The popularity of food & drink reaches a new high this summer as London’s Somerset House unveils the world’s first art exhibition dedicated to a chef and his restaurant. Spanish chef Ferran Adrià and his Catalonia restaurant elBulli are in the limelight, but don’t expect anything to eat. Ben Norum talks to the chef and the curators for a taste of what to expect at the food exhibition with no food.
If food is the new rock ‘n’ roll, then Ferran Adrià is Bowie. He is the most acclaimed chef of our time, winning three Michelin stars and bringing elBulli to the top of the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for a record five years, more than Rene Redzepi’s Noma and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck put together. He’s also a maverick and an innovator, breaking and re-writing many of the rules of running a restaurant and turning a meal into a life experience. Along the way, he’s created numerous new styles and techniques that have changed the way chefs cook and we eat. He’s an obvious choice for a groundbreaking exhibition that’s the first of its kind, then.
The behind-the-scenes retrospective titled, elBulli: Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food is something that has been in the pipeline for a while, Adrià says: ‘It’s taken a long time to find the language to be able to hold such an exhibition because people have always thought that if you have a food exhibition, then there has to be eating involved’. In fact, he’s more than happy to skip the food altogether, ‘I don’t want to showcase my work; my work is elBulli restaurant and if people want to see my work, they have to come to elBulli and eat. This is about the story behind El Bulli and what it means. Think of it as visiting the Barcelona FC ground and looking around when there’s no match on’.
In place of anything edible, the three-month-long exhibition will display a timeline of Adrià’s inspirations and career at elBulli, along with collectibles such as original menus and review clippings, documentary footage, and hand-scribbled notes and sketches by Adrià and his team. There will even be sushi restaurant-style plasticine models of many of the restaurant’s dishes, originally created as a guide for elBulli chefs in order to maintain consistency when plating up. These are important details to Somerset House’s Director of Exhibitions, Claire Catterall. ‘What is fantastic about Ferran Adrià is the depth of research and documentation involved in his cooking,’ she says. ‘The range of ephemera that has been archived is unique, who else documents every dish they cook? It is the extraordinary commitment to recording the creative process that makes the content of exhibition so rich and immersive’.
This Somerset House presence is far from Adrià’s first entrance into the world of art. The late painter Richard Hamilton created numerous pieces for elBulli, inspired by the food he ate there, and the restaurant is renowned for creating recipes which merge cooking with conceptual art in their own right. Adrià himself has also been artistically immortalised before, in 2007 as a voiceover in the film Ratatouille, and in 2009 as a character in The Simpsons.
The concept of food being a form of art itself is central to the exhibition, but Adrià is adamant that they are separate but similar. ‘I’m a fantastic cook and not an artist at all,” he says. “What we do at El Bulli, though, is create an experience which might provoke an emotional response that is similar to what an artist might provoke’. For him, the exhibition is about innovation, and he sees that as an artform in its own right. ‘You can innovate in any field, I chose food...that is what this exhibition is about, it should be inspirational,’ he explains. ‘Think of how Apple innovated the smartphone - that is art. In terms of innovation, I would love to be described as the Steve Jobs of food.’
As big a name Adrià is, it’s easy to overlook just how influential he has been. Consider that Heston Blumenthal describes him as ‘an inspiration’, that Noma’s Rene Redzepi launched into his now famous Nordic style of cooking only after a stint working at elBulli, and that he is the founding father of the cooking style we now know as molecular gastronomy and you might get close. Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, who heads up Viajante in Bethnal Green, worked at El Bulli for a matter of weeks, but speaks of how the time, ‘had a massive impact on my career. After reading a great deal about him, going there reassured me that it is possible to follow your dreams and create a restaurant that really pushes the boundaries and allows you to grow as a chef. The fact that it is possible to think outside of the box and still succeed is a huge reassurance for someone with dreams and aspirations’.
Like most chefs who have the title thrust upon them, Adrià is not keen on the molecular gastronomy label. ‘It sounds too much like a science,’ he says, reiterating that most of the cooking which happened at elBulli was very rustic and artisanal - as will be shown in the exhibition. The label which Adrià would prefer doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as easily: deconstructivism is what he considers to be the technique of taking one dish and maintaining its essence and components but giving it a whole new look. The classic Spanish tortilla is one of Adrià’s most famous dishes, but you’d be hard pushed to recognise it; he re-envisages the ingredients of eggs, potatoes and onions by serving a combination of a potato foam, onion purée and an egg white sabayon.
Whatever you call his style of cooking, most people don’t realise just how much he’s influenced London’s menus over the last few years. The use of the word deconstructed in the title of a dish is one of the most obvious forms of pilgrimage, but if you’ve ever seen a dish crowned with a foam or a cocktail topped with juicy balls that resemble caviar then you’ve also witnessed the Adrià effect.
The exhibition comes at a time when Adrià is exploring more than ever the connection between food, art and culture. It was with fanfare and sadness that he closed elBulli last year, in part due to it incurring vast operational losses, but he is now working on a number of projects including an online platform called Bullipedia that he describes as a kind of ‘wikipedia for food’, and the re-opening of the restaurant as an experiential visitor centre in 2015. Plans are partly undeveloped and partly unannounced, but what Adrià has confirmed is that it will be affordable and open to everyone who wishes to visit, taking the form of a two hour exploratory exhibition that discusses the history of cooking, what cooking is, and what the future will hold; there will be nothing to eat.As the world’s foodies await another chance to get inside the legendary powerhouse of creativity that is elBulli and worship at the altar of modern gastronomy once more, we Londoners should feel fairly privileged when Adrià tells us that we’re getting a sneak peak. ‘This exhibition at Somerset House is the embryo of the experience,’ he says, ‘it is a chance for people to see what has happened in elBulli, what it has done and what cooking is about’. It’s a taster, just without anything to actually taste.
Originally published in Time Out magazine.