Molecular gastronomy on the drawing board

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Copy of cz DESIGN-FOOD94 SLATE Ferran Adria. Picture: Slate, elBullifoundation

Washington - Ferran Adrià is one of the world’s most venerated culinary pioneers, a molecular gastronomist who used sophisticated cooking techniques and a multisensory approach to reinvent Spanish cuisine. His Michelin-starred restaurant elBulli became an international foodie destination that revolutionised the concept of eating with an avant-garde tasting menu of about 40 dishes.

Brett Littman, the executive director of the Drawing Center in New York City, had a memorable meal there with his wife in 2010.

“It wasn’t necessarily the best tasting, but it was the most exciting and profound dining experience I had ever had,” he told me. He was struck not only by the immense technicality of the cooking and the wit behind many of the chef’s sensory tricks – like a nutmeg-sprinkled ostrich “eggshell” made of flash-frozen gorgonzola that had to be manually cracked open and consumed using only your fingers in 18 seconds before it puddled into oblivion – but also by Adrià’s ability to upend diners’ expectations.

“That’s what made it art, really,” Littman said, pointing out that the chef was challenging preconceived notions in the way that great artists always did.

After the meal he bought a copy of Adrià’s A Day at elBulli and noticed that it included images of lists and diagrams that the chef used to record ideas and document the immense body of technical knowledge required to generate a constant stream of ambitious new dishes.

Fascinated by the way those outside the confines of the visual art world used drawing as part of their creative process, Littman wrote to the chef asking if he might consider sharing some of those visual materials with the public. The product of that collaboration is Ferran Adrià: Notes On Creativity, the first major museum exhibition to focus on the role of drawing in the master chef’s and his team’s creative process. It runs until the end of next month at The Drawing Center in New York and will tour Los Angeles, Cleveland, Minneapolis and the Netherlands.

Adrià closed elBulli in 2011 and is building a foundation to its legacy that will open on the redesigned site of the former restaurant in 2015. It will house a permanent exhibition showcasing the restaurant’s history and culinary evolution while a creative team will continue to publish its research in Bullipedia, an online database designed to house the collective elBulli wisdom about techniques, products, and ingredients for future generations.

As curator of the exhibition, Littman made several trips to Barcelona, Spain, over a span of two years, spending long hours with Adrià culling materials for the show, which includes hundreds of notebooks filled with everything from loose sketches for new dishes to ideas, collaged photographs, lists, tables of ingredients and cooking methods. They communicated through a translator, but Littman said that the chef spent much of the time conveying his ideas with pen and paper.

The exhibition includes plating diagrams that Adrià used to help create new dishes.

“He started by drawing shapes, focusing on colour and texture and placement without a specific recipe plan,” Littman said, adding the chef would then reverse-engineer dishes based on this exercise in form rather than content.

“There’s a long history related to art and food. His drawings aren’t necessarily great representations of food, they are used more like mental maps or flowcharts to visualise the way that he thinks.”

Unlike many kitchens which have more in common with military operations than innovation hubs, Adrià created a creative lab that encouraged participation from staff, who Adrià trained to communicate in images, making attribution difficult for a majority of the visual materials in the show.

“Drawing is an analogue for thinking,” Littman said. “Visualisation was the lingua franca of that kitchen.” – Slate


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