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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)