Ben Bayly was given a glimpse into the future of food when he travelled to Barcelona with Estrella Damm. His exclusive peek into Ferran Adria’s 'el BulliLab 'experience left him inspired.
BulliPedia (definition: For the classification of cuisine.)
I had no real idea what I was in for when I received the invitation to drop in on the most famous chef in the world on his home turf of Barcelona. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that when I did meet Ferran Adria it would be in a room that looked more like a sterile lab than a fine dining restaurant.
Barcelona heaves with restaurants and cuisines that are both old and new; and yet here we were, walking through the rafters of a stark white room in order to gain a perspective on Adria’s el BulliLab and BulliPedia experiment. His purpose sounds simple in nature, but will be a marathon in real time.
He and his team have set out to develop a comprehensive classification — a taxonomy, of sorts — of all food products: their biological origins, how they relate to other foods and beers or wines, and even how they got their names.
From there, Adria wants to organise all this into a clear, ordered and precise way of accessing all culinary knowledge — BulliPedia.
The BulliPedia process started in 2011 and it will take Ferran (plus 60 staff) 10 years and €15 million to get it all down. At the end of the project, we won’t just be able to search potatoes and find recipes that involve them (both easy and hard); we will be able to discover what the best food matches are, and we will also see biological information on the ingredients and food group, details on how it is grown and cultivated, and notes for where the next innovation for potato-based recipes may lie. This is the same for everything to do with food, from the tomato to the pine nut.
With charts and diagrams covering every wall at the elBulliLab, it is a mammoth task to distil into a science everything that we have haphazardly handed down from generation to generation through half written recipes and "grandma’s secret sauce’', yet for me the penny drop moment is when I realise that for Ferran it doesn’t begin with grandma.
Grandma is almost at the end of his research. Ferran ponders “Lucy” (Australopithecus) and the food origins of humankind, what did we eat? What utensils did we use? How did we feed our children? What did we grow? How did we prepare it? That’s the amazing thing about meeting someone like Ferran, he raises more questions than answers.
It took just one visit to elBulliLab to blow my mind and I am still coming to terms with how it has changed my approach to food. The easiest way I can explain it is with reference to our own Ernest Rutherford. For centuries we passed our eyes over atoms. We still do — most of us don’t see atoms even though we know they are there. We see a book, a cup or a piece of clothing. But Rutherford could see the atoms, and not only that, he saw beyond to splitting the atom. That’s what Ferran’s doing right now with food. He is in the process of removing that filter and with that gone, I now see food from a completely different perspective; an entirely new light.
Perhaps this idea is less romantic than how we would like to imagine the innovative, world-class Spanish chef as he concocts his latest masterpiece. But that’s not necessarily the case.
Ferran Adria lives by this motto:
"Great food is 99 per cent organisation and 1 per cent magic''
To him, you must know what you have done in the past — the good and bad — to truly understand how to make a spectacular dish. He strives always to innovate, it is what he does best and what he is renowned for; but for him, innovation and creativity must be seeded in order. Listening to Ferran explain his work and his passion has given me a new sense of perspective — and I don’t doubt that this would be the same for anyone. We are all very small cogs in the massive world of food. Any time we travel the world and look at what another culture is doing it opens your eyes, and to bring it all together in one place will take the skill of not only a culinary genius but a very special person.
Estrella are a huge backer of BulliPedia, they are doing their bit to help out with the project which is something they should be proud of.
My week in Barcelona has given me a new perspective. It has made me realise there is more to food than what’s going on in my 10 square metres of kitchen. Ferran did leave me with a couple of pieces of advice, and this one is a beauty for anyone interested in food.
So next time you’re cooking a new dish, perhaps get your friend, colleague, parents on the phone instead of jumping on the net — at least they can tell you what not to do as well!
Ferran Adria's words of wisdom
Great food is 99 per cent organisation and 1 per cent magic
Google is a mess, it’s not a way to research food
It’s impossible to know everything, but what do I have to know? And what is important?
Ideology is a science
History is our greatest teacher