CULINARY KING FEELS THE HEAT

For three years running, El Bulli in the Catalan town of Roses has been voted the world’s best place to dine by Restaurant magazine, so co-owner Ferran Adria, considered by many to be the world’s greatest chef, is not used to criticism. But in his book The Kitchen Laid Bare, fellow Catalan chef Santi Santamaria – a traditionalist who, in 1994, became the first Catalan to secure a coveted third Michelin star, for his restaurant Can Fabes – has accused Adria and his disciples of using synthetic additives such as gels, preservatives and thickening agents, at the expense of locally-produced, organic ingredients. In an open letter to Adria, Santamaria wrote: “I believe the interference of industry in haute-cuisine has reached new levels, in part because of your work.” In his book Santamaria rails against what he calls the “Mcdonaldisation” of Michelin stars, and asserts that “a chef who uses chemical or synthetic products, made in a laboratory, is like an athlete who dopes”. But the book was just the first glint of steel. At a subsequent literary awards ceremony, Santamaria announced a “conceptual and ethical divorce” from Adria. It was a breathtakingly bold attack on a man who has put Spanish chefs on the world’s culinary map. As one food critic put it: “All of the new chefs want to be Ferran Adria – he’s become a kind of god.” Initially labelled “molecular gastronomy” then “techno-emotional cuisine,” Adria’s work is often defined in laboratory terms – perhaps because he and his team of forty chefs retreat to a custom-built workshop in the winter months to experiment with the following season’s menu. In response to Santamaria’s attacks, Adria retorted: “It’s the biggest madness in the history of cuisine, lies, lies, lies! Obviously, if you consume too much of anything it’s bad for you – too much roast beef, sugar or salt is bad. But 80% of the products I use are ecological, and the additives under debate account for just 0.1% of my cooking.” Adria cited e-mails of support from some of the world’s leading chefs, and pointed out that even the Spanish government has come out in his defence. During a radio interview, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said: “Ferran Adria is recognised as the best chef in the world, and I think the products we consume in our top-end cuisine are absolutely healthy and cause no problems.” The nutritionists have also agreed, noting that the additives used to create El Bulli’s trademark foams and airs have been approved through the European Union’s system of E-numbers, while the quantities used are strictly regulated. But the row, which started in May, still simmers, with Santamaria arguing that restaurants should be compelled to include on their menus a detailed list of additives used, along similar lines to the labelling of industrial food products. Back at El Bulli, Adria said: “When Santamaria talks about industrial products, bear in mind that sugar is an industrial product, as is the best wine in the world. We’ve always used industrial products.” He added: “It’s crazy to suggest that these additives are the biggest health issue of our times. There are thousands of problems in day-to-day nutrition, which are much more important that the fact that a handful of chefs are doing something that’s a bit different.”

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