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  El Bulli: Cooking Up Innovation 

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The Catalan restaurant El Bulli has come a long way since its humble establishment in the early 1960s as a beach bar in a coastal village one and half hours north of Barcelona. Though the restaurant earned its first Michelin star in 1975, it was the arrival of the culinary team of Juli Soler, Ferran Adrià and younger brother Albert in the 1980s that has seen El Bulli rise to the top.

Ferran Adrià famously recalls how he once heard a French chef explain, "Creativity means not copying." Those prophetic words changed his whole conception of cooking. In the two decades since that epiphany, Adrià has elevated Spanish cuisine to an art form.

Today his restaurant - open for only six months out of every year - has a nearly two-year-long waiting list. Adrià has spawned a publishing and consulting business, lent his brand to food merchandising, and opened several gourmet fast-food outlets as well as a luxury hotel. He now envisions a training academy for innovators from all over the world, across all industries, who could draw lessons from his unique approach to creativity.

Is this a realistic vision, or merely another fanciful dream by the so-called Salvador Dalí of the kitchen? IESE professors Julia Prats and Javier Quintanilla and research assistant Jordan Mitchell whet readers' appetites in the culinary case study, "El Bulli's Magic Recipe," written with the support of IESE's Center for Family-Owned Business and Entrepreneurship (CEFIE).

Exploring the Unexplored
"Creativity is first, then the customer," Ferran Adrià has said. True to his word, with the flair of a theater performance, Adrià and his team concoct dishes closer to an artist's process than mere old cookery, in what has become known as "technique-concept cuisine," all based on the premise of exploring the unexplored.

One example is blowing up tomatoes with bicycle pumps to see what would happen. The result? Foam. Another example is a whisky cocktail transformed instantly into sorbet in front of your eyes by injecting liquid nitrogen. A meal at El Bulli consists of 35 such wondrous acts, each creation coming with elaborate eating instructions: one bite of this, a sip of that, down the whole thing at once, immediately or it will melt! "We are inviting 50 people into our home every night," Adrià explains. "It should be the greatest event of their lives."

Adrià loves to break the rules, and one of his most brazen rule-breaking claims is that his restaurant business is not profitable, nor does he want it to be. He charges less than 200 euros a head, though could easily command more, and limits seating capacity to only 50 guests per night. Though a million hopefuls write in for a reservation every year, only 8,000 "dining experiences" are granted. He insists he wants to keep El Bulli closer to its humble roots: "We began serving fisherman and I want to keep it that way." In keeping with his democratic philosophy, Adrià also famously gives all his recipes away. Though profits do come from the many spinoff operations, he regards business success as the means to buy freedom for more creativity.

Where next?
The rule-breaking theatrics carry throughout the entire operation. The 70-person team, including some 40 chefs, are all multilingual and as adaptable as the menu itself, in order to be able to coach diners through their magical six-hour tasting tour. They work mostly in exchange for room and board, not to mention the résumé-enhancing kudos of a season's assignment.

For the six months of the year when the restaurant is closed, Adrià and his team huddle away like mad scientists in a food laboratory near "La Boqueria" market in Barcelona, experimenting with hundreds of new recipes for the following season. "Laboratory" is an accurate description, as they often employ untraditional cooking equipment such as costly pharmaceutical machines meant for producing capsules and so on.

In Adrià's view, everything at El Bulli needs to be renewed for the next year, so no repeat recipes. Allegedly more techniques and concepts have been developed at El Bulli over the past 15 years than in the world over the past century.

So, when you've reached the pinnacle of your creative form, where do you go next? What comes after deconstruction? And to what extent is El Bulli's genius tied to the unique personalities and propitious pairing of the dynamic duo of Juli Soler and Ferran Adrià?

There is no telling where El Bulli 's ideas will take us next, but one thing is for sure: the ride will be delicious!

An interview with El Bulli proprietor Juli Soler is available in Spanish.

This article is based on:  elBulli's Magic Recipe
Year:  2008
Language:  English