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The Cabinet of Dr. Adria


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We tend to think of restaurants and chefs as being primarily about food. Wine plays a second fiddle; design is somewhere in the lower echelons of the gastronomic hierarchy. Can beautiful presentation and innovative design make food taste better?

For the owners of el Bulli, design plays a crucial role in the diner's experience. They have given much attention not only to the design of the restaurant, but to the graphics on the menu, and the restaurant's kitchen. To see how presentation and design are conceived, my wife Susan and I visited the el Bulli "Taller" (atelier, studio, laboratory) in Barcelona. Here, especially during the six months of the year in which the restaurant is closed, Ferran Adria and his collaborators work on new dishes, new techniques and new frontiers of design.

* * *

There are two ways to enter the el Bulli "Taller" One is through the front door, as a professional chef. The other is to make contact with people working in el Bulli "Carme", a large loft-like space on Barcelona's Carrer del Carme, just behind La Boqueria market and across La Rambla from the laboratory. Here several people work on the expansion of the el Bulli enterprise and the design of computer and printed materials, most visibly the three volumes of the el Bulli culinary history, the first of which appeared last fall. It was these books that made me realize that the way things look and how they are designed is an important part of el Bulli.

Being professionally involved in historic and contemporary avant-garde design, we arranged a rendez-vous for July 4th with Marta Mendes, the books' designer. She told my wife and me to meet at Carrer de Carme, 15. Thinking that our appointment was at the laboratory, we were unable to find the place and no one on the street or in the neighborhood could help us. The outdoor buzzers indicated only apartment and office floors. Eventually we hit the right button and someone rang us in. Full-time staffers Marta Mendes, the designer of the el Bulli books14.jpg

and her colleague Luki Huber, an industrial designer from Switzerland, 16.jpg

greeted us 45 minutes later than the appointed time, gave us a brief tour of their workplace loft, and led us across the way to the el Bulli "Taller".

Upon entering, we saw or heard no one: no chef flailing away at some new dish or creating some new sauce or culinary form. Furthermore, one impression that one takes away is how small the cooking area is. Before reaching the kitchen, however, we noticed on our right just beyond the entrance and vestibule a long counter that displayed several of the inventions used to make some of the el Bulli famous dishes and pieces of custom-designed tableware. 1.jpg

At the head of the line was the now infamous foamer that had been adapted through the addition of plastic tubing to make the well-known Parmesan spaghetti. Luki explained that liquefied Parmesan is injected into the tube, and the foamer's CO2 cartridge blows out the solidified mixture in a continuous five-foot long strand. 3.jpg

What then caught our eye was the hot-cold pack, put underneath certain dishes to keep them hot or cold at the table. 5.jpg

We asked Luki if the pack was like the headband hikers and tourists use to keep cool by putting it in the freezer several hours before using it. He said that it was, and as an example referred me to page 368 in the el Bulli 1998-2002 book that illustrated "carmelos helados:frambuesa, zanahoria, remolach e hinojo" (frozen caramels: raspberry, carrot, beets and fennel) that are served in caramel-shaped portions and wrapped in cellophane as caramels are and kept frozen by the hot-cold pack placed beneath them.

In the small display were two examples of package designs that Luki had executed: the small tube of peanut butter (shown with a package of diamond dealer's parcel paper that Luki had brought to the attention of Albert Adria to wrap small tablets of dark chocolate)2.jpg

we knew from our two prior meals and the Iranian caviar tin used to serve Adria's caviar de ceps and apple caviar, the latter of which I photographed during our most recent meal at the restaurant. 22.jpg

Luki also designed the atomizer used to spray on the tongue various aromas that Adria wants the diner to experiences before tasting certain dishes. 6.jpg

Rounding out the small display were various serving pieces, most notable the ones made of slate, which Luki discovered was a highly practical material for both holding utensils and serving dishes because of its low cost, durability and ability to maintain the temperature of the food. From this is derived the chalk and slate motif in much of the el Bulli design, most notably the el Bulli book.

Straight on after the display is a seating area with two facing couches and a large television monitor that displays some of the food photographs from the el Bulli book. 4.jpg

Through the large window ahead, we saw a small construction site in full disarray. We thought it was an expansion of the kitchen and offices. Instead Adria has decided to make a large terrace garden; "something crazy", Luki said, with designer to be determined.

We then walked into the room with the test kitchen. Along the back wall, an array of small cooking appliances sat on a counter with storage cabinets below. Beneath the counter top someone affixed white letters that spelled out a Marcel Duchamp-like phrase similar to those found on his roto-reliefs, but in Spanish. Luki didn't know the precise origin, but thought it could have also come from one of the Spanish Dadists. 7.jpg

In the middle of the room was a large stove with induction hobs that one pulled out from a wood cabinet. 12.jpg

Yet, it was not this stove that appeared to be at the heart of the laboratory, but rather the awe-inspiring assemblage Luki called "the inspiration board." Along most of one wall were hundreds of small jars 9.jpg

filled with herbs, spices, dried plants and flowers, examples of categories of preparations Adria has invented, and samples of seemingly all available raw materials that Adria could use. 11.jpg

Extending from a ledge beneath the assemblage was a guide lined up to show the precise location of every jar and its contents. (See the first two photographs above.) 10.jpg

It was easy to imagine Ferran or Albert Adria standing in front of it, deep in meditation to divine a new addition to the el Bulli repertoire.

Marta and Luki then led us into the administrative area of the laboratory.We saw the conference room that appeared to be in a former ecclesiastic office 19.jpg and then

met the attractive, vivacious Silvia Fernandez who is Albert Adria's wife in the El Bulli office area.20.jpg

After some enjoyable conversation, we went upstairs to the library which housed a good number of culinary books, passing a series of good silkscreen portraits that Silvia had done of Ferran Adria. On the way up, we stopped in front of a metal cabinet. Luki opened one of the drawers and showed us a collection of small notebooks, each of which documented the way Ferran and Albert conceived some of their dishes. In the one notebook we saw that belonged to Albert, he had written very clear and meticulous notes with sketches. Although I could not take the time to examine the notes carefully, the notebooks are clearly important archival material. On the top level of the el Bulli inner sanctum, which was similar to a catwalk, there were a couple of narrow areas with works of art, including one by Robert Rauschenberg, and two framed chef's vests belonging to Ferran, one for the 100th anniversary dinner of the Guide Michelin held at Lucas-Carton and the other for a competition held by the Bragard Corporation, the manufacturer of chefs' apparel. 21.jpg

Marta then showed us a poster-size compilation of the many el Bulli pictograms that she has designed. We then returned to the first floor seating area where Luki showed us five of his notebooks that he uses to create cooking and tabletop implements. What we found most surprising, however, was to learn that Adria encourages Luki to come up with designs for innovative cooking devices; Adria then tries to find techniques and dishes to prepare with the new devices -- instead, as one would think, of the other way around.

Our visit about to end and camera out of juice, we met Ferran Adria's wife Isabel who had just arrived to do some work in the office. She was appealing, helpful and friendly as she suggested a few restaurants and tapas bars to visit. Silvia then opened a drawer in her desk and there arranged on a flat surface were stacks of business cards from a dozen or so dining establishments that they give to their visitors.

As my wife and I returned to the streets of the "Ciutat Vella" (Old City), we turned to each other and said virtually in unison how immensely enlightening the visit had been. Yet the thought we shared that trumped everything was how much far the Adria brothers and el Bulli go beyond just cooking.

* * *

In your visits to restaurants, and even in your own cooking, does design play a role? Do you use a cookbook more often when it is beautifully presented, with superb photographs? Do you pay attention to the tableware used at your favourite restaurants? Does design matter for you in the way it obviously does for the owners of el Bulli?

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Thank you for the look inside the lab.

It's an incredible place.

It's a fantastic post!

In answer to your question, I always am attracted to a cookbook with wonderful photography. It inspires me, gives me ideas for presentation,etc.

And I wish restauranters/owners in the mid level places would give chefs a bit more of a budget to play with for settings, plates,etc..

2317/5000

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Robert, a remarkable post, and where but in eGullet would one find it?!

To answer your question, I seek out bistros which look as though they hadn't been redecorated for years and am attracted to old cookbooks with long recipes and without a suggestion of a photograph, but that is an idiosyncrasy reflecting my own interests, not a statement of principle or a call to arms.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Robert Brown:

Rather interesting post. What sprang to mind was Wagner's term "gesamtkunstwerk" for his opera productions. It seems that the same term applies to the Adria's culinary productions.

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Thanks Robert for the excellent reporting. My only disappointment is that when I saw the El Bulli name and the catchy title I did expect a sensational revelation such as Bin Laden hiding there or something. This would have been more worthy of expressionism and Murnau :smile:

I now know what to do about next year's reservation. I will first find out about the cooking devices his assistants will have invented next winter. If it looks like something edible can be concocted from these scary gadgets I will definetely reserve for the summer of 2004!

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The difference between Adria and Wagner is, Adria will farm out the work for his restaurant, which means he trusts other people than himself.

Wagner, of course, had to trust hundreds and ultimately many thousands - all those singers, players and designers down through the years who have brought his pages to life.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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As I see it, Ducasse is a better example of one who trusts outsiders to realize his branded products. This is a bit different from what I know and saw in Barcelona. I hope I didn't give the opposite impression, since I worked dilligently so that I could share my visit with those who care about gastronomy in its unique, most rarified expression.

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Thanks for the striking photos and explanation.

I have never been anyplace that emphasized design to this extreme. However, a few places that rely on the creation of "atmosphere" to maximize the overall experience come to mind: Le Cirque & Osteria, with the circus theme; Cafe Nicholson, which has only a handful of tables & limited menu items, but has a room full of Spanish tile and a table full of knickknacks taking center stage. Both have a transporting quality.

But I think I'd feel manipulated --in a negative sense-- by a restaurant that used gimmicks like atomizer sprays. It would cross the line from being an interesting dining experience to being in a gastronomic amusement park. It would be fun once or twice, but not someplace I'd want to visit on a regular basis.

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