“Do you know what they ate in the Middle Ages?” Ferran asks, through his interpreter, at the launch of elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food at London’s Somerset House. The answer, he says, is dolphins and flamingos. And that’s how the interview unfolds—ten frantic minutes with Ferran. The legendary chef fires off several questions—an interrogation on the evolution of food. “What came first, the boiled egg or the fried egg?” Before Ferran’s interpreter has chance to translate, he’s already offered another question. “We had water and fire to boil an egg. But did we have oil to fry with?” He then jumps to the subject of Escoffier. “Do you know what Escoffier did?” ‘Yes’, I reply. “What?” And out came my textbook answer. “He was a chef, who popularised French cuisine.” Ferran didn’t like this. “No, no, no,” he says. “It was popular long before Escoffier. Marie-Antoine Carême was doing it in the 1700/1800s.”
It was an exhausting 600 seconds in which I was supposed to talk to Ferran about the exhibition appearing at Somerset House, depicting, through various forms, the life of elBulli, his famous restaurant in Cala Montjoi, Catalonia, which closed its doors in July 2011. Instead, we talk about dolphins, flamingos and how people in Catalonia were eating ginger with bread long, long ago. But, it all makes sense, right? Because Ferran is unravelling food history—undoing what has been done, in order to move forward. “We must first study evolution, before we can look to the future,” he says.
Ferran plans to continue his quest with the launch of the elBulli Foundation next year, on the site of the former restaurant, designed as—to quote the exhibition’s brochure—‘one of the stellar knowledge spaces in a new paradigm of cooking.’ Ferran hopes to achieve this by inviting a select group of 30 chefs to the elBulli Foundation each year. Chefs will come together to study, dissect, create and progress the art of gastronomy, in order to discover new techniques, concepts and flavours. “The very best chefs will come to the Foundation. No, the most creative in the world,” Ferran says. “When elBulli closed, it was a huge celebration, because what we will do next, at the Foundation, will be even greater.”
Which chefs will be involved with the Foundation, I ask? “Chefs like Heston (Blumenthal). He might not definitely be involved next year, but it will be that level of chef, from around the world—the best of the best.”
And what about the art? This is an exhibition, after all. Set out as a timeline, elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food takes visitors on a journey through the restaurant’s evolution.
The late British artist, Richard Hamilton makes an appearance in the exhibition. Richard wasn’t just a patron of elBulli, but a friend of Ferran’s. Their friendship inspired each other in their respective fields. In a short video clip, Richard compares Ferran with Shakespeare, reasoning that just like the famous English poet and playwright—who is widely regarded as the greatest writer in history—Ferran pushes the boundaries of our vocabulary to uncover and expand the language of food.
The video is just one small element of the exhibition. A multimedia time capsule of the most celebrated restaurant in the world, it also features handwritten notes and hand-drawn sketches; plasticine models of dishes—that served as a means for quality control of colour, portion size and position on the plate—original tasting menus; cutlery laid out on tables; shots of the dishes and original restaurant reviews and press clippings. The exhibition is highly interactive and also features archive footage of the chefs, including an emotional video of the very final dish served by the team at elBulli on 30 July 2011.
elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food offers visitors a flavour of what made the restaurant so special. Particularly if, like so many, you never experienced the restaurant first hand. “The spirit of elBulli is still very much alive and this exhibition is one of the ways of keeping it so,” Ferran said, in one of his early statements announcing the exhibition. “It is an ode to the creativity, imagination, innovation, talent and teamwork of everyone at elBulli, but especially the world famous chefs who trained with us and took these values into their own restaurants around the world.”
Inventing a total of 1,846 dishes, the team at elBulli created unique menus of discovery, including white garlic and almond sorbet, tobacco-flavoured blackberry and bread and chocolate with olive oil, using such techniques as spherification, nitrogen and lyophilizer, among many, many others. The exhibition demystifies some of these techniques and the gadgets used to create them.
Next year, Ferran, and the exhibition’s sponsor, Estrella Damm, will take the retrospective to Madrid (February-May) and Boston (June-December), allowing elBulli fans around the world a glimpse of what made the restaurant so extraordinary.
I might not have been one of the lucky guests of elBulli, but I was privileged to spend ten minutes in Ferran’s company. With that said, ten days with him would not suffice. I left feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and far more in awe than I ever thought I would. Touring the exhibition, it became easy to understand why the restaurant had to close. Ferran was onto something far greater—a deeper, more intense relationship with food, that will soon flow through the elBulli Foundation.
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The Bulli dog ® Andrew Rae;
Somerset House, Sam Mellish;
The Thaw 2005 ® Fot+¦grafo Francesc Guillamet
The Soup, 2004 ® Fot+grafo Francesc Guillamet
Plasticine models ® Palau Robert