Q&A: Albert Adrià on pop-ups, life at elBulli and waiting to open a restaurant

2,800 people snapped up tickets to 50 Days of Albert Adrià at Hotel Café Royal. We chat to the acclaimed chef about life at elBulli, adapting to Londoners' tastes and why, sometimes, it's good to be patient

Albert Adria

You can’t talk about Albert Adrià without mentioning his brother Ferran, the former head chef of vaunted Spanish restaurant elBulli, which was repeatedly voted best in the world during its heyday. But that seems rather a shame to us – Albert’s gone on to open four hugely successful restaurants in Spain, with a fifth about to launch, but what’s more exciting, obviously, is that he’s finally bringing his Catalan flair to London with 50 Days by Albert Adrià at the Hotel Café Royal. Want to book a table? You can’t – only five spaces were left within a week of tables becoming available. Adrià tells us what it’s like to have a name that precedes you, adapting to Londoners’ tastes and and making food history.

Have you already decided on the menus for the pop-up?

It's our second time in London and we've met the team at Hotel Café Royal three times. We'll come over one more time before it opens. We came first in September, to see the spaces and everything, and then we were back in Barcelona, where we developed everything, and this time we've had three meetings so we can develop the project further. We're still working on it. We've changed many things. We want to have something that people here will enjoy so we're gathering a lot of information, and from that we're changing the menu and adapting it. I'd like to use British products and I'm concerned about what people don't like here.

What do you think that is?

We're talking in general here, but for example, because in Spain we eat a lot of seafood, including sea urchins, and we were told that they aren’t so well known here. We need that kind of information to make sure that people will eat what we offer. As we’re here for just 50 days, it's important that we get what we're offering straight, because if you've got a menu with kidneys and foie gras, not everyone likes that and then you have to start changing dishes and the experience doesn't make sense any more because you have to make a plan B for everything. It's better to have a straight offering that everyone will like, although obviously we will be able to cater for people with allergies and dietary requirements. For example, the baker here has made us four kinds of bread to see how they would work for us. We have very crusty bread in Spain, and the baker said to us that here it's not really like that in London, so we're going to use what you like here.

I've tried lots of different cuts of meats, and I chose one meat from Scotland, and the oyster comes from Ireland, and I tried lobster from Scotland and Ireland. The only thing is, I'm allergic to crustaceans, and for this kind of thing, I have to get people I trust to taste it. I'm only allergic to lobster, crab and shrimps – but I love crab so it's a problem. When I have to try a dish, I use monkfish instead because it's the texture is similar and I get an idea of how it will be.

Albert Adria

Albert Adria

When did you first realise that you wanted to work in the food industry?

It's not something that I chose – I was 15 years old and I didn't want to study – so my father said, if you don't want to study, you have to work. By that time, Ferran was already working at elBulli and that year he became head chef, so that's why I could start working in the kitchen. I learned the basics of how to cook and when I started, I was washing dishes. Then I was in the fish section, but because of my allergy, I ended up on the pastry section and I was very happy there. It was the 1980s and early 1990s, the dessert trolley with all the cakes was very popular, and I was the first to question that and ask why we have to do it that way. And so we started doing something different.

Cooking is like directing a movie; if someone had the same images, they would tell a different story

What would do if you didn't work in food?

I'd have liked to be in advertising, and if not that, movie directing, which I've done a bit of before. I think it's very similar to when you make a dish, because you've got ingredients and you have to interpret them to put them together. With a movie it's the same, because I like to edit the images, but if someone else had the images, they would make a different story. It depends on the person and how they interpret it and organise it. I was very, very close to being a director when we finished elBulli. I'd already made the movie, A Day in elBulli, for which I did everything, and also each of my restaurants has a movie which explains everything – sometimes it's easier to explain a concept through a movie. But the problem is that the movies for the restaurants don't have money, they were produced very cheaply. After I left elBulli in 2008, I was close to doing my first movie, but then the recession came and I couldn't.

Which chefs have influenced the way that you cook?

Many, the first one being my brother. Because elBulli would close for 6 months of the year during winter, during those months, we'd travel and do stages, so I learnt a lot from the people that I worked for. Even these days, people I meet and people who work for me also influences the way I cook, everyone I meet personally and professionally makes a difference and teaches me something.

What was it like working at elBulli?

That period and living there, in the middle of nowhere, with the beach and the natural world, made a huge impact on me as a professional. It changed a lot, though: at the beginning we were kids and we were very naive, but then we became a reference point for the rest of the world and it was a new period for us. We became part of history. I learned a lot there, the most important thing being to live the profession with passion. It's not easy, but it's a job that allows you to change things and to bring something of yourself to it.

Did you ever feel pressure to compete with your brother?

It wasn't just competition with Ferran – there were five people creating the dishes at elBulli. I believe in healthy competition because it makes you go further. elBulli and Ferran became synonymous, but we started it together. Some people think I'm Ferran's son! Ferran arrived a year earlier than me, so it's not such a big difference. It was our project together.

What do you hope to bring to London with your residency here?

There are 2,800 people who've chosen to book this experience – that's a lot for 50 days! All I hope to do is to meet the expectations of these people. We'll make mistakes but we're going to be very fresh to everyone because we're very new.

Would you ever open a permanent restaurant in London?

It's not whether I want to, it's if I can, because right now I'm finishing off my projects in Barcelona. I've got five restaurants there but one’s still in progress, so I really want to focus on that – but, of course, London is the centre of the world, everyone comes here. I’m not afraid to wait. I waited until I was 38 to open my first restaurant. You have to be able to know to wait, because London is a big city and there's a lot of competition. You have to have the respect and the maturity to open here. There's a lot of pressure with my surname and you have to be very careful with that. But I'm happy with that, it's not too much.

You have to have the respect and maturity to open in London

How will it differ to your restaurants in Barcelona?

I want people to know that it has my signature. It's not just about coming and cooking, it's about the whole experience. The menu and, for example, today we've been modifying the space and the lighting. It's the Domino private restaurant, but last night, after we got some more information in the meetings, I decided how I want the space, because the experience isn't just food. It's even the tableware. Tomorrow I'm flying to a guy that makes tableware, we've worked with him previously, and he's specifically designing tableware for 50 Days.

Maybe one of the most interesting things is that we’re having one experience but in two venues. We're going to be using the Oscar Wilde bar and the Domino restaurant at the Hotel Café Royal. Because it's the first time we're going to be doing that. It's going to be interesting for us to see how it works and see if people get it. The best thing is that, if it doesn't work, I don't have to keep it, I can re-adapt it very quickly, so that's a good thing. I've opened five restaurants in the past four years and it’s given me a lot of experience in how to do that.

The historic Hotel Café Royal – in pictures

How do you think doing a pop-up and a restaurant differ?

In a restaurant, it's going to be around – hopefully – for many, many years, so it's a different speed. You're not that rushed. But being here for just two months is like being an insect which is born, grows, reproduces and then dies in that time. You have to be big from day one. And when you have a restaurant you know that you have more time so you have different deadlines. But a pop-up, you have to be quick and you have to make as few mistakes as possible.

For us it's also important to know the response of the people and we were surprised about all the press and the people. There are a lot of pop-ups everywhere, like Noma in Sydney, so there are a lot of things going on and when you're in Barcelona you lose perspective of what's going on. You know you're known in your own city, and in the industry, but for us it was a big surprise. Booking has only been open a week, but we've only got five tables left. That's incredible! We're very excited.

Are you bringing your own team over from Barcelona?

Some of them, because we believe it's important that we work with the people at the hotel because at the end of the day it's a venture that we're undertaking together, not just us. For us it's important to know how they work here, because the front-of-house staff know better than us how to approach the customers. We're going to have a soft opening, and private soft opening, which will be just four of us so I can see what it's like. The most hard thing to get is the routine, and the time, and the staff need to become confident and lose fear. We're not selling food, we're selling a story, and the Hotel Café Royal is a history, as is Domino. There's a lot of respect involved and it will really influence what we're going to do.

How do you think the London food scene differs to the one in Barcelona?

The public here are very strict, they expect a lot, but they are also very grateful, and I appreciate that. It's more dynamic, faster – there's just more of it. Barcelona is like a small neighbourhood compared to London.

What's your favourite dish on the menu?

For each beautiful idea, you need to do more work

Because of the venue, which is so traditional, I will try to give it a twist, but still keep it very respectful of its history. There'll be trolleys and that sort of thing, and an Oscar Wilde drink. There's an eel canapé, made with eel jelly, which is a traditional dish here. We're changing it all the time. There'll be some surprising dishes with vegetables – I don't want to give it all away! – and a special spaghetti called Queen's Spaghetti, made with a particular type of mushroom which becomes the spaghetti. It's a vegetarian dish, and the recipe for the sauce is Mexican. It’s incredible, it tastes like meat.

I decided on the menu before I arrived, but I've already decided to change everything again. The more information that I get, the more it changes. And I want to serve things in containers that you can refill as you like, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. But for each beautiful idea, you need to do more work.

50 Days by Albert Adrià is running from 12 February to 9 April at the Hotel Café Royal, 68 Regent Street, W1B 4DY;