elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food at the Somerset House in London conscientiously blurred the divide between art and food by examining Adrià’s transformation of the restaurant into the foremost gallery of gastronomic art. Focusing not only elBulli’s unique visual presentation of food, the exhibition delved into the process by which the elaborate kitchen-cum-laboratory produced food of such unmatchable finesse.
The Somerset House exhibition took a behind-the-scenes look at elBulli’s greatest gastronomic creations, featuring a multimedia display of ingredients, lab notes, preparatory plasticine models of dishes, cooking and serving utensils, menus and presentation points used to prepare each intricate, highly stylised dish.
Established as a small Catalan restaurant, elBulli overlooked Cala Monjoi, a bay in Spanish Catalonia and served diners for fifty years from 1961 to its closing in 2011. In 1983, Ferran Adrià spent one month working in the elBulli kitchen whilst on work experience. Just four years later, Adrià became the sole chef de cuisine and transformed an already fine restaurant — it received its first Michelin star in 1976 — into the subject of rapturous praise and awestruck admiration. The domination of elBulli within the world of gastronomy was unprecedented and complete; it topped the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2002, and then from 2006 to 2009.
Famous for the prodigious creativity of its kitchen under chef Ferran Adrià, the kitchen produced an ever-changing menu that was the quintessence of culinary inventiveness, which emerged from months of intensive laboratory experimentation by its team of chefs. Indeed, elBulli’s dedication to culinary excellence and creativity has become the stuff of legend. Open to diners from June to December each year, since 1987, elBulli’s team shuttered the kitchen and opened the laboratory for half the year to reinvent Catalan and Spanish cuisine by creating foods and flavours entirely new and transformative.
elBulli’s philosophy interwove technique, concept and panache to push the envelope of culinary innovation. At the front line of the ‘molecular gastronomy’ trend in the gastronomic world, Adrià’s cooking experimented with every aspect of food, from flavour to texture to temperature. Its avant-grade dishes included spherical liquid olives in a deconstructed martini, mango discs with olive paste, parmesan marshmallows and Adrià’s signature dishes that were concoctions of foam. By deconstructing each ingredient, and recreating them in experimental ways, Adrià provoked diners to rethink the connections between form and flavour.
The closing of elBulli in 2011 at the pinnacle of success thus sent major shockwaves through the culinary community. However, Adrià has hardly hung up his apron for good. He had plans to transform elBulli into a culinary cultural foundation that explores the history of gastronomic innovation — and elBulli’s role in this — as a monument to haute cuisine.
In Ferran Adrià’s own words: ‘Even though the restaurant of elBulli is now closed, the spirit of elBulli is still very much alive…’
elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food ran until 29 September 2013 in Somerset House’s Embankment Galleries West.
By Stephanie Chang Avila