If, like most foodies, you read a lot about celebrity chef Ferran Adrià but never had a chance to dine at elBulli restaurant in Spain, the Museum of Science is about to offer you a valuable substitute course. A new temporary exhibit, “Innovation in the Art of Food: Chef Ferran Adrià,” opens Feb. 15.
Why a science museum? Because for the last quarter century, Adrià managed to transform the concept of high-end dining by blending the culinary arts with chemistry. Culinary foam rode a wave onto American menus in the early 2000s. Adrià pioneered that technique, taking intensely flavored, stabilized liquids and aerating them into cloud-like accents. That was just one innovation that allowed him to deconstruct and reinvent dishes using different ingredients, tastes, textures, and sci-fi equipment. It came to be known as molecular gastronomy, a term the museum does not use, and that Adria has been quoted as saying he dislikes. Today it is known as modernist cuisine or deconstructionist cuisine.
Adrià’s guiding principle was “stop imitating and start creating,” and in the exhibit that spirit is in full throttle. Every display case, video, sketch, and journal celebrates the Spanish chef’s creativity. There’s even an original orchestral composition inspired by his food. “I’m a cook and what I do is talk to different disciplines,” Adrià writes in an e-mail. “In this case, thanks to science, we know much more about how things work in the kitchen, both chemically and physically.”
Audio and video at the entrance transport visitors to Spain’s Costa Brava, where elBulli operated until Adrià shuttered it in 2011. Next, just past a bronze bulldog (el bulli), two tables await. They are each set virtually with a video image of a 37-course meal projected directly onto the surface. Meals at elBulli often ran four hours, but this one is a mere 80 minutes. Overhead, a waiter announces the dishes, and unseen diners savor the meal, only their hands visible. While hearing the words “Noisette (hazelnut) butter soup with rabbit brains” and watching the food disappear, couldn’t duplicate the experience of actually tasting that dish at elBulli, it’s rewarding in its own way.
Nearby, the chef speaks via a large video screen. An enormous light box featuring nearly 2,000 photos documents each dish elBulli created in 25 years. Also on display are some plastic food models and sketches he made.
Housed in glass cases are restaurant artifacts like cutting-edge dishware, a liquid nitrogen vessel, siphons, a Pacojet, and a dehydrator. One of the most informative displays is the Evolutionary Map, a backward-looking timeline that begins in 2011 when elBulli restaurant transitioned to the elBulli Foundation, a global gastronomic think-tank and laboratory. The timeline is complemented with video clips, a description of the organization, and its philosophy, products, and technology that influenced that year. The exhibit coincides with next month’s release of Adrià’s seven-volume catalog of recipes, “elBulli 2005-2011.” The cost will be $625.
Some Americans will get to know Adrià as more than just the father of foam. At the very least, after viewing the exhibit, they’ll know he became enough of a pop-culture reference to make it on to “The Simpsons.”