Food, in our society, is treated like fine art.
Appreciating good food is considered a mark of status and erudition, and foodies are constantly competing to display their connoisseurship.
We imbue what we consume with political, social and moral meaning. We lionize celebrity chefs the way that past generations adored their writers and painters.
Yet, as an artform, food is severely limited.
That’s because food, first off, is intellectually bereft. Unlike painting or poetry, the culinary arts can invoke only a very constricted range of thoughts and emotions — and those are inescapably broad.
Food, although obviously rich in sensory stimulation, is a blunt instrument in terms of representation and narrative. Cotton candy, for instance, may evoke a nostalgia for childhood, but it can’t tell a story about any particular child. A painting of an apple can represent Original Sin. The apple itself is just a piece of fruit.
Of course, food is also a perishable art. It can only be experienced once. It’s eaten, then gone.
These limitations are what makes “Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity,” such an unusual and fascinating exhibition. The show, now on exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, explores the work of a great artist. Yet none of the artwork is on display, and the intellectual processes behind the art matter more than the work itself.
Adrià is certainly deserving of the attention. He’s a dazzling genius, perhaps the most innovative chef in human history.
For more than 20 years, as the head chef of the elBulli restaurant in Spain, Adrià created tastes and textures the world had never known, altering foodstuffs on a molecular level. He made bread from asparagus. He made cheese out of almonds. He was famous for his flavored foams and scented air. He created so-called “deconstructed” martinis, meaning a sphere of olive juice bound by an edible membrane and accompanied by a mist of gin and vermouth, all invoking the tastes and effects of the cocktail without using any of its traditional forms.
All that, though, took place at elBulli, which closed in 2011. The Nelson-Atkins is not a restaurant, and so visitors to the exhibition don’t get to sample any of Adrià’s fanciful wares. We must contemplate how the art was made without being able to experience a bit of it. Which is just plain odd. Imagine an exhibit exploring, say, Jackson Pollock or Picasso that examined the layout of their studios, their brushwork, and the paint they used, yet didn’t display a single painting.
Even if there is nothing to taste, however, there is a ton to think about.
The layout is relatively sparse. Pages of Adrià’s notebooks are displayed under glass. One wall has rows of 60 crayon drawings, almost childlike depictions of how he envisioned his meals being made. There are tiny, multicolored Plasticine models that were used to show elBulli staff precisely how the dinners should be plated. A few large charts detail his fanatically complex vision of the creative process. There’s a set of pictograms representing elements of the chef’s art: seeds, herbs or fish offal.
Maybe most interestingly, there’s a case filled with the custom-built tools Adrià used to make and serve some of his more unusual dishes. Like the large glass spoons used for scooping flavored air into patron’s mouths. Or the tool specially constructed for the creation of ultra-thin candy thread. Here we see Adrià walk the fine and occasionally indistinguishable line between genius and obsessive compulsive disorder.
It’s eye-popping stuff, a window into the mind of a true outlier.
The takeaway is a wonderment at the comprehensiveness of Adrià’s vision and sheer awe at the meticulous and groundbreaking ways in which he brought that vision to life. The viewer is inspired and challenged. In that sense, “Notes on Creativity” serves the function of a more traditional art show, forcing us to look at our world in new ways.
Unlike a more conventional art exhibit, though, the experience is dryly intellectual, not emotional. And that’s quite an irony. The culinary arts — supremely sensory, guttural and nonintellectual — are here celebrated only in the mind.
“Ferran Adria: Notes on Creativity” continues through Aug. 2 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Tickets to the exhibit are $6-$12. For more information, go to Nelson-Atkins.org.