For most of us, when we walk into the kitchen to roast a chicken or whip up some pancakes, we take for granted the tools and ingredients needed to bring the meal together. We don't put much thought into the properties of a tomato or the complex set of reactions that has to take place for a piece of meat to brown.
What does it mean to cook? How does commerce affect food? What is fruit? These are the questions that Ferran Adrià, the internationally acclaimed chef who is widely credited with popularizing the molecular gastronomy movement, spends his days musing. After closing El Bulli, his Michelin-starred restaurant in Catalonia, Adrià opened a foundation dedicated to studying the origins of cuisine.
During a recent lecture at Harvard University, Adrià posed the following question to the audience: "When a monkey peels a banana, is he cooking?"
The crowd emphatically answered no, which led Adrià to counter, "I don't understand why you said no. When I eat a banana for breakfast, I want it peeled." Which led Adrià to his next point: Who does the cooking when you order sushi from a Japanese restaurant? Is it the sushi chef who arranges the fish, wasabi, and ginger on the plate, or the diner who combines the ingredients before eating them?
Adrià's goal is to broaden the way people — especially high-level chefs who are responsible for pushing the boundaries of cooking — think about basic kitchen functions. "We have to reset our minds," he explained. "If you think well, you create well."
For decades, Adrià was the one pushing those boundaries in the El Bulli kitchen, earning himself three Michelin stars, as well as accolades from both his customers and competitors. Adrià's name has become synonymous with avant-garde cuisine because of his unique approach to serving even the most mundane ingredients. He is widely credited with popularizing techniques like spherification, the process of turning liquids into small caviar-like balls.
His elBullifoundation is working on the answers to the most fundamental questions about cooking. By 2016, it will unveil Bullipedia, an online food resource that will catalogue and classify foods in the hopes of driving further innovation.
Adrià wants to better define what cuisine is and how it began. Though many theorists equate the beginning of cuisine with the advent of fire, Adrià says that's not necessarily a fair starting point. "With guacamole, there isn't much heat," he points out. Processes like fermentation and marinating also don't require heat. "Who's to say people weren't doing these things before fire?" he adds.
Knowing the evolution of ingredients is another key focus of his research. Tracing the origins of something like the tomato (of which there are about 3,000 varieties) and understanding how it has been used by cooks throughout history could help unlock the next culinary breakthrough.
"Who on Earth came up with the idea of breaking an egg and separating the yolk?" Adrià asked. "That person was a genius."