PRINT October 2009


Futurist cooking

Albert Adrià and Mateu Casañas, El Bulli, Cala Montjoi, Spain. Photo: Maribel Ruiz de Erenchun.

ON JANUARY 4, 1931, under the drastic headline “Assails Macaroni as Bane of Italy,” the New York Times spelled out the consequences of the gastronomic revolution proposed by F. T. Marinetti in his “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” which had just appeared in Turin’s Gazzetta del Popolo and caused a stir around the world. Marinetti’s culinary polemic advocated the introduction of scientific methods in the kitchen—a “cooking laboratory” replete with chemicals, ultraviolet lamps, electrolysis, and the development of new devices such as the “ozonizer” to highlight olfactory sensations. A rapid succession of dishes, each containing but one mouthful or even a fraction of a mouthful, should replace the boring, heavy monotony of the classical Italian meal, he declared. Everything should be light—virtually weightless.

This ethereal quality, surprisingly enough, was presented as a feminine virtue. Marinetti, otherwise known to be relentlessly misogynistic, wrote:

We also feel that we must stop the Italian male from becoming a solid leaden block of blind and opaque density. Instead he should harmonize more and more with the Italian female, a swift spiraling transparency of passion, tenderness, light, will, vitality, heroic constancy. Let us make our Italian bodies agile, ready for the featherweight aluminum trains which will replace the present heavy ones of wood iron steel.

Ironically, it seemed that through that most traditionally feminine of activities, cooking, women could access the kinetic promise of Futurism and step aboard the bullet train of history. As he sought to fit cooking into the broader avant-garde project, in other words, Marinetti was forced to break with one of his fundamental values, contempt for women—an early example of some of the complications attending efforts to bring art into everyday life and vice versa.

Such complications are still evident, if not in such vexed form, in the career of Ferran Adrià, today’s most famously experimental chef. Certainly, reading about Marinetti’s demand for a “battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen,” one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Adrià is heir to the Futurist kitchen. It therefore seems quite logical that the new molecular gastronomy bible, A Day at El Bulli: An Insight into the Ideas, Methods, and Creativity of Ferran Adrià (Phaidon), arrived just in time for the hundredth anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, which is being celebrated this year. Consider an example of Adrià’s creativity that could just as well have come from one of the Futurist banquets Marinetti envisioned:

The olive oil cylinder is made from a special caramel made from olive oil and Isomalt. Under a heat lamp, a fine thread of the caramel is wound rapidly around a cylindrical mold that has been fitted over a drill, and sets like a tightly coiled spring. The spring is then gently removed from the mold and served to the guest in a shiny black box that looks like a jewelry box. The guest puts the olive oil spring onto their finger like a ring, and places it in their mouth.

Just like Marinetti’s “formulas,” Adrià’s culinary creations are full of spheres, cylinders, and cubes—clean geometries that defy organic matter and bespeak aerodynamic fantasies. And Adrià remains true to the avant-garde spirit of innovation and surprise: “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.”

As devoted gastronomes know well, there are a mere fifty-two seats at Adrià’s restaurant El Bulli, in Cala Montjoi on Spain’s Costa Brava, and the restaurant is open only six months of the year, so that the chef can spend the other six on R&D. Just one meal a day is served (usually dinner, sometimes lunch). This means that only some eight thousand customers—a tiny fraction of the literally millions of people who request a reservation each year—can be accommodated annually. So Adrià at some point realized that he needed to spread his doctrine by other means. A Day at El Bulli, a giant tome, follows the master from sunrise to the closing of his restaurant at two in the morning. Along the way, the workings of the restaurant are detailed with copious photographs, recipes, philosophical reflections, and scientific-looking diagrams. All in all, it is a positively voyeuristic peek at what goes into the production of spaghetti consommé, “Venus rice jelly,” goat’s-milk yogurt nodules, apple “caviar,” algin solution, and, of course, “airs”—the light foams with which Adrià started a worldwide trend. An almost regimental precision prevails: The cooking staff is divided into two cadres, “savory world” and “sweet world,” recalling the organizational logic of the military as much as that of the typical restaurant. The El Bulli mise en place—the orderly array of ingredients and tools that restaurant cooks set up before a service—evokes an operating room, so antiseptic-looking are the rows of syringes and gleaming metal tools. And yet the meals that emerge—in four courses that progress from hors d’oeuvres to savory tapas to “avant-desserts” to the elusive foam constructions called “morphings”—are far from devoid of sensuality.

Coulant/soufflé of granadilla with cardamom toffee. Photo: Francesc Guillamet.

But is it art? Well, what else could it be? What Adrià offers his guests is not primarily tasty or healthy food but visual, olfactory, and oral effects that are taken seriously as effects, with all the surprise and, yes, sensationalism that this implies. And there is of course nothing unusual about artists expanding their practice into the realm of cooking. Beyond Marinetti, we might think of Dalí’s bizarre cookbook, say, with its recipes for frog pasties and avocado with lamb brains on toast, or of artist-run restaurants, from Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food in New York in the 1970s to Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy to Carsten Höller’s recent experiment in African-European fusion, the Double Club, in London. And as we know, virtually anything presented in a museum, including a meal, can be considered art. For decades, artists such as Daniel Spoerri and Peter Kubelka presented food in an art context. Fluxus feasts offered diners meals composed entirely of clear foods, while the anarchic Dieter Roth tried to break with the hegemony of the eye to create an oral aesthetic, one developed not only in his chocolate sculptures and sausage drawings but also in poems, such as “Mein Auge ist ein Mund” (My Eye Is a Mouth, 1966), which traces the digestive process from beginning to end: “My eye is a mouth / my eyelids are the mouth’s lips / . . . / my brain is the mouth’s stomach / my images are the mouth’s digestion / my life is the mouth’s excrement.”

In yet another recently published and lavishly produced book about Adrià—Food for Thought, Thought for Food (Actar), edited by artist Richard Hamilton and Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí—artists and food professionals reflect on some of these initiatives in their efforts to situate the El Bulli chef in a broader cultural-historical context. The varied contributions range from the totally banal to the bons mots of the grumpy Kubelka, who declares that saying Adrià made cooking an art is like saying James Joyce made literature an art. But Adrià’s ambition is not to make cooking an art, per se: It is, rather, to explore the ultimate borders of taste, to develop an experimental aesthetic that takes the mouth, rather than the eye, as its point of departure.

Thankfully, Adrià avoids Roth’s scatological conclusions (which would no doubt hurt his business) when discussing his orally centered creativity, and he is also not interested in introducing food into the gallery or turning the museum into a place to meet over a meal, à la Rirkrit Tiravanija. His project asserts that cooking has no need of the gallery for validation, since it is already an art in its own right; and by the same token, like any other art, it has its own specific requirements. It was therefore understandable that Adrià had no interest in appearing at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel when he was invited to participate in Documenta 12 in 2007. Instead, a few guests were selected from among Documenta’s visitors and invited to El Bulli. It makes sense that Adrià preferred to stay where he has developed his instruments to perfection, just as a composer would naturally prefer a music hall with perfect acoustics.

But if cooking is really an artistic practice, then we might ask, Where does the work of art emerge? In the lab, in the kitchen, on the table, or in the mouth? Asking such fundamental questions (just as we expect all serious artists), Adrià works to fully develop his synesthetic sensations via new combinations of taste, texture, smell, shape, and color. His laboratory in Barcelona, El Taller, employs scientists, designers, and technicians to develop recipes, improve chemical methods, and design new tools and special cutlery. Once introduced in the restaurant, dishes are refined to attain the “magical” quality Adrià is after. It would be interesting to explore Adrià’s relationship to ancient Roman cuisine, which resolutely eschewed anything au naturel and instead indulged in ironic transformations in order to fool the guests at the table: A fish that looked like a bird but tasted like lamb, for instance, was among the trickeries with which Apicius’s contemporaries amused themselves. Adrià’s mannerisms can be similarly entertaining: Sometimes we are pretty close to the world of practical jokes. Why exactly, for example, must the apple “caviar” be served in caviar cans? Indeed, the same quality of near-decadent spectacularism teetering toward kitsch is evident in some of Marinetti’s imagined banquets, where “Alaskan salmon in the rays of the sun with Mars sauce” might be followed by an Elasticake filled with disturbingly bright-red zabaglione. But then, perhaps the metal can, that most well-known of machine-made objects, is necessary to remind us that we ourselves are not totally natural but are, rather, creatures who rely on technological prostheses as we pursue synesthetic fantasias of all sorts. A truly contemporary aesthetic, then, cannot simply rely on our traditional senses. Breaking with the hegemony of vision is not enough.

Cooking is the oldest art form, older than cave painting, Kubelka claimed many years ago. “Cooking is the mother of philosophy, of chemistry, of physics. Cooking is poetry, transformation. The chef is the master of the elements. Why does nobody want to be the master of the elements?” Well, Adrià certainly does. A Day at El Bulli concludes with a theoretical diagram that explains the development of his key concepts. Nothing is too lofty or pretentious to be claimed as an influence by this philosopher-chef: Minimalism, deconstruction, the sixth sense . . . but so what? Adrià simply wants us to marvel at the capacities of our own senses. Western culture valorized the ocular above all other senses for centuries. The oral cosmos should at last be given the same attention. Now, Marinetti and Roth might say along with Adrià, the time has come for the mouth.

Charlotte Birnbaum is the author of A Journey Within: Cooking with Offal (2009) and the forthcoming Pasteten, Pasteten, Pasteten (both Walther Koenig).