Sketches from the elBulli Kitchen
February 25, 2014 | by Lilly Lampe
Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity, on view at the Drawing Center in New York through this week, seeks to claim the status of artist for one of the most innovative chefs working today. Adrià gained fame at the now-shuttered Spanish restaurant elBulli, where he sustained a three-star Michelin rating for fourteen years and garnered comparisons to another famous Catalan, Salvador Dali. To call a chef an artist can smack of hyperbole, but the new vanguard in contemporary cuisine, led in no small part by Adrià, is defying previous definitions of gastronomy. But despite the surge in technique—and for that matter, cost—food’s ephemeral, basic-need status inclines art purists to consider it a flash in the pan. Notes on Creativity resolves these tensions with sketches and notes that indicate the complex, restless work of Adrià’s kitchen, to say nothing of his mind.
The objects on display—ledgers, notebooks, scrap paper—illuminate the extent to which cooking is a creative process, as impassioned and compulsory as any. While he ran elBulli, Adrià kept detailed records, filling stray pieces of paper with plating ideas, loose concepts, and flavor profiles. In these ephemera we see the evolution of Adrià’s style over decades, and his determination to articulate his designs. The sketches are a window into the expanse of Adrià’s imagination, in particular the plasticity of his process. As it turns out, he is just as likely to start with a visual impression of a dish, figuring out the flavor components later, as he is to begin with an ingredient—an approach that seems like the culinary equivalent of Ginger Rogers doing Fred Astaire’s moves backward and in heels.
Though Adrià has received the lion’s share of attention at elBulli, his collaborations are prevalent throughout the exhibition. Adrià championed the use of foam and mists in food, but it was the designer Luki Huber who figured out how to present and plate them. The star chef’s innovation often found expression in reshaping classic recipes. A corkboard displaying his staff’s reinterpretations of peach Melba suggests he nurtured this thinking in others. In this light, elBulli’s kitchen can be seen as something resembling a Renaissance workshop, with a dynamic culture of invention and instruction.
As art objects, the works are uneven. Huber’s food conveying devices—to call them simply plates would be a misnomer—are intriguing as design objects, but Adrià’s tree charts, which explicate his theories of food evolution, range from opaque to overwrought. Notes on Creativity could have used some editing, but in its totality, even the weakest drawings have value—they show us the font of Adrià’s creativity, which, once uncapped, is difficult to dam.
Notes on Creativity will travel extensively after its time at the Drawing Center.
Lilly Lampe is a writer and art critic based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Art in America, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Papers, Artforum.com, and Modern Painters, among others.