Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The art of cooking

"Contemporary fine dining cuisine has reached the stage where it can be compared with art as a means of expression. However, the notion of creative cuisine as an art form is still in its infancy, and the idea that a diner can engage with a dish in the same way that a viewer can engage with a work of art is still a new one. A dish can satisfy a physiological need or provide pleasure for the senses, but it can also 'say' something that stimulates analysis and reflection and provokes a deeper response. Food comes closest to art when there is a desire to engage the diner in this way.

Unlike art, though, contemporary cuisine has never been studied or analysed thoroughly. Although food historians exist, their principal aim is to document and understand the history of food and its production through the ages, rather than to discuss the key movements and leading exponents of contemporary fine dining cuisine in a way that art historians might study contemporary art and artists. Most cookbooks by contemporary chefs to not attempt to codify a creative system behind their dishes; setting out an analysis of the evolution of El Bulli's food and creative methods attempts to redress this balance.

Ferran is interested in exploring the links between contemporary art and cuisine, and in 2007 elBulli participated in Documenta 12, the contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. Ferran was curious about the parallels that could be drawn between the experience of looking at art and the experience of eating a dish, in terms of the way each activity engages the sense, emotions and intellect of the participant. Every day two visitors to the exhibition were randomly selected to be flown to Spain to have dinner at elBulli. In this way, the restaurant became a kind of satellite pavilion of the exhibition.

Although many of elBulli's dishes do not resemble conventional food, there is no suggestion that any dish should be appreciated purely aesthetically as a work of art. The principle aim of a dish is to give pleasure to diners in the conventional ways as well as in more unusual ones. In Orange nitro-sorbet with its balloon, a balloon containing orange-flower essence is slowly deflated, releasing its aroma while the sorbet is eaten and challenging the diner to consider the boundaries of what can be presented as food in a restaurant. elBulli's food is provocative, new and often surprising, but it is situated firmly within the sphere of cooking."

* * *

My 500+ page Phaidon book -- A Day at elBulli -- arrived yesterday. It isn't exactly what I was hoping it would be, but I'll still enjoy it, and it serves as a good way to quell some of the urge I have to purchase one of the expensive (220-350$) elBulli cookbooks. (I view the cookbooks as premiere art books on one of the world's great artists: Ferran Adrià. The fact that they are also fantastic cookbooks is a bonus; I want them mostly for the pictures. Besides, many of the dishes are likely hard (or impossible) to produce without large amounts of money for equipment and chemicals.) So, for only 33$, A Day at elBulli will serve as my fix until I can convince the other parts of my brain -- the parts that insist I eat every week -- to spend 220$ on a single book.

A Day at elBulli is more of a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant filled with many pictures and information on everything you would ever want to know. More "what it's like to work at and experience El Bulli" than "here we present the art, imagination, and creative genius of Ferran Adrià" (though it does contain a good bit of that as well). More heavily focused on the creative process than the creations themselves, each page of A Day at elBulli has the corresponding time written at the top, and as you read through, the book explores what goes on at the restaurant during a typical day from before it opens until after it closes.

(A few days ago I found out that Heston Blumenthal is soon to release The Big Fat Duck cookbook.)

I recommend DECODING FERRAN ADRIÀ very highly to anyone who hasn't seen it:

(watch the full video HERE)

* * *

The activities and creations of culinary alchemists Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal remind me of Des Esseintes from Huysmans' À rebours, sitting alone in his estate dreaming up newer and better worlds. Huysmans' hero concocted perfumes that he used to recall the history of the French language, and he transposed real and fake flowers, even paying a nursery to make him flowers that appeared to be fake. When I first heard about Blumenthal's sound experiments, I immediately wondered if he had been inspired by Des Esseintes "mouth organ." And Des Esseintes' sea bath seems like inspiration for many things -- some of it even sounds like a recipe!

"There, the illusion of the sea is undeniable, imperious, positive. It is achieved by salting the water of the bath; by mixing, according to the Codex formula, sulphate of soda, hydrochlorate of magnesia and lime; by extracting from a box, carefully closed by means of a screw, a ball of thread or a very small piece of cable which had been specially procured from one of those great rope-making establishments whose vast warehouses and basements are heavy with odors of the sea and the port; by inhaling these perfumes held by the ball or the cable end; by consulting an exact photograph of the casino; by eagerly reading the Joanne guide describing the beauties of the seashore where one would wish to be; by being rocked on the waves, made by the eddy of fly boats lapping against the pontoon of baths; by listening to the plaint of the wind under the arches, or to the hollow murmur of the omnibuses passing above on the Port Royal, two steps away.

The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself."

It would be interesting to write a much longer entry on this topic; there seems to be an unacknowledged influence. And I suppose it is worth noting that Des Esseintes uses science and artifice to overthrow nature while Adria uses it, in theory, to enhance nature. So Blumenthal seems the truer heir.


Anonymous said...

Maybe this means the world is one step closer to being ready to move beyond the concept of art as segmented into different forms and toward art as itself a medium of life, all of life as the only form of art.

For me there is something deeply interesting in the claim (in the video, which never loaded properly, so I was reduced to watching all the clips I could find on YouTube) that Adrià's techniques are "useful techniques, not techniques for techniques' sake." There is a scramble in art to create ever newer styles; artists want to prove their worth as creative agents by inventing rather than expressing, long after the search for stylistic novelty was exposed as a sham(bles), with the result that the whole idea of artistic styles/movements is (thankfully) killed. Your excerpt from the Phaidon book betrays its failure to understand this. An "analysis of the evolution of El Bulli's food and creative methods" seems to miss entirely what I see as the point. (Although perhaps Adrià, someone who wants to challenge ideas of "what ham can be," would disagree with me.)

To look at Adrià's art as consummate with and in the act of dining is perfect, I think; the creative, productive force becomes a means to and catalyst for a higher kind of experience.

I have really enjoyed thinking about all of this; thanks for the post.

Hectocotylus said...

I was going to respond with a very long post but all it boiled down to was: I don't see why the notion of "analyzing or looking at the evolution of creative methods" and/or segmenting art into different mediums and sub-genres negates the idea of "art as a medium of life and life as the only form of art." With cooking, technique is even more important because it is a tradition where the discoveries are passed on and taught, and people want to know how certain things are done. When we look at the Mona Lisa we immediately know how it was made, and we aren't looking to make one of our own.

Along with having the potential for artistic expression, cooking also serves a more utilitarian purpose, so an exploration of the creative techniques and methods involved is important. Also, if someone is trying to help something be recognized as a serious art form, what better way to study it then by using the same approach that's used to study all the arts?

Hectocotylus said...

I no longer recommend this book. I have not once gone back to look through it. If you want it for the handful of recipes, I guess that's another matter.