Palate vs. Palette
Avant-garde cuisine as contemporary art? A new book paints such a picture, and an art critic tucks in.

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Two hours by highway up the coast from Barcelona, and another 20 minutes over winding cliff-top roads, sits one of today's great temples to artistic innovation. The artworks to be found there one evening this summer included a pair of fried rabbit ears, a plate of embryonic pine nuts and a Styrofoam box filled with "Parmesan air," a frozen foam so light you could barely feel it on your tongue. In a more rococo mode, there were also translucent Parmesan pouches filled with squirmy, briny sea anemones, which sat alongside cubes of oyster, which lay beside a fresh, very bitter kumquat, which was set between several tiny rabbit brains, more like custard than meat.

This is the art of Ferran Adrià, often cited as the world's greatest chef, as exhibited at elBulli, proclaimed by some to be the world's finest restaurant.

For more than a decade, the most radical of Adrià's culinary experiments have come as close to serious contemporary art as cooking ever has. At least that's the claim made by a lavish new book titled "Food for Thought: Thought for Food," getting its U.S. launch in a few weeks with a visit to New York by Adrià. It has essays by art experts and critics, as well as some more immediate responses to elBulli food collected directly from art-savvy diners: "The meal at elBulli was an experience and art. I enjoyed it enormously and it made me vomit" -- high praise from today's artistic avant-garde.

Yet for an art critic who loves food -- who was granted a table at elBulli only as an art critic who loves food, so eager is Adrià for the art world's respect -- there's still the question of whether even elBulli's cooking comes close enough to art's cutting edge.

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The question is not "Could food ever count as art?," though that old chestnut is still in circulation. By now, we've learned that anything can be art, if you're asked to think of it that way or if it's compelling enough. Washington's Hirshhorn Museum recently presented shattered glass boxes -- as art. And an artist singing folk songs -- as art. Then there's that standard porcelain urinal retitled "Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 -- and exhibited a few years back at the National Gallery as one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century.

You might say Adrià himself is the art world's latest readymade. Two years ago, organizers of the ultra-prestigious Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany, declared one two-person table at elBulli to be an off-site exhibition venue, with Adrià's food as its art and free trips there for a lucky handful of art lovers. The new elBulli book takes a look back at that moment, when a restaurant became fully certified as a place to take in art.

Scholar David Kaplan, who heads the Philosophy of Food Project at the University of North Texas, says he's "optimistic" about the prospects for a more sophisticated, ambitious aesthetic of food. But he also admits to the obstacles: " 'Food' means both the U.N. emergency food drop on a famine-driven nation and the object of aesthetic contemplation," Kaplan says. And that means that when it comes to thinking about food, "aesthetics is probably last on the list."

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"I believe that if Ferran wasn't born, or Ferran didn't do what he did, much of what has happened in the last 15 years in cooking wouldn't have happened," says chef José Andrés, founder of Cafe Atlantico's Minibar, a restaurant-within-a-restaurant that lets Washingtonians -- six of them each night -- sample radically new cuisine.

Andrés is an old friend of Adrià's; he worked at elBulli early on. Andrés is also one of the great disciples of "Adriànism," as he calls the radical movement launched by his mentor. A recent meal at Minibar included eating "light" (a "light bulb" blown from hot sugar, the way an artisan would blow glass) and "smoke" (consumed when smoke was pumped into a bell jar, from which oysters were then plucked). "Why, when we eat, do we only have to be feeding our stomach, and our brain, within the parameters we know?" asks Andrés. "Why can't eating also be feeding our brain beyond the parameters we feel comfortable with?"

(Yet Andrés describes the term "molecular gastronomy," attached to this kind of food, as "hateful." All cooking involves "molecular" changes to ingredients, he points out, and the term makes what he and Adrià do sound falsely technophilic.)

Trademark Andrés dishes include a deconstructed "Philly cheesesteak" and a radical "guacamole" -- avocado wrapped around a tomato-cilantro sorbet -- which are more like pop art than real street foods. "We don't want to feed people," explains Andrés, "we only want to have a conversation."

For decades, even the innovators of nouvelle cuisine have mostly been fiddling around within the boundaries of French cooking: making dishes that didn't do much more than taste a little better than, or different from, other dishes, the way a landscape painter might fiddle with the colors and brushwork of Monet without challenging what counts as landscape art.

Adrià wants his cooking to be like encountering an absolutely foreign cuisine. "The first time I went to Japan, I was a fan, but I knew nothing. They would bring me a dish, and I'd say, 'What's that?' " Adrià said in an after-dinner conversation that he conducted in a stream of rapid-fire, and wildly peculiar, French. "That's how it is when people come here."

Except that it's way more than that. One of the most radical things about the best of this cooking is that it escapes any kind of ethnic label. Adrià has invented a new language, yes, but without an identifiable homeland, and with the possibility that it will be radically reinvented at any moment. That instability makes it barely even count as a language.

Adrià says he likes it when raw, creative gestures pile up and even clash in his cuisine, so that each one provokes an instant, very different "animal reaction." They do: I'm a pretty jaded consumer of art, but at elBulli I began to cackle, with sheer pleasure and astonishment, on being fed a plate of foie-gras fat frozen in liquid nitrogen, then sliced into pastalike ribbons, salty and mellow at the same time, served alongside a chunk of very sour lulo fruit and over dots of a cocoa essence so bitter and strong it almost burned the tongue.

If the liquid nitrogen is what stands out in that description, Adrià says you're getting him wrong. Speaking exactly like many a contemporary artist, he insists that the technique itself is beside the point: "I don't care how it's made. I care about what I want to say with it." On the other hand, one of the most striking things about Adriànism is how its techniques broaden the gap between "serious" cuisine and everyday eating. Classic French cooking can just about be tried at home, the way a Sunday painter might attempt impressionism. The new cooking is more like video or installation art, staying strictly in the hands of a specialist vanguard.

Its technology also matters because it's part of what this cooking talks about. The best reading of some of the avant-garde's new dishes might be as the apotheosis of Cheetos and Kraft Singles and other factory foods. Adriànism takes those industrial innovations, so easy to dislike, and gives them new life as the finest haute cuisine. That's not far from how minimalist sculptors, some of the most influential artists of the past 40 years, used Detroit's automotive paint to craft masterpieces of conceptual abstraction.

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Like many fine artists today, Adrià and Andrés want to push beyond the comforts of obvious aesthetic satisfaction -- of "good taste" and things that taste good -- into more complex, even difficult artistic territory. There are moments where Goya is in their kitchens, alongside Monet and Matisse.

ElBulli's rabbit ears, for instance, don't taste particularly novel. They could be extra-delicate pork rinds. What's new about them is their gory willingness to evoke the little bunny that lost them.

Adrià's Parmesan air tastes awfully good, in a fairly standard, Parmesan-y way. But its impact comes more from the thoughts it conjures up: It is about the maximum lightness achievable in food; about taking an ingredient known for its density and coming close to sublimating it; about eliminating mouth feel from the gustatory equation. At elBulli this summer, the Parmesan air came with a little plastic bag of dried-raspberry muesli, which diners were allowed to sprinkle on. It was a small gesture, but by virtue of its sheer absurdity -- why would you ever imagine adding a fruity Swiss breakfast cereal to a transformed Italian cheese served for dinner on the coast of Catalonia? -- it gave a new level of complexity to the dish.

But an art critic still has to ask whether even that's enough to push the new cuisine up to the level of the most substantial art.

If it isn't, Andrés blames the "sacred" status people attach to food and their need to stay grounded in the culinary world they know. Without such links to the familiar, he says, communication can barely take place: "I take the risk of having a customer, a person -- my audience -- completely lost for three hours." A chef, he says, simply doesn't have a fine artist's liberty to play fast and loose with his language and his audience. "I have to think, first, most important, about things I like, but second -- and I will put some effort into this -- things that become a language that the people receiving the dish may understand."

That might be why all but the most radical dishes at elBulli or Minibar come off as relatively tame, at least when compared with the most daring contemporary art. A surprising amount of this cooking is still mostly about what goes on in the mouth: some new ingredient that comes as a shock (until you get used to it) or new flavors and textures conjured from old foods. In fine-art terms, you could say that a lot of it is still stuck in abstractland, riffing on the same old palette (or palate) of sensations; whereas today's best art can try to say important things about the world and change the way we think about it. It's about new content as well as novel sensations.

There are moments when this cooking does try to talk about a world beyond the tip of diners' tongues: Andrés's pop art "cheesesteaks," for instance, or the trompe-l'oeil foods Adrià makes that look like other foods (most famously, his dish of cocktail "olives" that turn out to be olive-juice-filled membranes). But most of these gestures come off as more charming and witty than deeply affecting. If Goya's been allowed into these kitchens, he's been kept on salad duty.

A dinner at elBulli or Minibar is definitely one of the most stunning, most daring meals you'll ever eat. Yet to someone used to the world of contemporary art, that itself seems strange: You imagine that Adrià and Andrés should be the norm for what creative cooks get up to, rather than rare exceptions, joined only by a few fellow travelers such as Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz. You expect there to be a thousand more chefs as daring as they, as well as an audience refusing to settle for less, the way there's a whole world of artists, curators, critics and collectors pushing toward the very most challenging art. If Adriànism were the norm, some chef, somewhere, would be bound to take it further and insist on making only dishes that could really rock your world. That chef might even be Adrià or Andrés, spurred on by the competition.

Thanks to what's gone on up that road from Barcelona, we're definitely at one of the great moments in culinary creativity. Yet for an art critic, it still feels like a bare start.

Blake Gopnik is The Post's chief art critic.

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