by Luke Healey
Six years after his restaurant elBulli was selected as a “Pavillion” for Documenta 12, chef Ferran Adrià has been given a “retrospective” at Somerset House. Here’s how the venue’s website describes the breakdown of the show:
Charting the evolution of elBulli, the exhibition features an in-depth, multimedia display of each of the essential ingredients that make up the culinary creative mastermind of Ferran Adrià and his team: research (handwritten notes and hand-drawn sketches); preparation (plasticine models, which were made for all the dishes served as a means for quality control of colour, portion size and position on the plate, and the specially-designed utensils used); presentation (original tasting menus, cutlery laid on the tables and salivating shots of the creations taken from the catalogue to be published by Phaidon next year), and plaudits (original restaurant reviews and other press clippings). Combined with archive footage of the chefs and clientele, the exhibition’s ephemera are testament to Adrià’s abundant talent, genius and ambition.
Note, no actual food. Unlike at that Kassel show, where a few lucky visitors were given the opportunity to fly over to Catalonia and actually savour and digest elBulli’s tasting menus, visitors to Somerset House get the mere ashes of Adrià’s much-vaunted “genius”. If Adrià’s practice is to be considered more as art than as catering – and his champions are pretty adamant that it is – then it suffers from the same issues that have surrounded experimental performance from Dada onwards: in order to know just how experimental it was, you had to be there.
Reading Food For Thought. Thought For Food: A Reflection on the Creative Universe of Ferran Adrià, a book which serves as a monograph for two decades of elBulli dishes, it is easy to get a sense of what a disruptive experience eating at the restaurant must have been. I pick a page at random and,
Here’s a Russian salad in the shape of a minimalist grid. A cornet, like a tiny ice-cream cone, comes topped with a cloud of parmesan-tasting froth. The same course is repeated in different forms: served first hot, then cold, first solid, then as liquid.
Mad, no? Adrià and his workshop are evidently among the gifted artists of their generation, bending raw materials to their will, weighing up expectation against imaginative possibility until they come up with something that approximates a kind of gastronomic Verfremdungseffekt. I imagine that eating Adrià’s food makes you think differently abut eating in general. I do not doubt the sincerity of the contributors to the round-table sections of Food For Thought/Thought For Food, who are far more effusive about elBulli’s output than you image they would allow themselves to be about “works” of similar caliber in other media, particularly in the ostensibly critical situation of the “round-table”. Take artist Anya Gallaccio:
What an emotional experience it was! It was a little bit like being on a roller-coaster, it was really exhilarating, really exciting, but also scary, a sense of excitement and anticipation, but also trepidation with what was going to come next, in that the discrepancy between the visual and the oral situations…(Gallaccio is interrupted here by an equally exclamatory Heston Blumenthal)
I do not doubt, in other words, that Adrià and his team, across the 1400-some dishes that are lovingly archived in elBulli’s “General Catalogue”, made gastronomy into art. The only doubts in my mind concern the strangely retrogressive social, critical and curatorial elements that cling to this grand project of experimentation. First, there is the exclusivity of the experience: what tiny percentage of individuals who have heard of elBulli have actually been privileged enough to eat there? Again, there is a similarity shared here with performance art, which is often consumed first-hand by a tiny audience compared to the audience that comes to know the event through documentation. Only, in this case, it seems safe to say that the privilege of having been in the right place at the right time is replaced by the privilege of being able to afford a meal for several hundred euro per head. Second, Adrià is always understood as elBulli’s driving genius – a lone, saintly, male genius – however much emphasis is placed on his team (the description of elBulli’s food as “modernist” comes into sharp relief here). The exhibits on show at Somerset House are relics for this hagiography. Finally, discussion of his work tends towards the language of connoisseurship: if elBulli’s cooking reveled in a kind of gastronomic Verfremdungseffekt, then this is scarcely reflected in the (understandably, forgivably) affect-heavy language of his obviously contented clients. ElBulli pointed the way towards a sense in which the gastronomic senses – olfactory, tactile and gustatory – might actually serve to deliver ideas, in a manner which has until this point in history been restricted to the eyes and ears. This is radical, disjunctive. And yet there is so much about elBulli that is not.
The case of elBulli invites a re-reading through the history of art with this issue in mind: have their been any other radical, disjunctive works which use the taste, aroma and texture of food to convey some kind of idea, some kind of world-picture, some organised and meaningful distribution of the sensible? Most works which spring to mind – Allan Kaprow’s Eat happening of 1964, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s noodle-based social interventions, SUPERFLEX’s FREE BEER project from 2007 – seem to concern the socio-economic situatedness of eating and drinking more than the intimate experience of actual tasting and swallowing. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is, I suppose, a work which uses eating in a fairly direct sort of way, although the (anti-)sculptural aspect of the work can’t easily be ignored either. The aroma of Anya Gallaccio’s chocolate room (Stroke, 1993) also presumably does some work in this intimate space, which I guess is why she was invited to participate in that elBulli round-table; it might be better if you were allowed to take a bite out of the walls.
The real reason for this article is that I recently found a work which unquestionably uses flavour as a vector for meaning, and it comes not from the canon of art history but from one of this year’s degree shows. Manchester Metropolitan University graduate Fabian Beickhorasani’s degree piece looked like your average piece of Relational Aesthetics – the artist set up a small bakery in the gallery space, producing loaf after delicious loaf for visitors – but Beickhorasani’s justification for the project took it in a quite different direction. His recipe, which drew in equal parts on Irish and Iranian bread-making traditions, was intended to reflect his dual identity; Beickhorasani was searching for an answer to the question “What would I taste like?”, as if flavour could genuinely convey meaning. Of course, flavour always does convey meaning: our minds generate information out of every bite. Compiling culinary influences in unexpected ways might just be the most intimate way of generating new ideas about the world.
Flavour is precise but fluid and can cross intellectual borders exceedingly well: witness the recent international success of “Korean Tacos”, which began in L.A. with the Kogi Korean BBQ truck and which can nowadays be sampled on British shores thanks to the Jämtland-born, London-based “wannabe Asian” Hanna Söderlund and her pop-up enterprise Kimchinary. To this end, I really, really wish I’d also been able to sample Tim Anderson‘s “Ring of Fire” chilli, devised for last year’s Tweat Up Chilli Standoff in Hackney. What might have started as a joke became a concerted attempt to capture a vast geographic region – the volcanic region circling the Pacific known for fairly straightforward reasons as the Ring of Fire – in one culinary experience. Anderson combined typical ingredients from Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, New Zealand, Andean South America, Mexico, California and British Columbia into what one can only imagine was a pretty complex chilli con carne. Whether the dish “worked” in a gustatory sense is somewhat moot: what is important here is that Anderson and fellow experimenters are finding playful ways to create food which is intellectually stimulating in a way that only food can be, without the need for multimedia displays or plasticine models.