If there was one restaurant in the world that could carry the weight of an entire exhibition, it was El Bulli. What started life as a family-run eatery on the outskirts of Roses in Catalonia became the figurehead of the avant garde food movement, a three Michelin-starred behemoth of gastronomy. Even when the trend for fiddly, hyperbolised food (part of El Bulli’s mission statement was that your dinner could be “poetry” and “magic”) came crashing down following the financial crisis, replaced by a back-to-basics, meat-and-two-veg mentality, few critics spoke out against it.
Ferran Adrià [its head chef until it closed in 2011] and the Art of Food at Somerset House is both a celebration and a biography of the restaurant. It begins with a video of its triumphant final night, before whisking you back to its conception in 1961.
Projection takes centre stage: on one wall a triptych of screens capture the heat and camaraderie of the kitchen, another shows the lonely drive up to the restaurant by night, others home in on the painstaking process of creating individual dishes. A particularly impressive installation beams a chef sampling food onto a real-life dinner table; it’s a visual and aural bombardment. But for all the buzz, it feels a little too slick and a touch too clinical to capture the chaos and creativity of its subject, and some of the smaller exhibits verge towards esotericism (only the most ardent foodies or historians will take much interest in the cabinets packed with staffing rotas and blueprints).
The restaurant itself was a Mecca for foodies; this exhibition will at least act as a temporary shrine for them to pay their respects.
First published in City A.M.