The premise on which "Ferran Adriá: The Invention of Food" is based is that exceptional creativity in any form is, in part at least, artistic expression. The Dalí makes an elegant case for it in highlighting the achievements of Adriá. The title comes from a video of the late artist Richard Hamilton discussing his admiration for him.
If you are unfamiliar with Adriá, he is considered among the greatest living chefs, if not the greatest. His restaurant in Spain, elBulli, was the foodie pilgrimage beginning in the 1990s until he closed it in 2011. Reservations in its final years were three to four years out. He became famous for deconstructing food and changing its form or texture so that it had a familiar taste but a new appearance. He has been associated with the molecular gastronomy movement, though he doesn't like that term.
But what is an exhibition about his career doing in an art museum? If you accept the Dalí Museum's premise, there is justification. The Dalí presses its case with specific similarities between Salvador Dalí (1904-89) and the chef (born in 1962). The most obvious one is geography. The two men are from Catalonia in the northwest region of Spain. Adriá's restaurant was located near Port Lligat, Dalí's birthplace, which had a profound influence on the landscapes in his paintings. He constantly invoked it in images of the Mediterranean Sea, rocky coastline and steep hills that rise from it. The terrain also brought inspiration to Adriá in the bountiful food the region yields. We see examples in large panels of his dishes.
A huge endorsement came in 2007 when Adriá was invited to participate in Documenta, a prestigious international art show in Germany that makes its appearance every five years. Adriá at first balked, saying he is a cook, not an artist, but organizer Roger Buergel replied "that to create a new cooking technique was as complicated and challenging as painting a great picture."
Though the chef considers himself more scientist than artist, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Consider Leonardo da Vinci and his legendary scientific explorations. Relevant to this show is Dalí's use of science and mathematics in both the composition and images of his works. I wish more specifics about that were included to make a more tangible connection. Four paintings are on view, all referencing food, including his early Basket of Bread (1926) and later Eucharistic Still Life (1952). I would have liked to see Still Life — Fast Moving (1956) with an explanation of the important influence physics played in its making. Instead, the art is like a sidebar.
The digital displays are impressive. Adriá, almost as obsessive about the documentation of his food as the food itself, created them and they're the "wow" factor in this show. One is a large panel with photographs of the 1,846 dishes served at elBulli that shift, are enlarged and labeled with the individual dish's number and the year it was served. In cases are some of the notebooks that show the process of creating a dish. Also on display are utensils and vessels created for specific dishes. Some are every bit as exquisite as the nearby tableware Dalí designed. Most of the materials are borrowed, but the museum produced a series of interviews with chefs, most with local ties, who describe a transformative food experience.
Videos record scenes of the kitchen and dining room, providing a contrast between the former's chaos and the latter's serenity. Because of the intricacy of the dishes, kitchen and serving staff far outnumbered the guests and we see chefs and waiters jostle, compete for space and yell a lot around the stoves and prep tables. The best digital presentation is an illuminated table surface in which we look, as if diners, at a 36-course tasting. We see each exquisite bite as the real diner's hands examine it. It almost feels as if we're tasting it. Except we don't, which will probably be a criticism. I counter with our love of glossy cookbook photographs. We don't taste those either. To address that absent sensory experience, the museum has imported authentic Ibérico ham from Spain. It's considered by many food authorities to be the finest cured ham in the world and can sell for almost $100 a pound. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, thin slivers will be served free in the gallery. I fear the ham will run out before the show ends its run so please don't hog it when you visit.
I'm not writing an apologia. The show is an amuse-bouche, an entertaining diversion between "Disney and Dalí," which recently closed, and "Frida Kahlo at the Dalí," opening in December. I'm okay with that. If the great Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute can produce shows that elevate dressmaking, once considered a craft, to high art, then we should consider welcoming those who craft food into the pool, too. It extends the conversation about the definition of art. And at the Dalí, it comes with a serving of really good ham.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.