Monday, April 26, 2010

The Straits Times : El Bulli chef goes local

The Straits Times
Apr 26, 2010
By rebecca lynne tan

Three-Michelin-starred chef Ferran Adria eats hawker food here for the first time at Tiong Bahru and declares it unique

Weaving through the wet market in Tiong Bahru last Saturday, Ferran Adria suddenly stops in his tracks at a fruit shop. Packets of salted plum powder catch his eye.

His brows furrow as he looks intently at the fine brown powder. Life! explains to him that the tart and salty powder is usually sprinkled on sliced guava for dessert.

He buys a packet for $1.

'You might see 40 different products but there will always be one that is magical,' says the 47-year-old Spaniard, chef and co-owner of three-Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli on Spain's north-east Catalan coast.

He plans to explore how it can be translated and used in high-end gastronomy. He is not sure if he has analysed salted plum powder in a creative context before, but says 'his guys will know'.

His travels throughout the world, he says, inspire him to create dishes.

Walking past a display of century eggs at another stall in the wet market, he pauses and turns to tell Life! that those eggs had once spawned the idea to create something new - the Golden Egg.

He created the dish of quail egg yolk encased in a thin film and topped with flakes of sea salt, which oozes a warm liquid when bitten into, after coming across the century egg during his first visit to China in 2004.

He made his first trip to Asia in 2000, starting with Thailand, followed by Japan in 2002. This is his first trip to Singapore. And, as with any first-time visitor to the island, it is only customary to welcome him with a varied spread of local fare.

His collective verdict after sampling myriad dishes, including salted egg crab, nasi lemak (coconut rice), ayam buah keluak (a Peranakan dish of black nuts and chicken), chicken rice, pig's organ soup, chwee kueh (radish served atop round rice-flour cakes), a stuffed glutinous rice roll, soya bean milk with chin chow (grass jelly) and sugarcane juice with lemon: 'I have not seen anything like this in the world - the combination of the food and the atmosphere - it is very unique.

'Singapore is gastronomically very exciting. Professionals in the food world should come here and see what's going on.'

While he was clearly passionate at his World Gourmet Summit presentations about his cooking rationale and food philosophy, his encounter with hawker food took on a decidedly cerebral timbre. Indeed, he was not given to oohing and aahing, though this did not mean he was creating dishes in his mind as he ate. After all, he did say that he had to be alone, away from the attention of the media, to be in the creative frame of mind.

He obligingly samples all the dishes, one at a time, listening to his translator, Ms Lucy Garcia, explain each dish to him as it is explained to her. Nothing is too exotic or spicy for him. He moves from one item to the next, without even a sip of water between mouthfuls.

He is quiet initially, maybe because he is busy soaking in the mish-mash of flavours. His facial expressions say nothing about what could be going through his head as he sucks on a buah keluak nut and dips the glutinous rice roll in the sweet dark caramel sauce.

He tastes the ginger sauce that is served with the chicken rice, twice, and gives it a nod of interest.

Then, he stirs the cup of soya bean milk with chin chow and slurps up strands of jelly.

'What is this?'

He takes out a few more strands of the herbal grass jelly and touches them with his fingers but does not reveal any thoughts when asked.

As he sips the freshly pressed sugarcane juice, he is reminded of the foam often used in his creations.

The idea to create foam came about in 1992 after he drank a glass of fresh fruit juice, which came with a thick foamy layer. The foam from the juice, he says, was 'the most amazing mousse'. It had no milk and no egg, and he wanted to create a mousse that was as light as the fruit juice foam, but with the ability to retain strong flavours.

Thus was the idea for espuma born.

Adria points to the dishes, saying the cuisine here is very much product-based, with a few elaborations, such as the soup.

Product-based refers to dishes which are based on the use of distinct items such as chicken and rice.

An elaboration is an outcome of a preparation, where products are used to create a secondary dish.

'In contemporary cuisine, you will always find examples like these. You find examples (of products and elaborations) in all cuisines around the world.'

Pointing to the crab and the soup, he says: 'It is not a good idea to just have this or that, you have to find a balance.' 

' I have not seen anything like this in the world - the combination of the food and the atmosphere - it is very unique. Singapore is gastronomically very exciting. Professionals in the food world should come here and see what's going on

Ferran Adria at Tiong Bahru hawker centre

After his talks at the World Gourmet Summit, Adria samples the offerings at Tiong Bahru hawker centre while at the wet market, he is intrigued by salted plum powder at a fruit stall (above) and buys a packet to take home. -- ST PHOTOS: SAMUEL HE


Adria fans fly in

Three-Michelin-starred Ferran Adria is something of a rock star in the culinary world.

Last week, when he was in town to give two presentations during the World Gourmet Summit, he was mobbed by fans, some of whom had flown in from places such as the Philippines just for him.

All wanted to see and take pictures of the man who has revolutionised the culinary scene with his deconstructivist and molecular cuisine at Spain's famous El Bulli restaurant. They queued for more than an hour to get their books signed. Some ran after him, waving their arms, begging him to stop and pose for photographs. He, of course, kindly obliged.

El Bulli, near Barcelona, was named the world's Best Restaurant for five years by UK publication Restaurant magazine in 2002 and from 2006 to 2009.

It was a full house of more than 400 people at each of Adria's presentations. His events were among the highlights of the summit, an annual two-week gastronomic extravaganza that ended last Saturday.

At the first talk, held at the ballroom of the Capella Singapore hotel on Sentosa last Thursday evening, the audiences watched the 55-minute documentary, A Day At El Bulli, directed by Adria's brother, Albert. The documentary gave insights into how the El Bulli team of seven pastry chefs, 33 cooks, four sommeliers, 16 waitstaff and several dishwashers prepares dinner for 50 people a night, each tucking into 35 courses. A half-hour question-and-answer session followed.

The second talk, at The Singapore Repertory Theatre in Robertson Quay on Friday afternoon, saw Adria delving further into his philosophy: His rationale is that cooking is a language and has a discourse of its own. He believes that cooking and cuisine create a dialogue between cultures.

El Bulli opens only six months of the year and it receives 300,000 to one million e-mail requests for 8,000 seats each year. A meal there costs about €250 euros (S$460) a person. Complex deconstructed dishes on the menu have included air of honey with flowers and pistachios, alphabet soup, carrot air with bitter coconut, and Parmesan spaghetto.

Speaking in Spanish, Adria says: 'For us, the most important aspect of being chefs is that we ourselves are happy with what we do. You have to be an egoist. If you are not happy with what you do, you won't cook well and you won't make other people happy.'

He emphasises that creativity and reproduction of that creativity in cooking are two different aspects.

He and his team have spent the past 25 years creating something new every year. During the six months when the eatery is closed, his core team of five people creates new dishes for four months.

But these days, he says, the demands of such creativity are so high, that even four straight months of focus on creativity are no longer enough.

This is the reason El Bulli will be converted into a think tank in 2014 after closing for two years from 2012. 'There's nothing like it in the world. There are no other references and I think this is the magical part of it. This is the challenge for me,' he says.

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