Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ferran Adria and A Day at elBulli

I first heard about Ferran Adria from Anthony Bourdain's essays about him. Bourdain is my favorite food writer so when he talks about a chef as if that chef were an alchemist or a magician or Picasso, I take note. Unfortunately, Ferran Adria's cookbook was a multi-thousand euro affair only available in the Catalan or Basque and Adria's restaurant elBulli is located in an isolated section of Catalonia in Spain, serves only 8,000 sittings a calendar year and costs 250 euros per person per meal. So it was only through Bourdain's essays that I could experience anything Adria was doing.


Until Phaidon, the publisher that put out 1080 and The Silver Spoon (one of my favorite cookbooks), released A Day at elBulli. A Day at elBulli is not a cookbook with a list of recipes coupled with alluring photographs of the dishes, but an examination of the creative process.


elBulli is only open six months a year. The rest of the year, Adria and his creative team, including his brother, an organic chemist, and an industrial designer work to develop the next year's menu and this book is an examination of that process. The book starts with beautiful pictures of the Costa Brava and follows Adria and his staff on a serving day right up to washing dishes and closing the restaurant down. Along the way, inserts explain the details that go in to creating such a dining experience and expound Adria's dining philosophy. The inserts include; Creative Methods I, II, and III; Knowledge is essential for judging the products; Cooking and art; and, one of my favorites, What happens between a restaurant and its guests? which enumerates the responsibilities and factors involved in a dining experience including the "sixth sense" of the guest "which can be stimulated in these ways":

-transgression of restaurant conventions

-childhood memories

-magic

-playfulness

-irony and provocation

-decontextualization

-surprise

-a 'knowing wink'

-recognition of a cultural reference

-confounded expectations

-deception


There are recipes for the daring, but this book is for more than just foodies. In a way it is a handbook for creativity, by giving us detailed access into the mind of one of the world's creative geniuses. For example this definition of creativity is offered:


Creativity...can be measured: it is possible to document a technique and to establish whether it is new. But to be truly creative, a dish must be interesting as well as new. The aim at elBulli is to create dishes and techniques that engage guests' sensory, emotional and intellectual faculties to the full, to surprise them and to encourage them to experience food in new and unexpected ways.


I may never get the chance to actually dine at elBulli (most of us won't) but this book offers enough of Adria's creativity for us to still learn from the work he is doing in his kitchen.

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