At its peak, Ferran Adria’s elBulli restaurant in Spain was fielding 2m requests for one of the 8,000 dining places it made available each season. It seemed an unstoppable success. Customers were clamoring to pay €250 for a 30-course meal of such delights as liquid raviolis, caviar made from olive oil, and “parmesan snow”. Restaurant magazine voted it the world’s best restaurant a record five times. Michelin stars abounded.
It didn’t make for a mouthwatering business, though. The restaurant made losses of half-a-million euros a year. In July, Mr Adria announced he was to shut up shop. The weight of expectation had left him mentally exhausted, he said. A typical story of an artistic genius with no head for business, others replied.
Against this background, Mr Adria’s decision to launch an MBA case competition at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business last week was an interesting one. He has turned to MBA students from some of the world’s leading business schools – Haas, Harvard, Columbia, ESADE and London Business School – to help him develop a sustainable strategy for a new elBulli foundation.
Mr Adria says his aim is to address the way that society interacts with creative talent. The five student teams, each mentored by a professor, will be expected to come up with an organisational structure that will help the foundation attract and retain the best international talent, find new standards for measuring performance and ensure economical and environmental sustainability.
Artistic temperaments will be checked in at the door. “It can’t be a project in which I am the only one making the decisions,” says the super-chef. “So the students have to come up with better ideas than me. And what better place than business schools to discuss how things can be financed and structured?”
It is not the first time that business schools have whet the appetites of students with lessons from the kitchen. (Some might suggest that accountancy courses have been graduating students adept at cooking the books for years.) French business school EMLYON partners with Paul Bocuse, a chef with three Michelin stars, and his Culinary Arts Institute to study the creative process. It ponders the question of how an apparently frivolous idea can be made to generate hard cash. Rickie Moore, a professor at the school, says that the exposure to unfamiliar environments such as top-flight restaurants—and specifically their kitchens—forces students to develop new ways of thinking that can be applied to more conventional organisations. As Mr Adria proved, though, it’s not a strategy guaranteed to make money.