Ferran Adrià’s Search for Miracles

Pea jelly lime and banana ice cream

Andy Warhol was perhaps the first artist to understand and take advantage of the commercial potential of art. With his appropriations of soup cans and Brillo boxes Warhol cleverly articulated the ethos and exploited the emerging mass produced, mass marketed,  mass media of mid-20th Century America. Since then, money has flooded the art market turning high-end art into a commodity, as if it were gold or cattle futures. With its fairs, auctions, and galleries, much of the art world has become the playground of status seeking millionaires and billionaires.

The edible arts have undergone their own down-market commodification, with ubiquitous cooking shows, celebrities who cook, and celebrity chefs who don’t, having exchanged their spatulas for the microphone and camera.

In this age of rampant commercialization, Ferran Adrià stands apart.

One of the innovative chefs responsible for launching modernist cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy), Adrià spent three decades building elBulli, a small, unassuming restaurant in Catalonia, into one of the world’s top restaurants. Industry authority Restaurant magazine voted elBulli best in the world four years in a row from 2006 to 2009. With three Michelin stars and two million people each year requesting a table he could have sold his brand world-wide and cashed in on public appearances. But not Adrià. In 2010 he shut the place down for reasons only an artist could appreciate. As this profile in Wired reports:

…after more than two decades of applying a set of principles and methods to gastronomy, Adrià had stopped not because he was broke or fighting with his collaborators, but because he could no longer innovate to the level he wished. “We had reached a limit,” he says with a shrug.

elBulli may be closed but the creative nerve center of his operation is still going strong. Next on the agenda is:

“the elBulli Foundation, a centre of innovation allied with digital technology that would rethink haute cuisine in a way that would offer other creative endeavours a road map for innovation.”

The online component includes La Bullipedia, an online database that will contain “every piece of gastronomic knowledge ever gathered.”

The elBulli archive — some of which is handwritten in notebooks or on old versions of Word — will be available online and a network of food blogs will be catalogued within the site. “Now you can find out what’s happening in gastronomy because of the internet,” Adrià says. “This is never-ending — our success will depend on our limitations.” The teams at the foundation will curate recipes while the tech team constructs a searchable archive using semantic technology so that users will discover relationships that they might not have found otherwise.

Although Adrià rejects the standard celebrity chef routine his aims are far from modest:

The foundation is Adrià’s attempt to understand the nature of creativity and to address a powerful question: where do ideas come from, and how do we best foster them?…The foundation will be interdisciplinary: Adrià talks of a mash-up of science, the arts, philosophy and technology as a “creativity-generating universe” that will produce “today’s most valuable raw materials –creativity and talent.

It remains to be seen whether this project can sustain itself without excessive commercialization. But Adrià seems to be aware of the dangers.

In the first year he doesn’t want any sponsors other than Telefónica, the giant Spanish telco overseeing the technology. “The project has to have organic growth,” Adrià says. “We want freedom, not pressure. A sponsor will want results — for him!

Adrià is pursuing one of the traditional functions of art before it became an amusing stand in for pork bellies–an exploration in search of the miraculous to be shared by anyone who wants to look. It is ironic that the medium for this vision is the realm of taste, long considered the weak sister of the more important visual arts.

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