El Bulli Chef’s Art Tells Stories of His Menus–and Cooking Itself

Drawing Center show spotlights sketches, diagrams, and visualizations by Ferran Adrià

The experimental force behind El Bulli—located in secluded Cala Montjoi, Spain, and voted “Best Restaurant in the World” five times by Restaurant magazine—was Ferran Adrià, who invented 1,846 dishes as head chef there from 1987 until 2011, when he closed up shop. A self-taught innovator of molecular gastronomy, or what he calls “deconstructivist” cuisine, Adrià challenged himself to never repeat a dish. He would shutter the restaurant for six months each year to reconceive his entire menu for the following season. Key to his process in the kitchen was making lists, diagrams, sketches, charts, and photographs, a selection of which will be on view in “Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity,” at New York’s Drawing Center from January 25 through February 28.

A drawing from Ferran Adrià’s 60-part Theory of Culinary Evolution, 2013.COURTESY ELBULLIFOUNDATION

A drawing from Ferran Adrià’s 60-part Theory of Culinary Evolution, 2013.


“Ferran’s approach is very much the approach of a scientist and an artist,” says Brett Littman, executive director of the Drawing Center and the organizer of the show, which will travel to MOCA Cleveland. “He is the only chef I know of who has used visualization techniques and taught it to his staff as a method of communication. Without visualization, I’m not sure Ferran would have been able to create 1,846 new dishes. The exhibition is really about how one creates an environment that fosters pure creativity, in any field.”

The installation starts with 60 of Adrià’s cartoonish drawings that imagine a chronological history of cooking, from the dinosaurs to the cavemen to the present day. “He’s been really trying to understand very fundamentally what are the cornerstones of cooking in human culture,” Littman says. “It’s almost like a little film.”

Also included are bold black-and-white pictograms symbolizing different ingredients and cooking methods, produced as visual aids by the restaurant’s graphic designer Marta Méndez. In his yearly audits of the previous season’s menu, Adrià would break down each dish into a sequence of these pictograms. No new dish could replicate the pictograms in the same order.

The chef’s colorful plating diagrams were another unusual visual exercise. He drew pleasing compositions inside circles on graph paper and then figured out what kinds of food to make in these configurations. The show culminates with sumptuous images of the food itself—all 1,846 dishes, each shot by the same photographer over the years and compiled for the exhibition as a film set to music.

In an interview in the accompanying catalogue, Littman asks Adrià about his penchant for carrying a pencil and notebook in the kitchen. “This way I have the feeling that I can change what I have written,” Adrià responds. The pencil is “a humble element that I love, and it also ties in a little with our philosophy in the kitchen, where a potato is just as great as caviar.”

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