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Exhibition Review: elBulli – Ferran Adria and the Art of Food, Somerset House

August 23, 2013

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My friend Lucia thought I’d enjoy the elBulli exhibition at Somerset House and got us tickets. It was a rather strange concept: going to an 18th century London house of one-time formal splendour to see an exhibition about one of the world’s most extraordinary and creative restaurants and chefs.

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It really didn’t seem the right setting for it. Especially on a wet London day, arriving huddled under an umbrella. ElBulli itself was situated in a pretty cala on Spain’s Costa Brava. And how do you put a restaurant into an exhibition? I wondered. Well, there was only one way to find out – go in and see!

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Necessarily, the exhibition is about history and documentation. Unfortunately, Adria himself wasn’t around handing out nice little mouthfuls of olive oil caviar (though I was able to see some through glass). 

I’m not aware that I know anyone who has actually been to elBulli but I’ve talked of it with people for years. I’m not naturally drawn to the kind of molecular gastronomy Heston Blumenthal demonstrates on TV; I’ve no strong desire to go to his restaurant (though if anyone’s offering to take me, I won’t say no!). I’m fairly classic in my food preferences. I like Italian or French cooking best where what I see on the plate is pretty much what I eat and the cooking is highly skilled using the best ingredients. But for some reason there was something about elBulli that appealed to me as I caught glances on TV, read about it in magazines and newspapers, discussed what I’d heard with friends. Having seen the exhibition, I think what appealed was the art form. Adria takes you so far beyond the food itself that it becomes almost a medium like paint is to an artist, words are to a writer. The late artist Richard Hamilton, shown in photos in the exhibition, compares Adria’s creativity, revolutionary vision and importance to Shakespeare and Marcel Duchamp.

The exhibition follows a timeline, beginning in 1956 with homeopathic doctor Hans Schilling from Dusseldorf and his wife Marketta, buying a beach cafe with a mini golf at Cala Montjoi on the Catalonian coast of Spain, near Girona. The doctor began an affair back in Germany and Marketta was left alone a lot in Spain in the company of her French bulldogs whom she called ‘bullis’. What an origin for the name of a restaurant that would become the most acclaimed and famous in the word! And five time voted best restaurant in the world. Through photographs, documents, books and film, we see a gradual transformation of elBulli to a restaurant. There were a number of chefs before Adria’s arrival in 1984 and the restaurant had already gained 2 Michelin stars. Adria took charge of the kitchen at the age of 25. It was after an encounter with the great French chef Jacques Maximin that he learnt a fundamental principle to the philosophy he developed: stop copying and start creating. There are important elements to Adria’s philosophy: creativity, purity, honesty, freedom, risk, sharing and memory. Diagrams illustrate that a dish may have been developed years ago – an omelette being one example – but it’s the concept of what you can do with it, how you move on, what you create, that becomes the art form. 

ElBulli is now closed for ever as a restaurant but even when it was open, six months of the year it was closed so that Adria and his team could work in the kitchens developing new dishes, experimenting, creating. The essence of Adria’s passion, that creativity, is now to be carried into the future with the opening of the elBulli Foundation sometime in 2015. The spirit of elBulli will live on. 

As for the exhibition – how well did it work? Well, of course, there were all those enticing photos of food that would have been so nice to taste and the fact that there was absolutely nothing to eat has to be a slight disappointment; we were thinking food, after all. But watching those films of the chefs in action in the elBulli kitchen, mock-ups of dishes and photos of exquisite food, and having bold statements of Adria’s philiosophy and way of working blasting out from the walls, that really was quite inspirational.  I felt uplifted by it. I felt that should elBulli ever open again I might take out a mortgage to go there. I was a little infected by some of Ferran Adria’s passion. In a way, it couldn’t be totally satisfactory because you could only look at food, but as a testament to an artist, it stirred and moved you like any good exhibition and I’m very glad I went.

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