A Day at El Bulli by Ferran Adria: Two Books in One [review]

A Day at El Bulli (buy at Amazon) covers a single day at the Spanish restaurant El Bulli, from sunrise over the Costa Brava through the last staff member's departure in the wee hours. Visually, it's striking — each of the over 500 pages has a timestamp, the photo-heavy pages have a soothing weight, and the massive trim size lends it heft both metaphysical (this is a book that demands attention) and physical (it's a whopping 7 pounds, and too tall to fit on my bookcase).

But for all its ambition, this is an oddly inconsistent volume. At seven p.m., the gates to the public parking lot are opened, the action moves from the kitchen to the front of the house. This is the moment where it becomes clear that this is a book divided in two, and that the first half of the book is pretty objectively where the good stuff is. Sure, not everyone has access to dinner at El Bulli (the cover of the book makes sure to remind us of that, self-satisfiedly proclaiming "2,000,000 requests for 8,000 places every year"). But the second half of the book covers well-tread ground. There are plenty of bloggers, friends-of-friends, and adulatory magazine writers who are more than willing to spill every last bean on what it's like to be there during service. The hundreds of deeply porny photos of plating? They're great, but it's nothing we haven't already seen.

On the other hand, what almost no one has had access to is the kitchen. I don't mean the organization of the pantries or the stagers' presumably endless mise, though that's ostensibly what the first half of the book covers. I mean the academic dedication to innovation and technique that defines El Bulli. Look beneath the photo essay about kitchen prep and you'll find more than you might have expected: philosophy of mind, a chronicle of chef vs. culinary writer's block. This is a book about creativity. Unfortunately, the good stuff is buried under a lot of crap.

Chaff & Wheat

Maybe "crap" is a little harsh. Let's try — unexciting content. The overwhelming majority of this book is a collection of artifacts: over a thousand snapshots of the players in action, tools, and ingredients; the mad-scientist kitchen; scans of the daily recipe lists, the reservation tables, screenshots of the email inbox of the dining room manager and his thousands of weekly reservation requests. It's pretty, but it's nothing someone with a Flickr addiction and a blurb account couldn't put together. These primary sources are supplemented on the page by captions wide-eyed enough that they wouldn't be out of place in a children's book: "But a birthday without a cake is not really a birthday, so later the waiter brings in a real cake, which is small and light and in the shape of a candle."

But then there's the ten percent of the book that's brilliant. It's comprised almost entirely of some two dozen folios of lightweight, small-trim paper that, in an astonishingly precious bit of artsy book design, are bound into the larger volume. They're distributed evenly throughout the five hundred-odd pages, and each explores in crisp, precise terms a particular segment of the restaurant's ideology or methodology. Taken together, they form a Voltron of philosophical insight, a clear picture of the clockworks behind the extraordinary El Bulli experience.

The Mental Palate

One of the few interesting passages that isn't contained in one of the folios comes early on, when Adrià and his co-authors spill some ink on the notion of the "mental palate." The currency of the El Bulli kitchen isn't technique, it's creativity, and prized above all other skills in the El Bulli kitchen is a chef's ability to mentally construct the way a dish is going to be experienced when it's eaten. This line stuck with me: "Chefs should be better at tasting than they are at cooking."

This is big. This, I think, is the key. What matters is being able to articulate an experience. For all their technical obscurity and dramatic frippery, the execution of much of El Bulli's culinary techniques is not actually all that difficult (insert syringe; inject). What's difficult — and thus valued — is the ability to see the goal before you've blazed the trail. It's not being the person who understands chemistry enough to make water-dust. It's being the person who says "wouldn't turning water into dust be texturally awesome?"

Ferran Adrià, Philosopher

The development of the mental palate is given something of an indirect roadmap in the three best (and longest) of the folios. They're devoted to "Creative methods," and they are Batman's tool belt: seventeen ways for a chef to find inspiration in his kitchen, ranging from the obvious (new techniques, new ingredients) to the conceptual (the emotional "sixth sense," chemical restructuring).

In the world outside of A Day at El Bulli, I've come across a seductive idea: What we call “creativity” is actually the process of systematically identifying an entity’s component parts, and then tweaking one of them. What makes me confident in Adrià’s breakdown of these seventeen creative routes (despite the fact that I wouldn’t know what to do with chemical restructuring if it bit me) is that, whether he realizes it or not, he’s engaging in exactly what the philosophers describe. Each of his creative methods identifies an elemental facet of a dish, and transforms it.

Take, for example, the creative method “Changes to the structure of the menu.” This is about context. We're told that a dish’s placement within the procession of the menu is as much a component of its identity as are its ingredients. Question the order of the dishes — or even the categories of of the menu itself — and suddenly endless possibilities reveal themselves. Add some sweetness, lower the temperature, change the plating, voila, a new dish. This is all framed within the evolution of El Bulli’s menu, which grew from a standard procession of aperitif-savory-cheese-dessert-petits fours in 1983, to the current assault of “one cocktail , five dry snacks, four fresh snacks, fifteen tapas-dishes, one avant-dessert, two desserts, and several morphings."

Two Books In One

The subtitle of A Day at El Bulli is "An Insight Into the Ideas, Methods and Creativity of Ferran Adrià." As it stands, that's not quite false advertising, but there's a serious sin of omission going on. The insights in question are almost entirely overshadowed by the thousand-plus pedestrian photographs, the dumbing-down effect of the minimalist captions, and the distractingly indulgent design elements.

More than once while I was hauling through the epic volume (it weighs so goddamn much), I was tempted to cut out the good stuff and stitch together what's hiding inside the massive, mediocre coffee table book: a slim, whip-smart meditation on creativity in and out of the kitchen. (Given that, I'm almost grateful to whoever made the twee decision to print the majority of the book's useful content on these easy-to-find folios.)

Somewhere in the middle of all of these competing books-in-one, Adrià is quoted as saying "It is impossible to be creative without good organization." I'm not sure I agree, and I think this book proves it.

Helen Rosner

More photographs of A Day at El Bulli in the gallery:

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