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The Somerset House in London features the famed Spanish chef in possibly the most gallery space in any arts center given over to the subject of gastronomy.
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elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food

Andy Lynes / July 22nd, 2013

The Somerset House on the Strand in London is an arts and cultural center best known for housing The Courtauld Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and for open-air screenings of classic films in its magnificent courtyard. It has never seen anything like “elBulli: Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food,” a major exhibition spread over two floors of the building’s south wing until September 29.

It's doubtful there has ever been so much gallery space in any arts center given over to the subject of gastronomy. But then we are talking about Ferran Adrià and elBulli—less a chef and restaurant, more a full-blown cultural phenomenon.

The exhibition's entrance is plastered with hundreds of magazine front pages from around the world, all of them adorned with his familiarly intense expression. Inside you can don a pair of headphones and listen to Le Livre des Illusions (Homage to Ferran Adrià), a challengingly atonal modern classical piece from 2009 by composer Bruno Mantovani. You can watch an interview with the late modern British artist Richard Hamilton recorded at elBulli before it closed in 2011, where Hamilton compares Adrià to both William Shakespeare and Dada artist Marcel Duchamp. And you can chuckle at an eight-foot-high facsimile of the book elBulli: Food for Thought, Thought for Food that features a Simpson's-style illustration of Adrià that creator Matt Groening himself has embellished with a line drawing of Bart Simpson peaking out over the famous chef's shoulder.

But what chefs and passionate foodies will truly relish is the chance to see artifacts from the restaurant’s entire lifespan, including the pre-Adrià period of 1961–1984, when it evolved from a beach bar to a grill room and finally a restaurant of some ambition under a succession of chefs and managers. Standout items include numerous menus, the “follies” petit fours serving pieces designed by Esther San Millan and other notable Barcelona-based designers in the late 1990s and a selection Adrià's handwritten “creative books.” There are even two chairs and a table from the restaurant where elBulli dishes are served and eaten by means of a clever bit of overhead projection.

An entire wall is given over to documenting many of the 1,846 dishes catalogued by the elBulli team, from “Layered Banana and Vanel Lime with Passion Fruit Parfait” in 1984 to 2011’s “Shabu Shabu of Galician-style Baby Octopus.”

The future of elBulli is laid out in the form of a large architect's model of elBullifoundation, the “organic architectural complex” that's an ambitious expansion of the restaurant site at Cala Montjoi on the Costa Brava in northeastern Spain. Scheduled for completion in 2015, it will house a museum and visitor center themed around the restaurant called El Bulli 1846, and will also be a hub for the development of creativity and talent in many fields, not just gastronomy.

The language around the foundation is vague, more of a vision than a concrete plan, but it seems there might be a restaurant of sorts, although “there will be no set times, bookings, or routines.” What there will be is “risk, freedom, and creativity.” Sounds like business as usual, then, for the innovative señor Adrià.