Somerset House, London

Exhibition review: elBulli: Ferran Adria and the Art of Food - feast your eyes, mortals but don’t try this at home

 

Don’t play with your food! Isn’t that what every child is told when they attempt to mould mashed potato into pea-sized balls, or find the colour result of squashing a strawberry into pistachio icecream? For most budding food lovers that is the beginning and end of experiment. For Ferran Adria, playing with food became a stellar career.

At 22, he took a lowly work placement in elBulli, a restaurant on the Catalan coast. Three years later he was its head chef and had hit on the philosophy that would make elBulli the Mecca of fine dining: “stop copying, start creating”. Out went the sauces and braises of traditional haute cuisine. In came tapas-style menus, irony and “concepts”. Think parmesan serum, smoke spume and frozen dust.

It’s the outlandishness of his creations that has brought the world to Adria’s door. He prefers to call it “decontextualisation”. His vegetable panaché, an early hit, looks more like a dessert of assorted fruit sorbets. By contrast an actual sorbet might be made of rice pudding or avocado.

Mounting an exhibition about food that aspires to be art on a plate sounds easy. After all, many of the 1,846 dishes created at  elBulli look amazing, or at least curious (if you’re never likely to order a caramel handkerchief, now’s your chance to see what you’re missing). But the evidence of this exhibition, imported from Barcelona, is that photographs of food, or filmed close-ups of the preparation of food, tell less than half the sensory story. It’s unaccountable that a show so strongly focused on innovation couldn’t have contrived to supply a few kitchen smells too.

In a bid to be comprehensive, some sections of the show are frankly dull: endless documentation of the restaurant before Adria’s arrival; a display of kitchen-ware that inspires not a flicker of acquisitive lust. Nothing is interactive, unless you count the table laid with a white damask cloth at which you may sit while projections of ghostly hands lay a sequence of dishes before you. Some of these resemble ready-meals, served in sealed rectangular dishes from which you must peel back a lid. A garnish must be shaken from a cellophane packet.

The mystique of the great magician is preserved at every turn. “Don’t imagine you can try this at home!” is the unspoken message. And it’s telling that the single recipe given in the catalogue is for our old friend roast vegetables. Could it be the “25-year-old sherry vinegar” that makes the difference? Or the 1.25 large onions?

And just as it is mildly intriguing to watch skilled hands peel what resembles a lace doily from the surface of a pan (I’m guessing a super-thin albumen omelette), it would be useful to know the dish it was destined for. Such basic information is withheld.

What is offered in abundance is evidence of Ferran Adria’s celebrity. A wall-size screen shows him being feted by a team of 20 chefs while symphonic music crashes round him. A wall of magazine covers includes his appearance on the front page of Time and as a character in The Simpsons. I preferred to take home with me the image of Ferran Adria as the man who fashioned a range of lumpy objects from coloured plasticine in order to play with ideas of presentation. Play on Senor Adria. The world of fine dining bates its breath.

To 29 Sept (somersethouse.org.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence