PARIS – A few decades ago, France suffered a severe shock. A Spanish restaurant called El Bulli, on the Catalan coast north of Barcelona, has led such a bold culinary revolution that French cuisine suddenly seemed stuffy, a self-satisfied tradition stuck in a bed of butter and cream.
In an article that the French have never forgotten, Arthur Lubow writes in the New York Times Magazine that “Spain has become the new France”. The chefs felt that classic French cuisine had run out of gas. It was a country, one esteemed Spanish food critic suggested, where chefs go “to learn what not to do”. How could a veal blanquette or an entrecôte with morels and cream stand up to a mousse of white beans with sea urchins or balls of melon caviar?
That was in 2003. Ferran Adrià, together with his younger brother Albert, transformed his restaurant in the Catalan seaside town of Rosas into a gastronomic gem so sought after that annual requests for tables amounted to millions, few between them being satisfied.
The world wanted to taste Mr. Adrià’s conjuration of improbable fusions and levity. Kitchen and laboratory merged. Escoffier gives in to essences. The sauces were airy rather than reduced. The beet mousse and basil jelly were the new Dutch and velvety.
The pendulum, however, still swings too far. El Bulli, satisfied, closed its doors in 2011. The great Catalan and Basque culinary flowering that left France to heal its wounds has passed its zenith. Other countries—Peru, Denmark, Japan—have become the object of gastronomic fascination.
France, like Aesop’s tortoise, continued its path shaped by superb ingredients, timeless professionalism, exacting tastes, great wines, rigorous finesse and, when necessary, “enough melted butter to thrombose a regiment “, as AJ Liebling said. After all, that’s what frogs’ legs demand – and not just any butter: that creamy, otherworldly beauty that is French butter.
“For a while, the Spaniards did better than us,” said Nicolas Chatenier, a prominent culinary consultant. “They had a message. We do not have. It was a sobering call to adapt ancient knowledge to contemporary circumstances. Food, you have to understand, is French soft power.
No one wielded that power more effectively than 65-year-old Alain Ducasse, the demanding and restless French chef raised on a farm in the southwest of the country. At 33, he became the youngest chef to earn three Michelin stars (at the Louis XV in Monaco) and has since racked up 29 across his 30 restaurants in Europe, Asia and the United States. Mr. Ducasse, always on the move, is an entrepreneurial perfectionist.
“One problem? Two solutions,” he likes to say, not always the reflex in a country that sometimes seems less inclined to go yes than no. Now Mr. Ducasse has come up with an ingenious scheme that seems end the Franco-Spanish trauma with complete elegance.
He teamed up with Albert Adrià, a long-time junior partner of the El Bulli trip and now a Barcelona restaurateur, to create a 100 Days pop-up whose menu marries French, Spanish and other cuisines with an emphasis on sustainable ingredients. The menu does not offer any meat. Fish and cereals are in the spotlight, but not to the exclusion of a rich Brillat-Savarin cheese with shavings of Alba truffles on a light meringue. It is above all a search for an innovative and surprising balance of improbable ingredients.
Called ADMO — an acronym for Adrià, Ducasse, Romain Meder (former executive chef of Ducasse at the Plaza-Athénée) and Les Ombres, the restaurant that houses the pop-up — the experience is the first ephemeral restaurant of such ambition to Paris, located in a room that offers one of the best views of the city over the Eiffel Tower. The desserts are by Jessica Préalpato and M. Adria.
“It’s a European act, a civilizational act through haute cuisine,” suggested Mr. Ducasse, who is a skilled trader as well as an unusual gastronomic talent.
Mr Adrià, 52, said he had no hesitation. “Coming to Paris at the invitation of Alain Ducasse was more risky for him than for me! he said. It was a chance, decades after Spain’s culinary revolution, to “share, talk, exchange ideas and secrets, and watch how gastronomy has evolved into a global language”.
While talking in the kitchen a few days before the opening of ADMO this month, he tasted the ingredients for a black quinoa-walnut-miso-cocoa galette to serve as an aperitif.
“Less butter, a little more miso, it’s easier when you fry the nuts!” he instructed a team of nine hard-pressed members brought from Spain.
The Spanish Revolution, M. Adrià reflected, was a liberation from France. He guillotined the idea that haute cuisine was necessarily fundamentally French. His brother traveled regularly to France. El Bulli’s first menus, with saffron mussel soup and roast leg of lamb, were derivative.
“Then we started wondering why we weren’t using our local ingredients – razor clams, sea urchins – and why we were steaming vegetables and adding butter, when our mother always used olive oil. “, did he declare.
A free exchange of ideas has given rise to unusual dishes at ADMO. Mr. Adrià has a Mexican restaurant in Barcelona. He proposed the mole sauce that accompanies the roasted cauliflower with hazelnut butter, enhanced with a confit of monkfish liver and black sesame paste. Cooking techniques here are largely French, Spanish-Mexican ideas.
“This dish really brought us together,” Meder said.
Fusing kitchen staff with different protocols and techniques has not always been easy, especially given the complex mix of ingredients.
Quickly cooked razor clams end up in a tangy verbena butter flavored with deer horn plantain extraction. Cod skin is sliced into soba noodle-like strands that float in a broth of mushrooms and Galician sea urchins. Saint-Tropez sea cucumber is served with candied garlic, chickpeas and caviar.
“Some American diners seem to find the texture of the sea cucumber a bit difficult,” Mr. Chatenier said after the restaurant opened this month.
At 380 euros, or about $430, for the 13-course dinner menu, or about half that at lunch, ADMO puts “haute” in haute cuisine. The recommended libation for several dishes is a 2008 Dom Pérignon Rosé champagne, served at different temperatures for different dishes.
For Mr. Ducasse, whose air of amused detachment belies a fierce attention to detail, it’s just the latest of many companies that in recent years have included new ventures in ice cream and chocolate. He is driven. Aged 28, he was on a small plane that crashed in the Alps, killing the other four people on board and leaving him writhing in the snow for hours before being rescued.
“After that, you believe you have a destiny and you want to control it,” he said.
Mr. Ducasse says he never doubted the resilient appeal of French cuisine. “It’s an obsession, something in our DNA,” he said. “The expertise to find the right reduction, the right temperature, the right seasoning, the right preparation and the right wine to accompany it all.
What sets Mr. Ducasse apart is his resolute pursuit of expansion that has led some critics to say he’s stretched too thin, and his simultaneous focus on the perfectly executed simple dish alongside extremes of refinement.
Black pudding or roast pork from his moderately priced Parisian bistro Aux Lyonnais, under the direction of his new chef Marie-Victorine Manoa, excites him as much as ADMO, which will close on March 9. Even at ADMO, a palette of butter on rice flour bread served in the middle of the meal is an undeniable Ducasse touch, a comforting break.
“OK, so now Scandinavians serve the perfect plate of peas,” he said. “So what? following?”
Mr. Ducasse likes the Italian word “aggiornamento,” which he sees as the continued adaptation of tradition. Ultimately, ADMO is less a French-Spanish fusion restaurant and more a complex and cultural haute cuisine.
France has not, after all, disappeared from the culinary super league. He reconciled with his Spanish executioner. He learned to make cod-skin noodles while his frog legs are still swimming in butter. It may be soft power in the guise of the 21st century.