Sometimes referred to as “art food,” molecular gastronomy is fine dining with a twist. Using an ever-growing list of machines and techniques, this cuisine can defy logic and present food in such beautiful and unexpected ways, it’s not hard to understand where art comes into the picture (and onto the plate).
While Montreal was my first foray into this world, there are certainly many examples nearby in New York and even at Ibiza right here in New Haven.
Many consider Ferran Adrià the godfather of this cuisine, although he shirks from the title. He prefers his cuisine to be described as “deconstructivist.” No matter what you call it, it’s fascinating, gorgeous and surprising.
The documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress profiles the famed Spanish restaurant and its chef, offering a rare look into El Bulli’s kitchen and lab.
It’s filmed in a fly-on-the wall style, so excess narration and theatrical flourishes are left out. What remains is an understated, behind-the-scenes look at the creative process that goes into the avant-garde cuisine that has made them famous.
The documentary shows El Bulli’s annual shutting down, packing up and moving to their lab, “El Taller,” for six months to experiment and develop the menu for the next year. We follow them from the first tests to the end of the season, where all these developed “concepts” are served at the restaurant.
Tests exhaust every avenue of thought. For example, they experiment with sweet potatoes in the first section of the film. They freeze dry it, juice it, fry it, bake it, liquefy it, vacuumize it, pressurize it and otherwise manipulate it with their roster of modern gadgets until they get a flavor, texture, color and/or idea they haven’t used before.
The ideas are at the forefront of all the dishes developed. For Adrià, the ideas are simply vehicles for emotional impact for all 30-50 of the tiny courses that make up the menu on any given year. One scene shows the chef addressing new staff. He explains the concepts and details of their haute cuisine; breaks down the mystery of the technology used in molecular gastronomy, and can’t hide his excitement explaining that that year’s menu would be based around water.
“People will ask, ‘What did they serve at El Bulli?,’” proffers Adrià.
“What? Water?,” he answers himself with a sly grin and raised eyebrows.
To some this may sound absurd, but to me it shows the true genius behind the menu. He turns expectations on their head at every turn. His water menu includes pine nut ravioli whose pasta vanishes when delicately dipped in a bowl of water and a “minted ice lake,” comprised poetically of only ice, sugar and mint.
The experience of the diner is always prioritized. Imagine: your table is approached; a bowl with a thin layer of ice is placed in front of you. The server then sprinkles your bowl with the sugar and freeze-dried peppermint so that you can hear the sound it makes, like sleet in your own tiny universe. Left alone with your frozen lake, you break it like a crème brulee, only to find a bowl full of crisp, cool air. Crunching the ice and fresh mint yes, awakens your palette (especially important late into the menu), but, according to Adrià, “above all, it bewilders.”
Along with bewilderment, Adrià has coaxed emotions like wonder, awe, astonishment, disbelief and pleasure from his 8,000 diners a year (of the roughly 2 million who wanted reservations).
Alas, in true artistic fashion, Adrià quit just when the hysteria for his “art food” was at its peak. El Bulli, with its three Michelin stars, permanently closed in 2011, and is now functioning solely as a lab/think tank (El Bulli Foundation) with the motto “Freedom to Create”.
“For some it’s madness,” Adrià told Newsweek just weeks before the restaurant went dark. “But El Bulli was always about being mad.”
The upside: Adrià has influenced a whole generation of culinary artists, and some of his staff have gone out and opened their own restaurants, including former El Bulli interns René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s now famed Noma and Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea and Next. Adrià has also lectured at Harvard based on his particular mix of culinary arts, science and creativity since the shutdown.
Personally, I can’t wait to hear what’s next for Adrià, one of the most creative minds of our generation.
The documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is now available for purchase on DVD and on Netflix streaming.
Amanda May is the Communications Manager at The Arts Council of Greater New Haven.