Visions of Recovery: in conversation with Ferran Adriá and Joan Roca on the future of restaurants

Giulia Sgarbi - 22/05/2020

In the first instalment of our new Visions of Recovery series, supported by S.Pellegrino, we speak to two legendary Spanish chefs whose fabled establishments are now part of the Best of the Best group, having been named The World’s Best Restaurant a combined seven times. Ferran Adriá, the iconic cook who created the now-closed elBulli – No.1 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 – discusses his predictions and reflections on the future of restaurants in conversation with Joan Roca, whose world-beating El Celler de Can Roca reached the top of the ranking in 2013 and 2015

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the gastronomic world into chaos. How did it affect your businesses?

Joan Roca: We decided to close El Celler de Can Roca two days before the state of alarm was decreed in Spain [on 14th March]. Obviously, the economic impact has been significant, especially for a restaurant like ours used to working at the highest level of excellence and occupancy. The first week was a shock, we were very worried, but little by little we became more positive. We have used these two months to make renovations at the restaurant and to expand the dessert offer – something that Jordi [Roca, Joan’s brother and pastry chef] always wanted to do. We tried to be proactive, optimistic and also to regenerate ourselves. We still don’t know exactly when we will reopen. We all want to, but we cannot guarantee a date, because it’s changing every day and even every hour.

Ferran Adrià: First of all, lots of encouragement to everyone who’s reading us, and also many hugs because this is a very hard time. In life, you can close your eyes or keep them open. So please, if any of my opinions are a bit tough, it’s because they come from a realistic point of view and with all the love in the world. My project, the elBulli Foundation, works to spread knowledge. This knowledge is often about [business] management. Over the last three years of talking with thousands of restaurant owners, the issue of management always seemed a little secondary. So we are trying to help the young chefs who are starting out to understand that management is very important, especially now because we are experiencing an extreme situation, the worst possible. Working from Barcelona, we are finishing six new books of Bullipedia, and the most beautiful news is surely that on 1st August  we will be near Girona with Joan to open our new project, elBulli 1846 [an ‘exhibition lab’].
Two historical photos of elBulli restaurant in Roses, Spain, now the home of the elBulli 1846 project

Why is business management so important these days?

FA: If a person has 300, 1,000 or 5,000 euros in the bank when they get laid off, it makes a difference. For restaurants it’s the same. You have to run the numbers to know how much you need in an emergency. In economics there's something called dividend distribution: you earn and you distribute, but not everything. You keep a little for when there's a problem and you have to reinvest. These are business skills, not cooking skills. There is going to be a significant change because for cooks and front of house staff, any hospitality professional, the absolute priority now and in the future will be management. I can do all the deconstructions and spherifications I want, but if I don't have money, I can't have a restaurant.

JR: It’s necessary to establish a plan of economic viability and analyse all aspects. Both for new and existing restaurants, this is essential to ensure economic sustainability. Make sure also to ask yourself what you want to achieve with your restaurant. Maybe you want to make it your way of life, live your profession with passion, or maybe you want to create scalable economic growth. It’s key to answer this question.

FA: I've been doing this for 40 years and I've helped set up over 200 restaurants. I've been wrong about 10% of the time and I've tried to learn from that 10%. But a restaurant is not a passion, it's a business first.

What message are you sending to the global hospitality industry during these trying times?

FA: We realise that it’s going to be very hard. But it's okay. I got busted once with elBulli. In 2008 I had to close the Benazuza hotel, a wonderful hotel. In 2009 I had to close elBulli Catering. But I came back. So we have to give encouragement and hope. Those who sadly cannot continue will be able to do another project in their lives. The world doesn’t end here.

JR: [I would like to send] a message of encouragement in the face of a situation where nobody knows exactly how things will be when it end – but perhaps there will also be new opportunities. And whoever has to close their restaurant, don't consider it a failure. El Celler de Can Roca opened in 1986 in a working-class neighbourhood in a small town. Everything was against us. Anyone would have said, what are you doing? Instead, we had enthusiasm and commitment, we were in love with our profession, we wanted to work and we went ahead with everything against us. So perhaps one way of viewing this new scenario – with an economic recession and a social crisis – is that it won’t be easy, but it’s still possible.
A view of El Celler de Can Roca's dining room in Girona, Spain

When do you expect things to go back to some kind of normal?

JR: This new scenario has opened up new tools, new online connections, and social media is becoming increasingly important, at least as a mechanism to make this new reality known and somehow find a closer, more local clientele. But for many restaurants, international gastronomic tourism will be key to be able to work again with a certain normality.

FA: I am optimistic that restaurants will return as before in a year or a year and a half, and those that endure this, will carry on. The sorrow and the sadness we all have is that there are going to be some that are not going to make it. But every year there is about 10% of restaurants that don’t make it. It’s a self-regulation. This crisis has been a forced self-regulation.

Do you expect these restaurants to change their focus in the coming months?

JR: Changing the focus is a difficult decision, because if you open without air traffic, you only have your local audience, so every restaurant has to assess what connection it has with that audience. Fortunately, El Celler de Can Roca has a lot of connection and it's likely that we can function and even fill up the restaurant every day with our local public. But it's true that we'll only have total normality when we can again welcome that foodie public that travels and comes from other places around the world.

FA: People often ask Joan and me, 'Is haute cuisine going to die?' But you just have to look at the stock market and LVMH. In the last two years, it's gone up a lot. Now it’s one of the companies that is losing less. Why? Because it's going to exist after this crisis. Sales are going to drop, but every restaurant is metaphorically like a store, like Chanel or Louis Vuitton. People will come back. Joan and I have been in the kitchen for almost 40 years now. Every year, I have been told that 'tradition is coming back'. Or that 'the tasting menu is dead'. Just take the 100 venues in The World's 50 Best Restaurants list. How many don't have a tasting menu? We have to analyse the data, not just give an opinion.
Ferran Adrià was named Chef of the Decade at The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2010

JR: There will also probably be more awareness around sustainability and ecological issues. This type of crisis generates awareness. But many restaurants were already heading towards that increasingly strong commitment with small producers, who are accomplices of our quality, because restaurants need that connection and it will surely get stronger.

What changes can we expect in the ‘new normal’?

FA: There are a few things right now with the potential to create a revolution. One is virtual gastronomic conferences. The online world makes it possible for Joan and I, who usually don’t have time, to dedicate a few days a year to be virtually at events we can’t attend in person. And we can reach millions of people, not thousands. The second thing this affects is education. The Basque Culinary Center is developing an online concept. I can't be a teacher at the BCC, I don't have time. But online, well, it doesn't cost me anything to spend four or five hours a year teaching virtually. Culinary schools will also change and management will be the most important thing. When you say 'I want to be a restaurateur', they will say: ‘First, do you know what a business is?’

JR: There's a lot of talent now in kitchens all over the world and a lot of knowledge and creativity, which will manifest themselves in very different ways. Logistic, economic and business issues must be solved through creativity – that is the first creativity we need. And then we will certainly develop creativity in the gastronomic offer, and I am convinced that there will be very interesting things in the future.
Brothers Joan, Jordi and Josep Roca when their restaurant first reached No.1 in 2013

Do you see new opportunities in dining concepts going virtual?

FA: This is not sex! [Laughs] You know why restaurants will survive? Because we can't move them online yet.

JR: Restaurant will continue to exist because they depend on that emotional, human, necessary connection. Everything else can go virtual, but not this.

FA: Let’s reflect on the history of restaurants. There is a certain consensus that the first restaurant was born at the end of the 18th century. Then, thousands of different types of restaurants were born. Then there was World War I and the flu pandemic of 1918, and restaurants carried on. Then there was World War II, and restaurants carried on. If you understand this, you see the crisis in a different way. Of course, I could be wrong if there are five pandemics in a row... But if you understand this, you see it differently.

What have your learnt from the pandemic and the lockdown?

JR: On a personal level, perhaps vulnerability as a human being, facing this new scenario with an invisible virus that had the power to stop the world and make you and your loved ones vulnerable. It made me think about how important health and time are. I have never spent so much time with my family – ever. Our work pace is hectic, vacations are short, we’re often travelling, and we don't have time. Making the most of these days has been important and I’m grateful for this time. As a society, we have to reflect and realise we need to dedicate resources to health and science. Politicians no longer have excuses not to do this. On a business level, we want to come back, we have that passion inside to do it better, and we have also taken advantage of this time to study, learn, reflect and to look for new creative, logistic and gastronomic formulas.
Ferran Adrià attempts to escape a pillow fight but is held back by fellow Best of the Best group members Joan Roca, Massimo Bottura, Daniel Humm and René Redzepi (image: Gianni Villa)

FA: I have had a chance to reflect on the talent, the human capital, that there is in this sector. Over the last 30 years, the change has been incredible. But I still don't know how to stop people from going hungry and how to save the planet. Because if we don't see politicians united on this front, when are we ever going to see that? In this I am not optimistic – I believe in people, but not in the system. One thing is that there is a sense of union, a social and general empathy, but of course you have to save yourself first to save others. Reality is hard, but I tell you: we are going to survive. Many of us, not all of us by any means, but whoever can afford it will come back, and there will be The World's 50 Best Restaurants again, there will be all the controversy, all of that. It will come back because we're human. Now it’s time to help, as 50 Best is doing. It’s time to ask people with a lot of experience to share their learnings. Because if you have experience, you've failed many times. Joan and I have failed so many times that now we can share it. We will do everything possible, from Catalonia on behalf of Joan and I, to get out of this crisis in the best possible way.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Watch the full interview with Adrià and Roca – conducted in Spanish – on our YouTube channel 50 Best TV, and subscribe for more videos:

Stay tuned to 50 Best Stories for the next instalment of Visions of Recovery series. 
Visit the Restaurant Recovery Hub and the Bar Recovery Hub to explore useful resources and read the stories of chefs and bartenders around the world. Follow 50 Best on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to discover positive initiatives by the worldwide hospitality industry. 

Header portraits by photographer Gianni Villa