Best Chef in the World?

“I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all, but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me; otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”

– Oliver Cromwell

Ferran book coverI’ve reached the point in living overseas where I don’t pay that much attention to US food press, particularly in regard to things like the newest book flavor of the moment. But a review in the NY Times of Colman Andrews’ new biography of Ferran Adriá that basically trashed the book for being nothing more than a fluff piece caught my eye. Now, I don’t know Colman well – we’ve met, as best I recall, thrice, two of those while I was working in a restaurant where he was a guest at a table, and once in passing at a food event where we were introduced and had a whopping thirty second conversation before we both moved on. I’ve got his book on the cooking of the Riviera – well written, thoughtful, insightful, and a favorite to refer to for the cuisine of that area, and, I’ve been a fan and subscriber of Saveur magazine for many years. And we follow each other on Twitter. So while I can’t say that I know the man, I’m usually a decent judge of character and he hasn’t struck me in person or in print as someone likely to write a puffed up biography.

That was intriguing enough to get me to pick up an e-book copy and sit down to read it. All I can say about the Times review is that we must have been reading completely different versions of the book, if the same book at all. No more to say about the review – on to the book.

Regular readers know that I’m not much of a fan of the world of foams, gels, airs, etc., and typically don’t enjoy those sort of meals very much, even if I find them intellectually interesting. That may, however, be simply that I’ve only had meals prepared by chefs who aren’t very good at it. Oh, they’re good enough at the scientific techniques – they aerate and spherify with the best of them – they produce gems of presentation – and, for the most part, they don’t deliver on the flavors, the seasoning, the base ingredients. It’s been a series of meals that are all about the vanguard methods with little understanding of the basics of cooking.

By the end of reading the book, lengthily titled Ferran: The Inside Story of elBulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food (really? a two line subtitle?), I found myself actually interested in what it is that Adriá is and has been doing – as an intellectual exercise – it appeals to my inner nerd. I found myself thinking, gee, if I’d have kept on heading in the direction of laboratory and research work as I set out to do in my younger years, and combined it with my love of cooking, I could have easily ended up down that path. I also find myself at the end of the book with even less interest than I had before in actually going to elBulli, not that that’s likely to be in the cards at any time in my future.

The book is, as I’ve always found Colman’s writing to be, inquisitive, well written, and very prominently displaying both the polish and the blemishes of the man it exposes. I come away thinking, “of all the pompous, self-important, hypocritically humble people…” and “well maybe he has a right to be…” in regard to the “best chef in the world”. Of course, when you’ve been lauded with the accolades that he has, it’s bound to rub off. How could it not? But at least in this biography, he doesn’t come across as a likable guy, or in fact someone that I’d want to be in the room with on a social basis for more than about five minutes. In fact, in some ways it reminded me of having just seen The Social Network and the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a pathetic, self-absorbed savant.

I doubt that was the intention, and there’s certainly plenty of good said about the man in the book, and about his food, and about the restaurant, and much about how beautiful the setting is (which at times comes across almost more important than all the rest of it). I particularly enjoyed the history and development leading from the early days, pre-Adriá up to, essentially, today (or at least about 8 months ago when the book more or less terminates).

If there’s a fault in the book, it is in the lack of any clear picture of those around Adriá. While true, the title of the book is his name, it purports to be the story of the restaurant as well, and while the early history and original owners are well developed, there’s a lack of any real exploration of those surrounding him – his senior staff, both front and back of house, his wife, and other than one or two chefs who have had an impact on him or vice versa, both good and bad, any outside influences. I have trouble imagining that those people have not been of significance in the development of the restaurant, as well as his personal development. But that may be a series of stories for another day and another book.

The conclusion, at several points, both by author and others, that Adriá will always be remembered and that there will always be a pre- and post- annotation in the annals of culinary history seems unlikely to me. There is no doubting the import the man has had on the culinary world, but it is easy to spend a short amount of time in conversation with those in the food world who have not been steeped in the classics to find a complete lack of knowledge of luminaries like Escoffier, Vatel, Guerard, Bocuse, or whomever you wish to name, and that’s just some of the big names in the French world. The likelihood is that a hundred years from now, perhaps even just fifty or less, Adriá will be nothing more than a footnote lost amongst volumes of information that have succeeded him, and only someone delving into the cuisine of our era will encounter him as anything more than that, and then, probably just because he has been an obsessive documenter of his own work. Just a prediction that I doubt I’ll be around to checkout.

In the end, this is a fascinating read, well worth the investment, financial and temporal, whether you’re “into” this sort of cuisine or not, and I highly recommend it.

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