ALBERT ADRIÀ sits down with JOHANNES PONG to talk about dim sum, being a globetrotting restaurateur, and more
ALBERT ADRIÀ IS the other mastermind behind elBulli, indubitably the most influential restaurant in my lifetime. Ferran Adrià himself has said, “Albert has had the great misfortune of being my brother. I sincerely believe he is the best cook I’ve ever known.”
We’re chatting at Catalunya, stylishly cavernous when the buzzing dining crowd isn’t around. It’s easily the best Spanish restaurant in Hong Kong right now, with interior by AvroKO, eager young Spanish staff, and elBulli alumni manning the kitchen and front of house. Every other chef boasts about a stage experience at elBulli nowadays, but Albert Adrià’s presence in the restaurant – here to serve up some of his iconic dishes to Hong Kong gourmands for one night only – speaks volumes of his trust and relationship with Catalunya’s executive chef, Alain Devahive Tolosa, who’s worked closely with the Adrià brothers for more than a decade.
Surrounded by this sphere of Spanishness, I ask Adrià if he’s experienced much of Hong Kong. “I’m here for just three days, but tomorrow I have to go to Disneyland with my boy, and Disneyland is not Hong Kong,” he laments.
“I tried goose feet. Dim sum is very similar to tapas, with the whole aspect of sharing small dishes.” He ponders the complexity of Cantonese cuisine. Albert is fascinated with China’s epicurean history, just as Ferran is.
“You could be cooking for 300 years and you would still have a lot to learn,” he confesses. “I had dim sum for lunch, and I don’t know how to cook 70 percent of the stuff I just ate.
He’s interested in the art of cooking with a wok, and proudly says he’s applied the Cantonese technique of stir-frying over high heat to two of his classic Catalan dishes – chickpeas with salted cod and white beans with calamari in pork stock. He expresses amazement that a three-minute stir-fry can result in the same flavours as the traditional Spanish method of slow simmering for two hours until the sauce is reduced. “The texture is perfect, and it feels so much lighter – I can’t believe it.”
What really astounds him, though, is the scale of Chinese-restaurant productivity compared with the more laidback Mediterranean mode. He remembers going into minor shock when he learned that a dim sum restaurant in Sydney served 3,000 people daily. “In Spain, that’s impossible; 150 tables would already be a lot,” he says. “For example, at Tickets, we only open at night, and we do about 120 covers. On Saturday we open all day, and it would be around 230.”
Adrià is behind several current Barcelona restaurants: Tickets (imagine Willy Wonka’s tapas bar), 41° Experience (an art installation in outer space serving a 41-course tasting menu complete with elBulli classics, midnight-morphing into Barcelona’s hottest cocktail bar), Bodega 1900 (think Tickets 100 years ago as a retro vermutería – or vermouth bar – offering a taste of traditional Catalan aperitif culture), and Pakta (a Japanese-Peruvian eatery branded as “cocina Nikkei”). Yauracan, his modern Mexican restaurant, is scheduled to open in April. They’re all within the city, and take an accessible attitude towards cuisine, in step with today’s dining trends and perhaps a commercial decision as well. A pilgrimage is imminently easier for foodies, even with the critical 60-day reservation windows or an impromptu gamble at the crazy queues.
The four existing venues are just five or six metres apart, and Adrià visits them daily. Wednesdays and Thursdays are interview days, each week at a different restaurant. He’s happiest when in the kitchen cooking, and with four restaurants it never gets boring. But the former pastry chef acknowledges that his role is evolving into that of a teacher and mentor.
“I simply cannot pay all my staff back monetarily for all the hours and effort they put in for me,” Adrià says. “So I give back by teaching.” He’s constantly trying to maintain his team’s emotional equilibrium as well – keeping them up but not too excited. If his people are down, he focuses on the positive to motivate them. “You can do a lot by speaking. Words can hurt someone a lot more than physically bashing them.”
His philosophy is that when you’re good at what you do, good people will join you. “It’s like in architecture, when you’re the best, like Frank Gehry, your firm will be composed of the most creative architects. With the kitchen it’s the same thing.”
Among his inspirations is travel. Since the closure of elBulli, its employees and disciples have scattered across the globe, and Adrià enjoys getting to travel the world to visit ex-colleagues and friends – and eat. The problem is finding enough time. “Never trust a chef with a lot of time,” he warns, “because a chef always has to be in the kitchen.”
Whether he’s in the kitchen or his lab, Adrià’s mind seems to be soaked with inventive ideas from constantly dissected philosophies and marinated information. He reveals an idea of creating a Spanish opensandwich place. I immediately think of Barcelona’s delicious bikini sandwiches, in open form. “I think it’ll be perfect for China, like hot dogs,” he says with an inspired twinkle in his eye.
THE FAB FOUR
Albert Adrià’s favourite restaurants in the world
3-2-8 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 107-0062; tel: (81 3) 3401 3368.
A two-Michelin-star sushi bar in Aoyama. “After we finished a TV show with [Yoshihiro] Narisawa, he wanted to take us to this sushiya. I was really tired, but Chef Nagano opened the restaurant for us at midnight. It’s pure aesthetics behind the bar, and he’s like the god of products. That aged tuna of eight weeks – incredible.”
Piazza Sant’Isidoro 7-12, Montegrosso, 76123 Andria, Italy; tel: (39 0883) 569529.
A small restaurant in the Puglian countryside honouring regional recipes with fresh produce from the restaurant’s garden. “It’s very traditional, with plates and plates of pasta, but very light. Everything’s homemade and well executed, even the simple salted black olives that were in season. I went there twice and I cried each time.”
Alejandro Dumas 7, Col. Polanco, Mexico City; Tel: (52 55) 5281 8245.
A Mexican institution and flagship of a chain supervised by Carmen “Titita” Ramírez Degollado, who serves the most authentic Mexican cuisine. “It’s old-school Mexican cooking with fresh flavours. I think it’s one of the best traditional restaurants in the world.” (As does brother Ferran, who considers it the top Mexican restaurant anywhere.)
Av. La Mar 770, Miraflores, Lima, Peru; Tel: (51 1) 421 3365.
A contemporary cebichería (ceviche restaurant). Tradition dictates that such establishments open only during daytime, so arrive early. “They serve very fresh fish and pisco. The food is colourful and light. The boss [celebrity chef Gastón Acurio] has 40 restaurants around the world, and this is the best restaurant in South America. It’s funny – 400 people all eating ceviche.”
+Prestige Hong Kong