Inside the Mind of Chef Ferran Adriá

The Museum of Contemporary Art (Cleveland MOCA) unveiled the fall exhibitions this past weekend, including the first major museum exhibition on the creative processes of master chef Ferran Adriá. I was very excited to have the chance to browse the exhibit on opening night with Edible Cleveland and learn about the origins of this unique collection.

Exhibition curator Brett Littman was present at MOCA’s opening night party to share the genesis and development of Ferran Adriá: Notes on Creativity, which will be on view until January 18 2015. Littman serves as executive director of The Drawing Center in New York City, the driving force behind the exhibition.

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Ferran Adriá led what was undoubtedly one of the world’s most innovative restaurants elBulli. Located in Spain, it eventually achieved three Michelin stars and the coveted title of “Best Restaurant in the World” by Restaurant Magazine in 2002, and 2006-2009. The restaurant was open six months of the year, with the remainder dedicated to extensive research and development. Littman noted that “reproducing the same dish over and over wouldn’t be the driving force of Ferran’s career” and Adriá constantly challenged himself in the creation of new experiences for his guests.

The elBulli experience was a 30+ course tasting menu that engaged every sense; a meal at which the full menu would be presented at the end of the meal. Only one meal was executed each day to the exact specifications of Chef Adriá. Littman personally experienced a meal at elBulli and in his own words Adriá’s execution “breaks the synapses using surprise and defies expectations and convention in a playful way.”

This is an exhibition about art and food, but one will not find any still life depictions of fruit bowls here. Adriá’s renderings possess the laser focus of an architect or engineer, the creativity of an artist or inventor and the spontaneous, limitless whimsy of a child. The conceptual renderings he composed were reproduced into the visually stunning tasting courses he presented his guests.

Littman and his team culled though more than 600,000 pages in Ferran Adriá’s archives that include notes, drawings, plastic models, diagrams and sample menus. The result is an unconventional exhibition that captures the creative processes of Adriá, running the gambit from the cerebral to the playful.  EC FA Molds

Curator Littman describes it as “an unpacking of a methodology.” This exhibition attempts to chronicle a meticulous thought process behind each and every dish and the experience Adriá intended for his guests. Close study of one of Adriá’s diagrams, the thought-provoking Map of The Culinary Process: Decoding the Genome of Cooking (2013), helps one understand that for Adriá cooking and dining reached beyond the five senses. The chef/artist also recognized that how the food would be presented and served, and even the physical space in which it would be enjoyed, were critical parts of the experience.

In Adriá’s world, a plate, fork and spoon were too elementary; too common and expected. For instance, a meal at elBulli might have included a course of scent-infused “edible air,” delivered via a box, a balloon or a glass pipette. Conveyance and presentation were as much a part of the dining experience as taste. EC FA Glass

Adriá’s attention to detail and his desire to replicate the ideas simmering within his mind’s eye are evident not only in the renderings and illustrations he made, but in the collection of plasticine molds he developed for his kitchen staff to utilize to ensure accuracy of portion, shape and placement of individual elements on a plate. Interestingly, Adriá often drew plating diagrams first, and then built dishes that captured the specific end result which he had in mind.

Littman concluded his opening night dialogue commenting that the master chef always asked the question “why?” Adriá challenged the long-held conventions of his field, inserting his own intellectual and philosophical ideas about emotional-technical cooking and avant grade cuisine to leave his imprint on the global understanding of gastronomy.

True confession: this was my first visit to the new location of the Museum of Contemporary Art in the beautifully streamlined steel and glass structure (at the intersection of Euclid and Mayfield Roads) since it relocated there in 2012. The Ferran Adriá exhibition bridges two things that I enjoy, cooking and art, and reminded me that there is in fact a meaningful relationship between the two. When I cook, I definitely think about the look of the meal on the finished plate but as I learned from Chef Adriá, a well-composed meal begins in the mind.

Ferran Adria: Notes on Creativity is at Cleveland MOCA, 11400 Euclid Avenue, near University Circle. If you leave the exhibition with an appetite to know more about Chef Adriá, visit the website for the elBulli Foundation.

–Lisa Sands