In August I visited the ElBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food exhibition at Somerset House. As a huge fan of Adria’s food and work it was the closest I was going to get to actually eating there.
ElBulli has always fascinated me, I recently watched the documentary ElBulli: Cooking in Progress (2011) and was blown away by their meticulous detail and pretty much scientific approach to food and the effect on the senses. The strange thing about the documentary was how much some of the processes they were experimenting with, and the end results they were recording, like mouthfeel, crunch, scent etc, reminded me of the food testing and experiments used in the processed food industry (I’ve been reading a lot of books on the ‘crap’ food industry lately, more of that in later posts). However El Bulli uses them in a far more creative and interesting way, as its not about profit margins and units sold, but as an experience challenging perceptions about food.
I was really looking forward to the exhibition, had no idea what to expect as it must have been difficulty to create an exhibition about food, which involves all the senses, in a traditional art gallery setting.
You enter the gallery with the walls papered with magazine covers with Ferran Adrià and ElBulli featured on all of them. Then you enter the first floor of the exhibition and its all a bit meh. The best thing in the first room was a giant Bulli (Bulldog) made for the El Bulli restaurant closing day by Christian Escribà and Patricia Schmidt. It was made from meringue, with the flowers and necklaces made from different sugar pastes and caramel pieces. It was truly a hulking great big masterpiece of sugar craft. However the rest of the room was a bit dull, there were some cards on the wall listing all the different staff over the years and a video playing, I believe it may even have been the documentary mentioned about) and a case containing the aforementioned Bulli alongside some memorabilia from the restaurant such as signed chef whites.
The next room was even more dull, as a fan of El Bulli and someone whose life is devoted to food past, present and future I really didn’t need to see a timeline explaining the roots of Adrià’s food in Nouvelle cuisine. I would’ve enjoyed learning about the history of the restaurant but it was presented in such a dull, uninteresting way I found myself wandering off fairly quickly. It was a strange lay out and all of the information, such as the menus, personal letters etc were rather difficult to read. All in all it was a bit meh, it was also quite disappointing as it seemed like that was the entire exhibition, not realising (thank god) that there was another floor.
The upper floor was better and a relief and change from the lower rooms. The first room had a wall covered in (ipad?) screens showing demonstrations of different food processes used at the restaurant. They were fairly engrossing, I found myself staring at just one for about 20 minutes. This particular room also included a table which you were able to sit at which had a projection of the full El Bulli meal going on complete with ghostly diners hands.
In the next room there were display cases full of plasticine components of dishes there were assembled into model dishes presumably to experiment with layout and the final design of dishes. There was also a display case full of all the custom made dishes/stands/cutlery etc that El Bulli used (though as someone who has finished 3 years studying 3D Design it takes much more than a case overstuffed with pressed pieces of metal and heatformed pieces of plastic to impress).
There was a case with all their bits of techno wizardry in which seemed a fairly pointless display, as we’ve entered an era where we’re are increasingly obsessed with food, cooking and chefs I’m not sure an espuma gun is going to shock and amaze a visitor who has both one at home and who also owns the El Eulli molecular gastronomy kit.
Towards the end of the show there’s an interview with late artist Richard Hamilton which literally made us burst into fits of inappropriate, uncontrollable giggles. The interview was fine, bit dull as it was Hamilton droning on about Ferran Adrià and the food and El Bulli and comparing it all to Duchamp and Shakespeare. The reason it was so funny was his wife in the background has the most hilarious look on her face, a perfect mix of boredom and murder. I’m sure Hamilton’s interview was very interesting but it paled in significance next to the look on his wife’s face.
The exhibition was all a bit meh. It was obviously designed by a media/PR firm in Shoreditch who thought they were being creative and foreward thinking by displaying doodles from Adrià’s notebooks on the walls (yawn). It was also odd that a exhibition about the most creative and innovative restaurant in the world couldn’t have pumped some smells around the place, or had a scratch and sniff, or something food related that didn’t involved reading squiggles on a wall or watching on a screen. The exhibition also focused an awful lot of Adrià’s celebrity, from the magazines papered over the walls as you enter, to the Simpson’s cartoon and his receiving a standing ovation from his staff as he enters the room in his documentary.
The entire show seemed to scream exclusivity and an unspoken warning against lesser mortals trying such things at home (which is really just snobbery isn’t it?). As someone who will probably never taste Adrià’s food, due to lack of funds or opportunity, I went to this exhibition hoping to get a little closer to it. I was disappointed.