Ferran Adrià and ’The Art of Food’ at Somerset House, London
Anyone in doubt over the power of the culinary arts to move emotions in the way of a Shakespeare play or a Picasso painting should see the video that documents the last three minutes of elBulli, the restaurant. Ferran Adrià, the mastermind of the cult culinary establishment for over 20 years and mentor of modern chef-dom announces the last dish to go out, and after cheers, whooping and much hugging from the gathered chefs, past and present, he ceremoniously parades the Peach Melba dish out to the dining room where diners stand and join in the ebullience. The sense of a momentous occasion is overwhelming.
As Adrià himself points out in the footage, which dates from July 2011, everyone was expecting sadness, but jubilation came with the certain knowledge among those present that this wasn’t an ending - that elBulli, its creative legacy and spirit was about to move forward into a new life, yet to be fully defined.
Now the future of elBulli is taking shape, and a significant part of the new exhibition ’The Art of Food’ at London’s Somerset House is dedicated to delineating what’s to come from the industry-changing chef and his team.
Not only is the Art of Food notable as the first exhibition dedicated to a chef and his restaurant, but it also further establishes Somerset House as a leading cultural centre embracing photography, design, fashion and now food with as much gusto as the traditional arts. The Art of Food has had an initial run at the Palau Robert cultural centre in Barcelona, visitors to which numbered 700,000. Sponsored by Estrella Damm and supported by the Government of Catalonia, it has been tweaked and updated for its London showing in Somerset House.
The video of the restaurant’s final moments, entitled The Last Waltz, is a fitting opening to the exhibition along with an installation of mementos from that last day, including an oversized rendition of the emblematic bulldog made for the occasion and a video of the making of the 1846th (and last) dish.
The fascinating history of the restaurant, from its days as the Cala Montjoi holiday retreat of Dr Schilling, his wife Marketta and their two bulldogs (bulli), to mini-golf business, to beach bar, to restaurant - acquiring one, then two, then three Michelin stars - taking in the early days of the young chef Adria in the early 1980s, is documented with archive photography, video clips, paperwork, and newspaper cuttings.
The evolution of Adrià from classic French culinary practitioner to Nouvelle Cuisine adopter and on to the revolutionising innovator he became is exposed, with emphasis on the moment when he heard the great Nouvelle Cuisine proponent Jacques Maximin in Cannes declaring that ’creativity means not copying.’
This introduces the next phase of the exhibition, which details the dishes, the drawings, the modelling, the documentation, the tools of preparation, the methods and presentation that made elBulli under Adrià world leader. A video interview with the artist Richard Hamilton articulates Adrià’s genius well. Using Shakespeare and language as an analogy, he describes the impact of Adrià’s creativity not only as a new vocabulary for food, but a new syntax too.
The final part of the exhibition announces the future. The elBulli Foundation has been taking shape since the day the restaurant closed, and is now revealed to follow three directions - ElBulli 1846, a museum and visitor centre designed to preserve the legacy (an architectural model of the centre is on show); elBulli DNA, a laboratory of creativity featuring a mix of chefs and other creatives, where food experimentation is conducted for eight months of the year, with results posted online every day; and Bullipedia, an easily navigable research resource on elBulli’s cookery.
The exhibition is great food for food-fans. But it has the potential to disappoint in one way. Multi-media it is, multi-sensory it ain’t. There is some audacity in parading so much gastronomic greatness without a taste, not even a whiff of any of the masterpieces themselves. ’This is the first exhibition in history about a restaurant,’ said Adrià enthusiastically at the exhibition’s preview. ’It’s a risk!’ But as we know, all Adrià’s previous risk-taking so far has more than paid off.