The world at large probably first heard the name Ferran Adria in 2003 because of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show No Reservation and an episode called “Decoding Ferran Adria” which was the first primetime look into Ferran, his workshop and his restaurant elBulli. I have been a fan of his for a long time as his food is wildly creative and challenges the very conventions of what makes a meal and the role of science in cooking. Also as a result of all this creativity elBulli was named the best restaurant in the world a record four times.
I have always been fascinated with chef;s because I see a strong link between the creativity in cooking and creativity in design. I get really inspired by talking to and eating the food from chef’s like Ferran Adria, Jose Andreas, Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller and Wylie Dufresne. I have even use their food to teach how to think about creativity and have to break through creative ideas in my own design studio. I have my designers here in New York to go to Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant WD50 and have the eggs benedict to see what I mean. We have all had Eggs Benedict before but to at WD50 it is completely re-imagined into something you have never seen before, in a form you have never eaten before, but in spite of all of that the taste of the dish bring back strong memories to something you know. It is that play between wild creativity paired against something familiar that I love. I think it is what all break through design work does as well. The genus of the design of companies like Apple is that they give you something completely new but there is something familiar in the usability and the design even though you have never seen it before.
Over the years I have been lucky enough to talk with chef Adria on a number of different occasions including spending the day with him in his private workshop and laboratory in Barcelona. Over the course of those conversations about his work, his creative process and how he was able to create such breakthrough work I found that three themes emerged.
Moving Forward by Looking Back
At the end of every season at elBulli, Ferran makes the entire creative team go through all the work they did over the past six months to see what was successful, what failed and what they need to work on. His pointed out to me that most creative people do not like to look back like this and would rather move on to their next idea. He feels the process of reviewing your work like this is critical so you can learn from it and that it will help you grow as a creative thinker faster than just looking forward. I have to agree that i have never worked in a studio where this was done with any regularity and only seemed to happen after an assignment had gone very badly and management wanted to be sure I didn’t happen on the next assignment. I know I am guilty of it because so often when I look back I at my work I only see the short coming and the mistakes and I never take a more holistic view of it.
Creativity Isn’t Copying
This was a saying that Ferran got from his mentor and is the simple saying he uses as the standard for all the work at elBulli. We all have the tendency to want to fall back into past achievements and use things that we know work because it is safe and you don’t really have to risk anything. Going away from what you know is scarier because you have to risk a lot more. I think a large part of being able to make this a successful part of your process is have the support of a studio where risk, failure and sometimes even fighting are actually encouraged. Having this type of environment where everyone is taking risks all the time makes it easier for the individual to put themselves out there and break through into something new. I think if you look behind the food at elBulli and look at the team and the environment that Ferran has created you will see just that is the real reason for their success. And Ferran is always very clear to give credit to his team for the work that they created and that no great creative endeavor is ever the work of just one man.
This is something I have known and preached for a long time but it was good to hear it from Ferran that it is a key part of his process as well. I know that sounds like a funny statement to teach people to fail. Most people don’t want to fail, they view it as a huge negative, they don’t want to admit they had an idea that didn’t work but it is essential to the creative process. We see an entire new generation where creativity is on the decline for the first time in generations and I think it is because they are so obsessed with getting to the write answer and not understand that creativity is a process and not just an answer. The key is that when you fail you have to be able to look at your process to see what you did wrong and then improve upon it the next time. In this way, failing creates a cycle where you can constantly try to improve your work, your process and yourself with a fearlessness that lets you really try new and far-reaching ideas.