Palate vs. Palette

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

Can radical food be a form of radical art? Art critic Blake Gopnik and chef Jose Andres spend an afternoon at minibar to taste and explore. Video by Jennifer Carpenter for The Washington PostVideo by Jennifer Carpenter/The Washington Post
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.)

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