Dec 10, 2008

ferran adria, on texture

ferran adria was at harvard yesterday, speaking at the invitation of the school of engineering and applied sciences. so many people came that the organizers had to scramble to find first one, then another overflow room into which to simulcast the lecture. i arrived an hour early, loitered by the door, then snuck in while the police officer dude was dealing with an older woman insisting that her husband had saved her a seat.

adria's lecture was nominally about texture, but really about the philosophy underpinning the kind of work he, his brother albert, and their team do at el bulli. to some extent, the portrayal of the restaurant as a research and development facility for basic and applied research into cooking is a conceit, but el bulli is really only open 6 months a year, has 70 staff serving 50 people each night, and has way more space dedicated to the kitchen and engineering lab than to the serving area.

adria thinks of cuisine as a language for communication (similar to how japanese kaiseki chefs see their practice; the two worldviews seem to coincide with high precision). they had a translator, so i was able to extract some verbatim comments:

[having just shown a video clip of people eating at el bulli] what we see here is the dialogue between the person who cooks and the people who eat. cocina is a language through which we as humans can establish a relationship. the first relationship that ever was. therefore it must be a very ancient language. our work at el bulli has been to create a language.
if we consider language to be a system of shared understanding, then the creation of a new language is the creation of social knowledge. the question in his mind now is one which interests me quite a lot: what is the mechanism by which knowledge is produced and what mechanisms validate and distribute new knowledge?

the knowledge production part of it was illustrated by his account of their gradual development of the technique of spherification (encapsulation of liquids with a skin of calcium alginate); the account is fascinating, so you should definitely check out their self-described history here). this is interesting not just because of the serendipity with which (in adria's account) he visits a food products company and sees the gelling process but because of extensiveness of the el bulli historicising impulse: the el bulli publications by now constitute a sizeable stack of paper, the most recent being a day at el bulli (published by phaidon)--only this most recent publication might be considered a mass-market book; the ones previous are better classified as reference tomes (el bulli refer to them as general catalogues).

two passing thoughts:
  1. technique that disappears: in the crystal goblet, a classic reference on typography, beatrice warde talks about the evolution of design toward a state in which content alone is noticeable and design disappears. (there are issues with that statement, but let's leave it for now). adria discussed something similar in the context of the development of xanthan gum as a thickener. the R&D impulse in this case was that flour (a traditional thickening agent) has to be used in such quantity that the addition of flour becomes noticeable in the flavour of the thickened substance. xanthan, on the other hand, has more thickening power than flour per unit, such that it can be used in small enough quantities that it imparts nothing noticeable to the substance being thickened other than the specific change in texture--it constitutes a technique refined to the point of disappearance.
  2. mimesis and unfamiliarity: albert adria has been working on a new series of techniques and preparations that broadly fall under the concept of mimesis. into this category fall desserts carefully formed to look like the fruits from which they are made, yet with flavours amplified by dehydration and other (invariably labour-intensive) techniques. the element of surprise here (biting into a "strawberry" that tastes way more intensely of strawberry than you would expect) is enhanced because of the similarity of appearance and the gap between expectation and experience. thomas keller and gray kunz have also experimented with concentrating flavours, most notably in soups and waters.
in any case,

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