Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food
By Colman Andrews
(Gotham Books, 301 pages, $28)
The plague of the food fashionistas is upon us. Not satisfied with debasing and trivializing writing, painting, sculpture, and the performing arts, our buzz-loving, Tina Brownish pop culture arbiters are now playing with our food. The spectacle is as unedifying as the results are inedible. More and more, objective standards of quality, taste, and simple gastronomic good sense are trampled underfoot in a Gadarene rush after novelty. This mindless pursuit of ever-odder prep, taste, and ingredient combos, coupled with an emphasis on innovative "presentation," frequently results in trendy restaurant fare that looks like the work of a crazed interior decorator on uppers while tasting like the residue of a high school chemistry experiment gone terribly wrong.
The late Kingsley Amis, who knew a thing or two about good food as well as good writing, saw it coming. Addressing an earlier wave of "edgy" nouvelle cuisiniers he declared: "I want a dish to taste good, rather than to have been seethed in pig's milk and served wrapped in a rhubarb leaf with grated thistle root." Amis thought he was being satirical when he created the imaginary entrée but, 15 years after his death, it seems tame stuff compared to what is actually being dished out today. Consider a few of the offerings at what many food fashionistas claim is the world's finest restaurant, El Bulli, presided over by Catalan master chef Ferran Adrià. One such item, as described by American food writer Colman Andrews in Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, involves "using a large plastic syringe" to inject "a mixture of coconut milk and xanthan [a gum additive] into a balloon -- an ordinary toy-shop one," which is then rotated in liquid nitrogen. When the balloon is stripped away, the frozen coconut milk "has formed into a round ball, thinner than an eggshell." Good for it. But so what? This kind of kitchen gimmickry is the culinary equivalent of engraving the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin: it requires incredible ingenuity and considerable skill… but, other than that, what's the point of it?
Borrowing a term from darkest, dimmest academe, Mr. Andrews tells us that "[s]ome of Ferran's most successful and beguiling creations" are the result of culinary "deconstruction," breaking down familiar dishes "into their constituent parts, changing the physical identity of at least some of those parts, and then reassembling the pieces in new ways." Why?" So that the dishes can "take on different forms while retaining sensory connections with their models." Thus chicken curry -- a real meal -- is deconstructed into "curry ice cream with chicken sauce, apple gelatin, and coconut soup." In what, if any, way this costly, time-consuming, and rather bizarre deconstruction is more satisfying or nourishing than a real chicken curry is never explained.
The same goes for "spherified green olives," described as "intense olive juice enclosed in a skin of olive juice, shaped and cured like real olives" and a "tomato soup with virtual ham" that is "a clear broth tasting vividly of tomatoes, with strips of gelatin somehow imbued with all the flavor of the best jamón ibérico." Wasting endless effort and ingenuity to make ersatz Spanish olives and virtual Spanish ham when the real items are available in delicious abundance at your doorstep may pass for good performance art but it's downright silly as cooking. Nevertheless, Mr. Andrews -- a former editor in chief of Saveur magazine and a respected cookbook author who ought to know better -- gushes on at book length about these and similar kitchen conjurings, suggesting that the hero of his culinary biography is a creative genius on par with fellow Catalans Salvador Dali and Antoni Gaudi.
HERE, AT LEAST, he may be on to something. Gaudi's over-the-top architecture, while certainly distinctive, was a striking example of artistic eccentricity; it made a splash and still attracts tourists, but it has had no lasting impact on mainstream architecture. Which is even truer of the art of that brilliant self-promoter, Salvador Dali. One suspects that, like his two more illustrious fellow Catalans, in the long run, Ferran Adrià will prove to be an heirless innovator. Perhaps there is something imbedded in the Catalan psyche -- so determined to prove both its superiority to, and "otherness" from, the rest of Spain -- that explains this drive to be different for its own sake. Besides, as George Orwell and many other foreign visitors recognized long ago, there is something in Catalonian air that breeds anarchy. The Catalans themselves have a word for it, rauxa, which the author defines as "something like wildness, foolishness, or abandon."
Mr. Andrews, on the other hand, is temperamentally more La Manchan than Catalan, a sincere but slightly addled knight errant who renders himself more than a little absurd while vainly seeking the sublime. Although clever and obviously talented in the kitchen, the object of his adoration, Ferran Adrià, perhaps deliberately, reveals little of his inner self to his biographer, always assuming that there is much of an inner self to be revealed. In his introduction, Mr. Andrews quotes from a conversation with his hero. In it, Ferran declares: "This will be the last book about me. No, really. The last one that I will collaborate with."
An admirable decision, that. What a pity it came one book too late.