Coffee: a new understanding from Ferran Adria

by Jo Lamiri - Sunday March 31, 2019 10:03 am

When is a cup of coffee so much more? When it’s the subject of an encyclopaedia created by Ferran Adria’s elBulli Foundation, with Lavazza. Jo hears more from the man himself.

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Food philosopher Ferran Adrià has always been something of an innovator. It’s easy to remember that before he opened his ground-breaking restaurant El Bulli in 1984, molecular gastronomy, with its methodology more akin to a lab than to a kitchen, was pie in the sky.

Then, in 2011, he closed the world’s best restaurant (there’s nothing like going out at the top). But since then he’s been turning his attention to culinary arts and their academic importance. Just where are we going with food?

Enigmatically he says, “We closed El Bulli to open El Bulli [the elBulli Foundation, which now occupies his formidable brain]. They’re about to publish a weighty tome (in more ways than one), the encyclopaedic Coffee Sapiens: innovation through understanding. The work of experts at the elBulli Foundation and Lavazza, it offers a deep dive into the history, consumption practices, production techniques and myriad varieties of coffee.

The Sapiens projects work with different foods – coffee is just one of them. Adrià likens it to “a Master’s degree in Sapiens. We’ve studied 40 references from art, education, information…the 6Ws of journalism are fundamental to understanding: who, why, what, when, where, which…”

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Culinary professionals and coffee fans alike will enjoy the chance, via the book, to approach the worlds of coffee and gastronomy from a practical and intellectual viewpoint. “It is the encyclopaedia of a profession and we’ve been working with think tanks,” Adrià explains. “Our Sapiens initiative is a methodology for knowledge and research.”

Bemoaning the lack of academic evidence in culinary arts and fine dining, he explains that this is the first of many educational and innovative books. “There is no history book on the subject of fine dining, no great research works, no thesis on Escoffier.

London – specifically the beautiful Cakes & Bubbles within the Cafe Royal, all golden marble and uber-stylish gold lettering – has been chosen for the book’s launch…appropriately enough, since London was where Lavazza opened its first cafe outside Italy, in 1990.

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Since then, so much has changed in coffee. But family-run, fourth-generation Lavazza has been at the forefront of industry developments, with 56 training centres worldwide, educating 40,000 baristas, chefs, journalists and industry personnel every year in the art of everyone’s essential caffeine hit.

Marcelo Arcangeli of Lavazza explained why this culture and training is so important. “At Lavazza we focus on knowledge, culture and innovation – and have done since the company was formed in Turin in 1895. When we sell our coffee, we don’t sell the finished product. You, the chef or the barista has to prepare this.

If I say this is a good-quality coffee [he waves his espresso around in the air as he speaks] it means that the coffee itself is only 25% of the process: to make a really good coffee the other 75% has to match it.”

Lavazza teamed up with Ferran Adrià 20 years ago and asked him to help them develop coffee. One of the first questions he asked, according to Arcangeli, was: “Why don’t we eat coffee?” So, in 2002 they launched Espesso (‘solid’ in Italian). Hence, coffee became a food, not a drink.

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After the talks, we got to experience this ourselves with coffee-laced macarons, mousses, cakes with coffee ganache filling and coffeetails – innovative cocktails made from cherry juice, cold-press coffee, lemonade and, with a nod to the molecular, vodka foam. Very nice too.

“Innovation, it seems, is as essential as the air we breathe for Adrià, who says, “Our mission at El Bulli was to be avant garde, break away from the norm, open new paths and seek new limits. If you want to innovate, you have to add something new!

“We used to taste our menus every week, but we didn’t know how our brain and mind were working. Take coffee: first thing is attention and concentration – if you’re talking, you don’t notice what you’re drinking. Then taste and perception kick in, based on memory, intelligence and the ability to think.

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“At El Bulli, we had to create new limits and be agitators – my philosophy is if your competition is good, you must be even better. In the best hotels, they give me peanuts with wasabi which I can have at any supermarket…five-star luxury should offer something beyond this. You have to be courageous, a disruptor.”

He also dismisses the idea that he might be missing life in the kitchen. “People ask if I still want to cook but a chef nowadays isn’t in the kitchen peeling potatoes! I retired from management, not from being innovative…

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“Eating and tasting are more complex than cooking. At El Bulli, I was managing four executive chefs. We’ve opened nine restaurants since it closed: Enigma in Barcelona is the limit of experience.

In 1998 with El Bulli it wasn’t simply about making money; the avant garde shouldn’t make money. But we were radical – even with offers of £1m to cook dinner for a millionaire we said no. But would we do it for love, instead of money? Who knows.

Coffee Sapiens: innovation through understanding is now available to pre-order from Phaidon, £100.

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