Book offers lessons on how a culture of innovation can be achieved and sustained
Cambridge, Mass., December 18, 2017—What can a restaurant teach us about innovation? When the restaurant in question is elBulli whose head chef was Ferran Adrià—widely considered one of the most creative culinary minds in the world—the answer is: plenty, according to a new book by MIT Sloan School of Management’s Pilar Opazo.The book, Appetite for Innovation: Creativity and Change at elBulli, explores the many ways in which Adrià and his team pioneered new ingredients, flavor combinations, and cutting-edge culinary techniques in a quest to revolutionize haute cuisine. Part business analysis, part restaurant history, the book is a critical examination of how organizational creativity can be achieved and sustained over time.
“The name elBulli is synonymous with uncompromising innovation,” says Opazo, a Post-Doctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Work and Organizational Studies group. “It was Adria’s lab and kitchen, after all, that gave us dishes such as melon caviar, liquid olives, and the deconstructed potato omelet. In my book, I set out to investigate how Chef Adrià and his team created and maintained a culture of daring invention and experimentation. My goal is to show how other organizations can implement some of elBulli’s strategies in order to systematically produce breakthroughs of knowledge within their industries.”
At the height of its fame, elBulli had three Michelin stars and a waiting list of more than two million diners. The restaurant, which was located in Catalonia, Spain, was open just six months a year and served one meal a day, never offering the same dish twice. Adrià closed elBulli in 2011 and reopened it three years later, not as a restaurant but as a foundation dedicated to studying and understanding the nature of creativity.
Opazo conducted her research for the book when elBulli was undergoing this profound transformation. Drawing on exclusive access to meetings, observations, and interviews with gastronomic experts and luminaries, she explores the underlying factors that led to the restaurant’s reinvention.
“Adrià’s vision was to be on the vanguard of gastronomy and to constantly push the boundaries of the field,” says Opazo. “He succeeded by building a specialized language of creativity, by being open and willing to share elBulli’s knowledge, by cultivating and nurturing relationships over time, and—most importantly—by continuously seeking out radical change. Reinventing elBulli as a think tank for creativity is yet another example of his bold imagination.”
Opazo’s book cites examples from other fields, including art, science, music, theatre, and literature to inform practices of innovation and creativity in multiple kinds of organizations and industries.
Each chapter of her book opens with an iconic recipe created in elBulli’s kitchen. The recipes offer vivid evidence of Chef Adrià’s ingenuity and also illustrate the book’s central argument about the importance of embracing the new and different.
“At elBulli, innovation was not just the main activity; it was the business model,” she says. “And even today, the organization is constantly redefining itself. This is certainly an extreme model. But there are many practices that contemporary organizations can learn from and apply in their own work.”