El Bulli for you: Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food at Somerset House
“Academics have been relatively slow to study the subject of cooking. It is often taken for granted.”
So says Gwyn Miles, director of Somerset House, which is trying to give cooking a proper re-examination via a major retrospective of what was, until recently, the world’s best restaurant – Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, in Roses, Catalonia.
Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food is a thorough – some might say, geekily thorough – examination of the philosophy, science and culinary genius behind El Bulli, which closed its doors on 30 July 2011.
In the exhibition’s detailed history of the El Bulli restaurant, it’s fascinating to learn it was set up by a homeopathic doctor from Dusseldorf, who originally ran it as a mini-golf course and beach bar in the early 60s. From such humble beginnings, it evolved into a noted haute cuisine venue, before – under the guidance of Adrià from the mid-80s onwards – transforming into an avant-garde food mecca. In the process, it won the title of best restaurant in the world five times.
El Bulli clearly had – and still has – a strong sense of its own importance. What else are we to make of a restaurant that, in 1999, retroactively catalogued all its original recipes from 1987 onwards – starting at recipe number 1, and ending on number 1,846 in 2011?
Among the mixed bag of displays is a short video of the final service at the restaurant, which has since graduated to a sort of ghostly kitchen afterlife as the ‘El Bulli Foundation’ – “set to be one of the stellar knowledge spaces in a new paradigm of cooking”, according to the programme. The Foundation will be part cooking academy, part food thinktank, with an exhibition centre due to open in 2014. Sounds like a nice way for Ferran Adrià to continue cooking without having pesky customers underfoot. Its slogan is: “no reservations, no routines, no timetables”. (But will they do patatas bravas?)
Somerset House deserves a pat on the back for creating “galleries to display the unusual, the unexpected, and the sometimes neglected”. Plenty of people would say great food can be great art (my only caveats would be: unlike music, literature or fine arts, food is so transitory, and unrepeatable. You have to be a particular type of person to remember in detail a fantastic meal you had in 1991. Plus, unlike those other ‘art forms’, food alone is 100% essential to the functioning of your body).
Either way , there’s no doubting in the form Ferran Adrià, you have a bona fide maestro. Though if his work is art, presumably the best way to appreciate it would be to eat it. It depends on the individual how much they will get from an exhibition about a restaurant that – in all likelihood – they have never visited, and now never will.
Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food runs at Somerset House until 29 September. Admission is £10.