Magazine article Artforum International

Alimentary School: Charlotte Birnbaum on Ferran Adria and Futurist Cooking

Magazine article Artforum International

Alimentary School: Charlotte Birnbaum on Ferran Adria and Futurist Cooking

Article excerpt

ON JANUARY 4, 1931, under the drastic headline "Assails Macaroni as Bane of Italy," the New York Times spelled out the consequences of the gastronomic revolution proposed by F. T. Marinetti in his "Manifesto of Futurist Cooking," which had just appeared in Turin's Gazzetta del Popolo and caused a stir around the world. Marinetti's culinary polemic advocated the introduction of scientific methods in the kitchen--a "cooking laboratory" replete with chemicals, ultraviolet lamps, electrolysis, and the development of new devices such as the "ozonizer" to highlight olfactory sensations. A rapid succession of dishes, each containing but one mouthful or even a fraction of a mouthful, should replace the boring, heavy monotony of the classical Italian meal, he declared. Everything should be light--virtually weightless.

This ethereal quality', surprisingly enough, was presented as a feminine virtue. Marinetti, otherwise known to be relentlessly misogynistic, wrote:

  We also feel that we must stop the Italian male from becoming a solid
  leaden block of blind and opaque density. Instead he should harmonize
  more and more with the Italian female, a swift spiraling transparency
  of passion, tenderness, light, will, vitality, heroic constancy. Let
  us make our Italian bodies agile, ready for the featherweight aluminum
  trains which will replace the present heavy ones of wood iron steel.

Ironically, it seemed that through that most traditionally feminine of activities, cooking, women could access the kinetic promise of Futurism and step aboard the bullet train of history. As he sought to fit cooking into the broader avant-garde project, in other words, Marinetti was forced to break with one of his fundamental values, contempt for women--an early example of some of the complications attending efforts to bring art into everyday life and vice versa.

Such complications are still evident, if not in such vexed form, in the career of Ferran Adria, today's most famously experimental chef. Certainly, reading about Marinetti's demand for a "battery of scientific instruments in the kitchen," one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Adria is heir to the Futurist kitchen. It therefore seems quite logical that the new molecular gastronomy bible, A Day at El Bulli: An Insight into the Ideas, Methods, and Creativity of Ferran Adria (Phaidon), arrived just in time for the hundredth anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, which is being celebrated this year. Consider an example of Adria's creativity that could just as well have come from one of the Futurist banquets Marinetti envisioned:

  The olive oil cylinder is made from a special caramel made from olive
  oil and Isomalt. Under a heat lamp, a fine thread of the caramel is
  wound rapidly around a cylindrical mold that has been fitted over a
  drill, and sets like a tightly coiled spring. The spring is then
  gently removed from the mold and served to the guest in a shiny black
  box that looks like a jewelry box. The guest puts the olive oil
  spring onto their finger like a ring, and places it in their mouth.

Just like Marinetti's "formulas," Adria's culinary creations are full of spheres, cylinders, and cubes--clean geometries that defy organic matter and bespeak aerodynamic fantasies. And Adria remains true to the avant-garde spirit of innovation and surprise: "In Orange nitro-sorbet with its balloon, a balloon containing orange-flower essence is slowly deflated, releasing its aroma while the sorbet is eaten and challenging the diner to consider the boundaries of what can be presented as food in a restaurant."

As devoted gastronomes know well, there are a mere fifty-two seats at Adria's restaurant El Bulli, in Cala Montjoi on Spain's Costa Brava, and the restaurant is open only six months of the year, so that the chef can spend the other six on R&D. Just one meal a day is served (usually dinner, sometimes lunch). …

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