Half-an-hour before the scheduled start of Wednesday evening's Materials Research and Nanoscale science lecture, the 250 seats in Harvard's Jefferson Hall were taken and a policeman by the door was going to make sure that none of the dozens of students gathered wistfully outside the entrance was going to sneak in. Those unlucky enough to have missed out on the two overflow rooms that offered large-screen projections of the event were advised to watch the live webcast. The draw-card of the evening at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences was no rock-star scientist, however; it was a cook.
Ferran Adria, of course, is not just any cook. He is the chef of elBulli, the globally celebrated restaurant about two hours outside Barcelona for which patrons can wait years to secure a reservation 2 million requests are fielded each year for 8,000 spots. And he's here because he's been hailed as the father of "molecular gastronomy" (a term that does not appeal to him), having invented the technique of reducing foods to their essence, and then transforming the form in which they're presented flavored foams and the like techniques now common in high-end restaurants everywhere. Still, if Adria is accustomed to the adulation of foodies, he stood staring, arms akimbo, in happy disbelief at the hall packed with science students. (Read TIME's Top 10 food trends of 2008.)
Adria began his presentation with a brief film that offered a visual approximation of the experience of dining at El Bulli, and then, as his friend, Harvard microbiology professor Roberto Kolter translated, the Catalan chef launched into an entertaining and impressive discussion of the science of his cuisine. He focused on his discovery of new textures particularly the magical uses of hydrocolloids and liquid nitrogen to give foods shapes they'd never assume without the intervention of innovative physics. The crowd exhaled collective "aaaahs" as if they could almost taste the bejeweled concoctions being assembled on video before them perfect little caviar-like spheres made of melon essence, translucent ravioli, a caipirinha sorbet. These innovations, he explained, were part of his new vocabulary of eating, opening new ways of communicating through food. Adria said he was excited to be at Harvard because he was looking for new ways to recharge his kitchen's creativity, and would be sitting in on science classes in search of inspiration.
Many in the audience left bearing copies of Adria's new book, A Day at elBulli, not cheap at $49.95. Others had brought with them the even heavier volumes of his earlier cookbooks ($400 a pop) to be signed. One young man wanted Adria's autograph on the handle of a kitchen knife (the blade was safely wrapped in plastic); a woman left a sample of her porcini sauce for Adria's kitchen to experiment with. (Adria's wife Isabel worried about flying the tiny vial of liquid back to Spain). A couple of people on line for autographs whispered giddily to him, "We have reservations at elBulli next year." (See pictures of what makes you eat more food.)
Asked about the difficulties of dining at elBulli, Adria looked sad. The nature of his cooking, he explained, and the quality of both the dishes and the dining experience, meant that only about 40 guests a night could be accommodated during the six months the restaurant was open each year.
Still, he explained in response to another question, elBulli's exclusiveness does not mean it is a profitable enterprise. Isabel sighed as she told me that lectures such the one he gave at Harvard were required to help them support the venture. Expanding the elBulli product line and promoting the brand are "part of what we do with the rest of the six months of the year," she explained. Besides pricey books, revenue streams include kitchen equipment and other enterprises. But it all serves the purpose of maintaining the restaurant and its all-important taller or laboratory workshop in Barcelona where Adria and his creative staff conjure up a new menu each year.
After the lecture, I joined the Adrias and the scientist-organizers of their visit at a sumptuous 30-course dinner scheduled at Clio, an elegant restaurant in Boston's Back Bay. Its chef, Kenneth Oringer, spent some time in the elBulli kitchen. Adria was happily relaxed but still peppering the scientists at the table with questions about the qualities of certain foods. Why, he asked, did red beets emulsify so much more easily than anything else he's used in the kitchen. None of the scientists had an answer but someone suggested putting the root crop through a molecular spectroscope to break down its chemical composition. By then, Adria was engaging other people at the table. Are there any schools that actually do what he is trying his kitchen, he wondered, offering haute cuisine new ways to manipulate food through what is known of physics, chemistry and technology? Nothing quite fit what Adria was looking for, but Professor David Weitz of Harvard's Department of Physics said he headed a group that studied soft condensed matter, and that perhaps it could be of service to Adria.
All the while, food kept arriving on the table in beautiful and manageable individual portions, some inspired by dishes and techniques from elBulli. But the number of plates was adding up. Even though elBulli is known to serve 40 courses per person each night, the Adrias were jet-lagged and facing another two days at Harvard. Dinner the next night was going to be substantial too. (The locale: Chinatown.) But how do you tell a kitchen to stop being generous? Jose Andres, the chef and star of a TV show on Spanish food and another disciple of Adria's well loved in the restaurant world came to the rescue. He very diplomatically got the kitchen to drop a few dishes from the repast, and soon the staff came out to present their own copies of Adria's books for his signature.
Before the evening ended at 2 a.m., the Adrias slipped me a CD. On its front were the words Bon Nadal, Catalan for "Merry Christmas." I had commissioned TIME's first piece on Adria back in 2000 and we'd become friends after being seated together at the gala dinner for the TIME 100 of 2004, of which Ferran was one. Since then, Ferran Adria has become an even more popular and influential global cultural figure. He has been hailed as an artist at Germany's prestigious Documenta arts festival in Kassel, and at Harvard he was rubbing elbows with some of the world's leading scientists. (On Wednesday, he signed an "understanding" with the University's Materials Research center to work on college courses and a book on science and culinary creativity). He's even done a turn in the movies, playing the chef on the Spanish-language version of the animated Ratatouille. Some American magazines no longer even bother to identify him when they drop his name in print; he has become a personage everyone is expected to recognize.
Ferran's eyes almost twinkled when he passed the CD to me. He said it was a secret, and I was sworn to keep it all in confidence. Its contents are an outline for his next big project, which could well expand the intellectual and artistic boundaries of his culinary empire. But I think I've said too much. And before I knew it, the dinner was over and everyone was kissing each other farewell on both cheeks before I had an opportunity to ask if Ferran could put in a word for me when I next e-mail for a reservation at elBulli.