Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 8th, 2013

Cooking in progress

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El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

Last week, my wife and I watched the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which follows the chef Ferran Adrià and his staff through one season at what was widely regarded, until its recent closure, as the world’s greatest restaurant. It’s a strange film: the tone is dry, almost clinical, and in contrast to a movie like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, there’s never any attempt to involve us emotionally. There’s no narration or context, just a series of cooly presented vignettes. The result may seem uninviting to viewers who aren’t already interested in modernist cuisine or Adrià himself, but for those who are, it’s consistently fascinating. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my own approach to cooking is minimalist at best, but the work of such chefs as Grant Achatz at Alinea has given me as much to think about in terms of creativity and innovation as any other art form. Cooking, like any creative discipline, is concerned with materials, constraints, and the discovery of new solutions to interesting problems, and El Bulli, for all its surface chill, is one of the most insightful depictions of the work of a great artist that I’ve seen in a long time.

“Creativity and production are two different things,” Adrià informs a class of recent hires, and one of the first things we notice about his approach is that he leaves most of the cooking to others. At this stage in his career, Adrià comes across as less of a hands-on craftsman than a genius director on a film set, whose role, as David Mamet reminds us, is to make decisions and provide an aesthetic overview. El Bulli’s head chefs are highly resourceful, and their presence allows Adrià to explore his range of options in the most efficient possible way. I was struck by the fact that most dishes don’t begin with a concept, but an ingredient—a sweet potato, a mushroom—that Adrià wants to use, prepared in the lab in a number of ways involving such modernist tools as sous-vide and liquid nitrogen. After tasting the results, Adrià settles on a basic approach to be refined at the restaurant itself. To use an analogy from fiction, dishes are planned from the bottom up, not the top down, and the finished product isn’t so much an imposition of a clever idea as a realization of the possibilities inherent in the ingredients themselves, which emerge only after a long period of systematic trial and error.

Ferran Adrià

One these key elements have been established, Adrià turns to the problem of planning the menu. In my post on Alinea, I noted that the menu seems to have been constructed with the care of a well-made play, and Adrià takes a similar approach. He begins by taking a calendar and noting when various fresh ingredients are expected to be available, then assigns each one a star ranking, building the menu around the strongest dishes. It’s not so different from how an author might plan a novel or short story: you begin with a few key scenes—the inciting incident, the act breaks, and climax—and structure the rest of the plot around these crucial pillars. Once Adrià has the cornerstone of each menu roughed out, he approaches the rest with a novelist’s logic. The end result will be an expansive tasting menu with forty or more items, so he divides it into subordinate sequences of dishes, each of which offer a unified progression with various levels of harmony and dissonance. And like any good writer, he knows to save some surprises for the end. Speaking of a dessert that takes the form of a lake of minted ice, he says: “After four hours, when you’re almost at the end of the menu, the more bewilderment, the better.”

At the center of it all stands the figure of Adrià himself. He’s an undeniably intimidating presence, with the features of a great character actor, and although he doesn’t rant or rave like other celebrity chefs, you still feel the pain of the people around him when he quietly berates them for losing an important computer file. When he tastes a dish, he rarely allows any emotion to cross his face, and he dispenses praise and criticism with equal objectivity. Cooking is serious business. Yet for all the scientific and technological wizardry on display, his most useful tool is one of the simplest. In an interview with GQ, he says:

The pencil has a symbolic meaning for me. The type of person who carries a pencil around is the type of person who’s open to change. Someone who walks around with a pen isn’t; he’s the opposite. I always have a pencil with me, to the point where it forms a part of me. I write a lot during the day.

In the biography Ferran, we learn that he doesn’t just love pencils: he collects them from hotels when he travels, and by now, he has more than five hundred—which clearly aren’t just for show. Indeed, for most of El Bulli, we rarely see Adrià without a pencil in hand. And by the end of the movie, it’s worn down to a stub.

Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2013 at 8:54 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2013 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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