I'm here. I'm now in Spain. Actually, I can even pretty fairly say that I'm now living in Spain! Yes, it may be for only two months. And I am by myself, while Ben is all the way back in Chicago. But I'm working here. I'm staying in an apartment, not a hotel. And this is certainly not a vacation. A grand adventure, yes, but a vacation, no. So yes, I'd have to say that, by definition, I'm living in Spain. And that feels pretty cool to say.
And in another sense too - in the sense that I'm squeezing the most out of every minute here, savoring each bite, celebrating every sight, and soaking up all that I can learn - I am most definitely living here. Really, truly living in Spain.
I flew into Barcelona last Monday afternoon and was met at the airport by one of my new housemates, Iftach, an Israeli chef who, like me, is an apprentice at the Alicia Foundation. Our apartment, which we share with five other chefs from all over the world, is located in a quaint hillside town called Manresa, about an hour's drive outside of Barcelona. Let me just say, I adore Manresa. Here, people laugh a little when I say this. They say this town is nothing special compared to other little towns across Catalonia. But to me, Manresa is simply magnificent. It's just jam-packed with all those story-bookish elements you'd hope to find in any little European town: cobblestones and fountains, sidewalk cafes, tiny bakeries and butcher shops, an old gothic cathedral looming over it all, even a shepherd who roams the town's outskirts with his flock of sheep. It's just all too neat. I'm continuously surprised and delighted at every turn, and I've quickly become enamored with this new home-away-from-home.
So, I want to fill you in a little more on exactly why I’m here. For the next two months, I’ll be working at a research center called the Alicia Foundation, a food and science institute in the heart of Catalonia, Spain. Alicia has recently partnered with my culinary school, the CIA, and so I, along with two other alumni, was sent here to participate in a collaborative exchange program.
The Alicia Foundation was founded a few years ago by a famous Spanish chef named Ferran Adria. Okay, I know that a lot of you reading this are chefs/foodies yourselves, so please, by all means just skip ahead a few paragraphs here. (Or risk being offended by the vast over-simplification I’m going to spin on the following topic.) But for all of my friends and family who aren’t so immersed in the world of food, I’m going to now give you a little bit of basic background information, which should help elucidate what I’ll be up to…
For several years, and in many, many people’s opinion, Ferran Adria has been considered to be the best chef in the world. Not one of the best. The best. He owns a restaurant named El Bulli, which is located in the same region of Spain where I am now. Just as its chef is the best, El Bulli has been rated time and again, the absolute best restaurant in the world. Among many other contributions to the culinary world, Chef Adria is known as being one of the main driving forces behind a modern, scientifically-focused style of cuisine often referred to as Molecular Gastronomy.
This is a word that not a lot of chefs like, but to be honest, there is no agreed-upon term to describe this type of cuisine, and so, for the sake of simplicity, Molecular Gastronomy is the word I’m going to use. It refers to cooking methods that utilize specific chemical products, industrial equipment and scientific techniques to give a whole new twist on food. Dishes are deconstructed into their prime ingredients, and these ingredients are transformed, through manipulation of their physical and aesthetic qualities, into something unfamiliar, or altogether new. Even though you may have never heard the term itself, I hope you are at least vaguely familiar with the type of cooking I'm describing. Portions are often small, and it’s usually pretty high-end fare. Food of this style seems almost futuristic, and just well, in a word, scientific. For a good picture of the kind of food I’m trying to describe, check out this site. I’m actually sending you to the website of a famous Chicago restaurant called Alinea. It is completely unrelated to the Alicia Foundation, but the El Bulli site doesn’t have too many pictures, and Alinea has some great ones. I just really wanted something visual to support what I’ve been trying to explain in mere words, because I want you to have an idea of the kind of stuff I'll be dabbling with while I'm here.
Okay, on to bigger and better things! And that brings us back to the Alicia Foundation. I feel so blessed to be here because I truly think that there’s no other place on earth quite like it. Alicia is a culinary research institute focused on the health and science aspects of food and cooking. It’s dedicated to exploration, research and technological innovation in the kitchen, and education for the cooking industry, and society as a whole. At its heart, Alicia is a pure celebration of food and science.
It’s an incredible facility, a beautiful modern glass building set on the campus of a medieval monastery in the midst of the Catalan countryside. The bright and spacious kitchen is filled with the most state-of-the-art cooking equipment. There are fruit orchards and olive groves on the campus, along with a gorgeous garden filled with endless varieties of heirloom vegetables. I’ve experienced five days at the Alicia Foundation so far, and I can tell you for certain that this place is incredibly special.
Now that I’ve taken care of some of this background information today, I can focus more next time on details of my daily work at Alicia and my adventures in Catalonia. I really must apologize for being so tardy with this post. It has been an overwhelming first week! But now that I’m all settled in, I’ll definitely be able to report a bit more regularly. I already have tons of neat stuff piling up that I want to share! Please do stay tuned…