Can food be art? Not just pretty, or composed, or creative, but actual art: sublime, transcendent, beautiful, both elevated and elevating.
Fifty years ago or more, such a question would not even have been asked, certainly not outside of the most rarified haute-cuisine restaurants in France, and even then the idea would have had the flavor of the ludicrous or transgressive.
But in the last 20 years, the question seems less absurd, even without a consensus answer. I’ve heard and read plenty of arguments on both sides.
One of the strongest arguments one could make that food can be art would be Ferran Adrià.
Unless you are among the more obsessively informed foodies, or a culinary-focused world traveler, you could be forgiven for not knowing who Ferran Adrià is. There’s a good chance, though, that you have eaten a dish that owes something to one of Adrià’s revolutionary ideas.
Since the late 1980s, Adrià was the co-owner, head chef, and creative engine of elBulli on the eastern coast of Spain. Everything about elBulli was remarkable. Diners were served one tasting menu comprised of as many as 30 “courses,” most often single bites. Reservations were regularly sold out years ahead of time. ElBulli won three Michelin stars and, between 2002 and 2009, it was named the world’s best restaurant by Restaurant Magazine a record five times before closing in 2011.
The food innovations that came out of the elBulli kitchen proved most revelatory and influential. Adrià is often saddled with the culinary description “molecular gastronomy,” and it’s silly to think he isn’t largely responsible for the popularization of many methods associated with that awkward term. However, he prefers thinking of his cooking as “deconstructivist,” where familiar dishes and culinary expectations are taken apart, examined and researched, reimagined, and remade unexpectedly.
Adrià’s dishes can often sound ridiculous, almost imaginary, until you see the dish: a margarita made out of a cube of frozen ‘snow’ topped with salted foam; “caviar” made of tiny spheres of melon juice that burst in your mouth; transparent, disappearing “ravioli.” He was at his best when what he imagined required a whole new way of cooking, even the development of new tools, to create.
At elBulli the development of new dishes was not an ad hoc process. The restaurant was only open for six months out of each year, the remainder of the year was spent by Adrià and his team in a workshop and laboratory, coming up with and perfecting an entire new menu for coming next year.
Rather than begin with a recipe, Adrià often started with a drawing—his creative process generally began visually, so elBulli dishes were sketched as they were developed. Those drawings, collected and curated, now provide a remarkable insight into his creative process and the innovation it inspired in the kitchens everywhere.
Adrià’s sketches and models, along with two films about el-Bulli¸ will come to Cleveland this fall in Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity, a major exhibition at MOCA Cleveland. The show opens on September 26 and runs through January 18.
A series of public programs will enhance the exhibition, including a visit by Adrià himself for a public “Conversation with Michael Ruhlman” on Sunday, November 16 at 3pm.
To a larger degree than any other single chef in the world, Ferran Adrià has helped define what it means to cook creatively today, and he has done so with a process that is as much artistic (and scientific) as it is culinary. This exhibition provides a glimpse into the mind of this world-renowned chef to see how his dedication to cultivating inspiration, investigation, and innovation changed food forever.
For details about public programs, hours, and admission visit MOCACleveland.com or call 216.421.8671. MOCA Cleveland is located at 11400 Euclid Ave. in Cleveland. Use the code EDIBLE to receive $5 admission to the exhibition.