Albert Adria steps out from brother Ferran's shadow

Chef Albert Adria is an accomplished chef who owns elBarri, a collection of six fascinating restaurants in Barcelona.
Chef Albert Adria is an accomplished chef who owns elBarri, a collection of six fascinating restaurants in Barcelona.PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Behind every successful man is - his brother?

 You cannot mention Albert Adria's name without instinctively appending it to his more famous sibling Ferran - the culinary king of the world in the years when his restaurant elBulli dominated the bucket lists of every crazed food-lover.

All the years that he toiled backstage as elBulli's head pastry chef and mastermind behind some of the funkier creations such as Parmesan cheese foam, Mr Adria never felt any resentment towards Ferran for hogging the spotlight. "In fact, having people compare me with my brother is the best thing to happen to me," says the 48-year-old on a recent visit to Singapore, where he teamed up with chef Andre Chiang for a one-day-only, sold-out four hands event.

But while he once thought he needed to be in Ferran's shadow, it is time for him to step out and build his own name, says the speed-talking chef-restaurateur who speaks some English, but relies mainly on an interpreter.

He is now the frontman of elBarri Adria, a restaurant group he founded with seven others including Ferran, although his brother is also busy with his elBulli foundation and Bullipedia - the ambitious projects he embarked on after closing his restaurant in 2011.

Ferran is not directly involved in elBarri, but offers advice, while Mr Adria and his team are the ones who develop concepts and menus. In fact, "next week, Ferran is going to all our restaurants to give us feedback".

The two are especially close since Mr Adria dropped out of school in his teens to work with Ferran, but while "we support and complement each other, we are two different people".

This particular Adria now has six restaurants in Barcelona, all within walking distance of one another and include the much-hyped Nikkei restaurant Pakta and contemporary tapas bar Tickets.

The newest addition is the six-month-old Enigma - in itself a mystery because of the secrecy of its menu and its ban on diners posting photos of their meal publicly. People hail it as the new elBulli, but "elBulli is incomparable", he says with an air of been-there-done-that. "You can't replicate things in your life. Once is enough."

But, elBulli is a good reference point for people "to understand the level of seriousness we want to achieve", although he thinks it is still too early to tell if Enigma will be a success.

"It takes about three years to find your niche and get people to understand your project."

He also acknowledges it is an expensive experiment as "a lot of money" has been invested in this.

He is perhaps cautious after 41 Degrees, a fancy cocktail bar the brothers opened in 2011 at the same time as Tickets, which served a 41-course elBulli-like menu, but has since closed down.

Despite conceptualising a string of groundbreaking dining concepts, Mr Adria does not see himself as a trendsetter. "I just want to do good work and make people happy. I have some influence because of what I do and create, but it is not my main motive."

With his string of restaurants - he also has one in Ibiza and he has teamed up with elBulli alumnus Jose Andres to open a massive Spanish food hall in New York next year - it sounds as if he has turned into a businessman rather than chef. But the truth is that he still puts in 14 hours a day in the kitchen and finds the paperwork involved in running a business "boring".

If anything, he seems like a driven chef with too many ideas to confine himself to one kitchen. And having "invested a lot of money that is not mine", there is the responsibility to make money from his concepts.

Besides New York, he is also teaming up with compatriot Dani Garcia - the three-Michelin-starred chef who runs a huge restaurant group with 500 employees - to open a vegetarian restaurant in Marbella "because I love vegetables". But it will be only 80 per cent vegetarian and 20 per cent meat and seafood "because vegetarian people don't drink wine", deadpans the ever-realistic chef.

He does not want to do anything that he cannot control the quality of, which is why, outside of the US, he does not have any other restaurant projects.

Not for lack of opportunity. Every year, he receives an average of 40 serious requests to open a restaurant from around the world.

"Miami. Las Vegas. Countries I don't know. Saipan. Where is that? I have no idea where it is."

And, yes, he has been approached by Singaporean investors as well.

"But Singapore is very far away. I cannot open a restaurant without someone from my team running it full time. To put so much money into a restaurant, even if I come every two months, it won't have the same effect. It will be exciting, but I'm thinking more about what happens after one year and how to sustain the quality."

While he is adamant about not opening any more restaurants in Barcelona, he would make an exception to open a xiao long bao shop. "The best fast food in the world is dumplings," he raves. "I really admire Din Tai Fung. To call it fast food is stupid to me, but it really is fast and it is food."

He says he made friends with a Chinese chef who makes the best xiao long bao and they are thinking of working together to open a shop in Barcelona because there are only two such eateries there and they are "no good".

He wants to follow the example of Din Tai Fung because "it's incredible to mix volume and quality - I don't know how they do that and I really admire it".

Ask him what the best part of his job is and, without hesitation, he says it is "cooking". It is all about produce, purity and how you can take a simple ingredient and create something amazing with it.

"In the kitchen, it is just you, your skill and the product. When you create something that is great, that is what drives me."