveled to coastal Roses and spent a month under Chef Jean Paul-Vinay, immersed in haute cuisine. After three weeks, remembers Puig, “[The manager] called to say,
‘Hey, Fermí, no offense, but that guy you sent, Fernando, he’s much better than you.’”
At the end of 1983, Ferran finished his military service. He spent a few months working in Seville before reuniting with Puig to begin work full time at El Bullí. When Ferran joined the staff, Juli Soler, the manager, encouraged him to travel to expose himself to fresh ideas and cultures. Ferran toured some of France’s top kitchens, learning various techniques from culinary greats. He eventually took over as head chef, and at the beginning of 1987, he went to the Côte d’Azur. In Nice, he stayed in the Negresco, whose restaurant, the Chantecler, was run by famed chef Jacques Maximin. He attended a culinary demonstration by Maximin, and during the discussion that followed, the chef was asked what creativity was. Maximin replied, “Creativity means not copying.” This simple sentence brought about a crucial change in Ferran’s cooking—the cutoff point between his “re-creation” of others’ dishes and a firm decision to become deeply involved in his own creativity.
Upon returning to El Bullí, Ferran, then 25, was convinced he needed to use cookbooks less and less and try to find an identity of his own. He gradually began to experiment with new techniques for preparing and presenting food, and by 1994, four years after becoming co-owner of the restaurant, he had moved away from classic approaches altogether. He had become an experienced creative. He replaced conventionality with his own creation, “technique-concept cuisine,” today often referred to as “molecular gastronomy,” in which he subjected potential ingredients to rigorous experimentation and scientific analysis as a means of creating novel dishes that produced unexpected sensations. The most famous example was his use of “spherification,” which delicately encapsulates liquids within spheres of gelatin. One of the best-known examples are his “liquid olives,” which resemble solid green olives but burst in the mouth with olive juice.
Almost twenty years after arriving at El Bullí and following tens of thousands of kitchen hours, Ferran Adrià was widely regarded as the world’s most creative, if not in fact the premier, living chef. In 2002, El Bullí was named the best restaurant in the world, and went on to receive the honor five times before closing in 2011 to become, fittingly, a creativity-research center. Ferran is hailed as “the Salvador Dali of the kitchen,” and his work has been thoroughly documented in more than thirty books, exhibited in museums, and copied (with both good and bad results) all over the globe. But Ferran’s unbelievable achievement didn’t come easy.
He built his wave of success meticulously over decades, through a combination of patience, struggle, experimentation, self-awareness, team-building, and silent struggle in a remote restaurant with few customers and limited resources early on.
Every success, every experiment, every hour of thought, every piece of advice, every decision he made compounded on the next, eventually creating a self-sustaining energy, a wave, that over time carried him to a peak.
Your pursuit is no different.
Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of.
—C. S. Lewis
Have you ever sat on the beach and watched the waves? If you have, you will have noticed they start small, build up slowly, peak, and then break as they crash into the shore. The best surfers are able to spot the wave as it’s building, set themselves up, enjoy an amazing ride, and seamlessly move onto the next without wiping out.
Creating is no different.
All our waves, our journeys, start small, build up slowly, and, over time, reach a peak; every decision we make, big and small, all the work we do, compounds to make us who we become. Your wave, your ability to flawlessly execute, is the compounding effect of combining good decisions with great execution, repetitively. The more focused we are in our pursuit, the better the decisions we make, the harder we work, the more likely our wave will be significant, the more energy it will have, the more interesting life becomes.
Your Wave = (Good Decisions + Great Execution)
Every part of Ferran’s process—the building of his wave—brought him closer to manifesting a reflection of his true self, and when he achieved that reflection his ability to flawlessly execute emerged. But it took years. (Also note what his former student and friend Jose Andres observed: “This guy is at the top of the top. Usually when people are at the top of their game, it’s at this moment in life when you are willing to give everything you have. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates. It’s great. But one of the things that has made this man able to tell—is that twenty-five years ago when only maybe a few of us knew him, he was also a giver. And…to give everything when you have nothing, that’s even more amazing.”)
Once you have the knowledge of how to unlock your creative potential, your ability to manifest that potential, to flawlessly execute, starts small. In the beginning, you’re learning, marshaling your resources, forming a point of view, meeting collaborators. At that point you only have the ability to manifest small waves. While you may have big desire, your skills and resources have yet to catch up, so it would be ill-advised for you to take on a project too large. But these simple, focused projects are critical to your long-term success: everything you’re learning will be part of the bigger waves you’ll build later in your journey. Once you carry out your first small project, you should analyze the outcome and then do another, focusing on improving each time. When you do this over and over again, you’ll eventually see your first wave beginning to form. Maybe people at work are talking about how hard you work, or how well you manage the front desk at the hotel, or that one of your dishes got on the menu. It may or may not be the wave you thought it was—maybe an opportunity opens up that wasn’t really what you thought you wanted—but that’s not important; all that matters is that you’re making waves, you’re progressing toward your first peak.
These peaks are the moments where you’re doing the best work you can on this wave. For example, I started out in food and beverage. I’ve mentioned that eventually I came to oversee a $150-million food-and-beverage business on multiple continents. It was a fantastic wave. But I knew if I wanted to achieve my longterm goals, I had to get off that wave and start the learning that would build my next wave. Now, for some of us, waves can last decades, even a lifetime; it really all depends on what challenges present themselves and what you desire.
The more focused and skilled you become, the bigger your waves will grow. And then your waves will merge with waves from the surrounding energy of the world and take you on some amazing rides. Ferran’s first wave was in Miquel Moy’s kitchen. The global press didn’t care, but he impressed Miquel, and that was all that mattered. As his skills grew, so did his ability to make waves. His next wave was in the military kitchen. There, his wave was a little bigger and touched more people, each time helping Ferran become a better surfer. His subsequent wave was in El Bullí. That one took over a decade to reach its peak. He needed intense focus, greater skills, and more self-examination to get him closer to his potential.
The wave peaked when it merged with two external waves that carried him to new heights: the rise of nouveau Spanish cuisine on the global stage, and the rise of global foodie culture. And finally, that wave peaked after two decades in the kitchen, and like a skilled surfer he saw it breaking and seamlessly moved onto the next stage of his journey.
Too often, people are looking for shortcuts, ways to get to the peak without doing the work. But it’s impossible to surf without being able to paddle into the wave—being able to recognize it and have the strength to pull yourself into it and up. Shortcuts are a bullshit way of avoiding the necessary work, and more to the point, they rarely bring sustained success. While you can be strategic in your approach—you shouldn’t try to get up on every wave—there’s no way to avoid putting in the necessary energy it takes to do great work.
Remember, ideas are just ripples—waves manifest when energy is added to the equation and you flawlessly execute your ideas.