Last night, legendary Spanish chefs Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, and Juan Mari Arzak appeared for a two-hour lecture at Beverly Hills' SLS Hotel. Were they there to pitch a situation comedy? Watching Andres rib his compañeros throughout the lecture ("We're here to show you how we disagree in public," he announced to laughs), we'd almost believe it. Or could Ferran have been angling to bring some sort of commercial project to the SBE hotel? Seeing as he and Andres both made separate speeches to cover Sam Nazarian's booty in besos, we'd almost accept that we could all be so lucky. But the three amigos were really gathered to tell us what their style of Spanish cooking is all about.
"Eating is the most complex process there is," declared Adria, before showing a strange video with extreme close-ups of a Karl Rove look-a-like making o-faces while dining at El Bulli with a Nancy Silverton doppelganger to the tune of The Beatles' Day in the Life. Huh? Getting all Harvard on us, the chef hit the white board to lay out the multiple variables that are involved in eating, from the identity, expectations, and origins of the diners themselves to why they are eating in the first place, whether it be to survive, as a hobby, social engagement, or for romance. Adria allowed that his aim was to create for those who eat as an "experience," leading him to use the term "avant-garde" that all three chefs would use thereafter to describe the cuisine that's often called molecular gastronomy.
"I don't do my mother's cuisine, because I'm a professional and she isn't," Adria went on to say. "We endeavor for an experience, to create a language with emotion, provocation, expression, sense of humor, and reflection...Those who want experience are not cowards, we cook for non-cowards." At this point, Andres clarified with a smile, "I don't always endorse his words."
Juan Mari Arzak became the next focus of the lecture, introduced as the mentor of both men. Andres said, "In the seventies, this man began re-energizing Spain by serving 40 people at a time with New Basque cooking," which would go on to influence Adria and Andres. Mari Arzak called him, in return, "mi hermano pequeno," and dubbed Adria as "el tercero" then later as "Plutonian" for his reach beyond tradition. Of the unification of Arzak's foundation with the avant-garde vision of Adria, Andres said, "he endorsed everything where there was supposed to be collision."
Arzak mentioned that their cuisine, no matter how much it bucks tradition, still has "roots." The senior chef explained, using U2 as a metaphor, "You go to a disco in Vegas, in Hollywood, San Sebastian, you close your eyes, and don't know where you are." On one point, Andres tried to interrupt Arzak, who quickly snapped with tongue in cheek, "Shut up!"
A Q&A session then broke out, in which Arzak recommended "humility" to chefs and diners alike, Andres poetically claimed "every restaurant is a story," and Aria admitted that in today's post-haute exploration of cuisine, nobody can learn everything about food in its full international breadth, even a room full of chefs, journalists, and three Spanish masters. Adria teased that a book of quick recipes could be forthcoming that takes as its inspiration the meals that El Bulli's staff eats in the hour before opening. The El Bulli visionary also shouted out Pau Gasol, having seen The Lakers play the previous day. Our favorite highlight was Andres telling this crowd of hundreds, "sometimes the almonds talk me and say, 'Jose, I would like to be invigorated in a different way,'" which basically summed up the mad genius and comedy on display throughout the evening.
In the end, Andres made the strongest case for the trio's "avant-garde" cooking, citing its detractors and those who refused to open to it (and maybe even speaking directly to L.A.'s biggest food guru Jonathan Gold, with whom he's quarreled on its merits). Andres stressed before showing a video of a Dale Chihuly-inspired salad, "What we do is bad, right? If you read certain people...I've had terrible paellas...but does it mean traditional cooking is bad?...I don't get it when someone tells me this is strange...it's no more strange to me than having a ham sandwich with a Coke...we need to open to new things, otherwise we are stuck in the past." He summed up his point with an allusion to another artist who inspires his work, "We used to live in caves, right? I could live in a cave, maybe one night, but 364 days of the year, I would live in a Frank Gehry building."