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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
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.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world