The Adrià Experience

What do you cook for the best chef in the world? There is one person in Cape Town who could answer that question for us.

by: Cathrine Shone: Food24 | 11 Mar 2009

Richard Carstens, from Nova Restaurant is no stranger to glamorous events and high pressure situations; he's a chef after all. He is also one of South Africa's top chefs and known to many as SA's "molecular gastronomy" chef.

The term "molecular gastronomy" came into the culinary limelight in the late nineties when Ferran Adrià, proprietor of the world's top restaurant, elBulli, started the first great food movement in 30 years, with a dash of liquid nitrogen.

Adria himself refers to his cooking as "deconstructivist" and certainly the list of names and descriptions for this type of cuisine is a lengthy one. Perhaps the world's most feared food critic AA Gill says it best: "I shan't damn elBulli by saying it's the best restaurant in the world, but it is a masterclass in the metaphysics on how, what and why we eat, while still being dinner".

When Ferran Adrià visited Cape Town to attend the Design Indaba, Richard Carstens and his team at Nova were invited by the doyenne of South African cooking, Topsi Venter, to prepare a meal for the world's greatest chef and 50 other mere mortals.

We talked to Richard about the night he cooked for Ferran Adrià:

1. First of all – how did it go?
It was a great success – he seemed to appreciate the food and he is enjoying being in Cape Town.

2. Did you have to follow a certain recipe/theme or did you have carte blanche?
The brief for the evening was traditional South African cuisine, or to be more specific: Cape Cookery. The aim was to showcase ingredients and dishes that have a true South African flavour.

3. Were you nervous, cooking for you mentor? What was going through your mind?
We were more excited than nervous. This was a huge privilege for me and my young team. The very first thing Ferran Adrià did on his arrival was to walk into my kitchen and shake all of our hands. This gesture made us all feel comfortable and confident.

4. What did you cook for him?
With the theme being Cape Cookery we put together a menu that consisted of all sorts of traditional South African ingredients from biltong pate to harders served with wild sage and seaweed, crayfish with cucumber, tomato and onion mayo and gemsbok with samp and beans and sour fig sauce.

5. Did he have any comments on the meal?
Being the centre of attention and with obvious language barriers, a chat was difficult. He did however indicate that he thoroughly enjoyed it. He thanked all the chefs after dinner.

6. Geniuses can often be a little eccentric. What is Ferran Adrià like?
He is a very humble and gracious man. He does not have the type of personality you would normally associate with a celebrity chef, or any chef for that matter. He is clearly in love with food and he has respect for anyone who creates and serves it.

7. Can you briefly explain the concept of "molecular gastronomy" and explain why this term is dispelled by chefs such as yourself and Ferran Adrià?
The vanguard movement is trying to put the term "molecular gastronomy" to rest because it is a complicated situation to explain that what you are cooking is something different from what people are telling you you are cooking. Molecular narrows too much focus on the contribution of science to cuisine. Science has been useful in the understanding of and development of techniques.

A better substitute would be "gastronomy" because it encompasses the science of cooking and dining. The fear of science in cooking stems from the terminology. Deconstruction is when you set apart each element of a dish with the aim of restoring the flavour closest to the original in memory.

8. If the tables were turned, who would you most like to cook a meal for you?
I would have to say Ferran Adrià, Andoni Aduriz and Quique Dacosta.

9. Your top cookbooks of the moment?
Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide by Thomas Keller, Chlorofilia by Andoni Aduriz and Quintessential by DaCosta.

10. Do you have a "molecular gastronomy" trick up your sleeve that we can try and knock up at home?
You can create a frothy sauce or foam at home by adding lecithin to your sauce and then frothing it with a hand blender.

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