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

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action