The most famous chef in the world spent Sunday foraging through Kansas City in a 12-person passenger van – a trip that, for those of us who got to join him, was just as dreamlike and fascinating as it sounds.
Ferran Adrià and his wife Isabel had flown to Kansas City from Spain for a two-day visit this past weekend to promote Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity, which is on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through August 2. On Sunday, Adrià, his wife Isabel Pérez Barceló, Nelson-Atkins Director Julián Zugazagoitia and interpreter Sofia Perez (an editor-at-large for Saveur) explored food and drink destinations in downtown Kansas City with small entourage of museum staff and local media. The day's theme: foraging.
The group met on the museum grounds, where Adrià and Zugazagoitia visited in the Sculpture Park near Roxy Pain’s 56-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture “Ferment.” Along with Barceló and Perez, the two men also took time to stroll through Robert Morris's Glass Labyrinth. Seeing Adrià, yet remaining physically separated from him as he negotiated the maze, provided a fitting visual image for the tour. Even as the famed chef was on display, the path to his inner thoughts was accessible primarily to his close companions.
Adrià’s status as a celebrity in the world of cuisine and his creative and philosophical contributions to cooking precede him. Yet the chef is flesh and bone, a tireless explorer of cuisine and culture, grounded in the here and now. Even at the end of a 12-hour-plus day of greeting strangers, he was inquisitive, observant and gracious.
Our first stop after boarding the van that would serve as the day’s transportation was J. Rieger and Co., the East Bottoms whiskey distillery launched by Andy Rieger and Ryan Maybee. The founders discussed the historic brand and its revival, the spirit’s blend of whiskey and Spanish sherry, its production and aging process.
Next, we ventured across the street to Local Pig, where Adrià strolled to the back to observe a butchery class in session. After greetings were exchanged, we sampled from generous portions of housemade charcuterie – lardo, sriracha and goat cheese tongue terrine, lonzino (cured pork loin) and more.
Potent whiskey, rich charcuterie. An indulgent start to the day.
At one point, Adrià asked Pope to prepare one of his best meats in the shop. Pope quickly seared off a cured pork steak. Adrià chowed down with gusto. Upon departing, he declared, “Fantastico!”
Next stop, Urban Provisions General Store. Owners Savannah Northcraft and Britton Turnbull offered refreshments including an effervescent punch and small bites: a piece of Springfield, Mo.-based Askinosie chocolate was topped with orange marmalade from KC Canning Co., while another snack combined crisp pig skin, marinated grape, a dot of creamy cheese and parsley.
We loaded into the van and traversed to the City Market for a quick stroll before arriving at Happy Gillis Cafe in Columbus Park. Owners Abbey-Jo and Josh Eans seated the group around tables, where we settled into conversation, glad to rest, socialize and await a multi-course meal.
Adrià sipped on Tank 7, the farmhouse ale from Boulevard Brewing Co., while (through interpreter Sofia Perez) I asked him about the nature of discovery in terms of his creativity and culinary process.
Adrià has created approximately 1,846 dishes during his restaurant’s operation, using a distinct process of “creation, documentation and critique,” as he described earlier in the van. He has methodically explored the use of ingredients, cooking techniques, culinary tools and culture in practical and philosophical ways over a career spanning more than two decades.
Does life’s randomness have any role in creativity? Adrià shook his head and waved his hands in small motions, negating the notion. He said, “Discovery is a lot of work. It is not random or luck.”
Soon, courses began to arrive. We dined on a refreshing chopped kale Caesar salad with grated Parmesan cheese and white anchovies. Next, a dish of tender Ozark country ham shank with red-eye gravy included a soft egg (cooked in an immersion circulator) with the consistency of custard, pickled celery, corn nuts and local heirloom grits cooked in whey.
Chef Eans, a cicerone with an avid interest in craft beer, presented Adrià with a bottle of Boulevard’s Saison-Brett and conversed about beer. After ever-gracious Adrià posed for photos, we drove to the West Bottoms for a stop at the Haw Contemporary Gallery, then on to Amigoni Vineyard and Winery in the Stockyard District. There, owners Kerry and Michael Amigoni treated us to their wine and cheeses from Green Dirt Farm before we returned, exhausted and sated, to our original rendezvous point.
It had been a half-day spent foraging, a guided search if you will, across the city. Between stops, Perez explained that the Spanish language has no direct equivalent for the term “forage.” Exploration seemed a better term for the act and Adria’s methodical approach.
But whether we foraged or explored, our search yielded connections to whiskey, wine, and food, and to people “passionate” about their craft, as Adrià put it.
The seeking, gathering and experiencing are all part of a process of consumption. These activities are immediate, even while they’re creating memories that will, in turn, prompt foraging for the wisp of the original.
The experience of dining and drinking in a restaurant is also a fleeting act and exchange between chef and guest––from the impossible-to-access elBulli to far less exclusive restaurants and chefs in Kansas City and elsewhere. Through art, cuisine and conversation, a potent exchange takes place. What happens in the aftermath — whether it becomes mythic, an act for continued exploration or a simply a moment that’s lost to time — depends on many factors.
The encounters on Sunday were new for Adrià, his translator and his spouse. In exchange, a handful of people in Kansas City experienced a thrilling moment: a chance to feed, and engage with, the master chef.
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