Avant-garde Chef Ferran Adrià of famed restaurant el Bulli not only created stunning food, but also drawings that informed and shaped his culinary ideas and exploration. Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity is the first major museum exhibition to focus on the chef’s visualization and drawing practices.
Chef Adrià will appear in Kansas City later this month to discuss the traveling exhibition, which is on view February 28 to August 2 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Arts. Kansas City is one of only five international stops on the exhibit’s tour.
New York-based author, Saveur editor-at-large, food writer and translator Sofia Perez has worked with Chef Adrià on previous media tours for his book elBulli 2005-2011 and other international events. She shares unique insight into her working relationship with Chef Adrià and the exhibition.
How did you become the translator for Chef Ferran Adrià?
I had met Ferran a few times before at some chef conferences and events. We have many mutual friends, but I wouldn’t say I knew him well. One of those close mutual friends is Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of the restaurant Mugaritz, outside of San Sebastián. When Andoni was in New York City in May 2012 to promote his new book, he and I squeezed in a quick lunch between his press obligations. We were joined by his assistant, Susana, and the marketing/publicity person for Phaidon Press, Andoni’s book publisher.
About a year later, that same publicist contacted me because he was looking to hire an interpreter to accompany Ferran on his U.S.-Canada book tour to promote Phaidon's publication of the seven-volume set, elBulli 2005-2011. When Ferran came to New York City in September 2013 for several events, I translated for him during a press conference and a few one-on-one interviews as a trial run. He told the Phaidon publicist and the folks at the Drawing Center, the museum that curated the "Notes on Creativity" exhibition, that they needed to hire me for their events.
Does your background in culinary writing and editing inform your role as a translator?
It’s much easier for me to talk the talk than it would be for someone who isn't as familiar with the world of contemporary cuisine. After spending so many years standing in those high-end kitchens, watching chefs work, interviewing them, and tasting their food, I knew the shorthand. I understood what Ferran meant when he referenced certain techniques or used very specific culinary language.
Even though I never ate at el Bulli, my job as a journalist has afforded me the chance to travel and eat at many of the same kinds of restaurants in Spain and elsewhere (places that he influenced greatly). So, I also understood the diner's perspective, which was useful when we appeared at some of the bigger events where he was speaking to a general audience (as opposed to only culinary professionals).
Although I grew up in New York City, both of my parents are Spanish, and I spent many childhood summers in Spain, so that also helped enormously. Even though there are regional differences––Ferran’s Catalan and my background is Galician––he and I share the same general culinary vernacular when it comes to “traditional” Spanish food. The quotation marks are important, because as Ferran often points out, “traditional” versus “modern” is a bit of a false construction. It’s all relative.
What are your thoughts on the role of drawing in relation to food as an expression and realization of creativity?
Food is a very visual medium, so it’s quite logical that drawing would play an important role for a chef like Ferran, who always factored in every possible variable when creating a dish––or an experience, really, because he created much more than dishes. It’s always illuminating to see the differences and similarities in the tools and language that people use when they're engaged in the creative process.
I’m currently revising a novel that I wrote about the Spanish Civil War that’s written from various characters’ points of view and features a narrative that cuts back and forth between two storylines (one set in the 1930s and the other in 1990s/2000s). When I was outlining it, I created an index card for each scene and point-of-view switch; I wanted to be able to move the cards around and play with the structure and pacing. I also created timelines to map out the novel's key events so that I could see how they stacked up against actual milestones during and after the war. Even though I usually write on the computer, I absolutely needed to have that information down on paper so that I could brainstorm and understand how it might all hang together.
Ferran’s use of sketches and plasticine representations of ingredients––as tools for experimenting with how he might balance color, design, texture, and scale on the plate––is similarly motivated, even if the process and results of his work are different from mine.
Traveling with him, I also realized how much people romanticize the idea of creativity. I’m sure I was guilty of this as well before I started writing my novel. Folks think that creativity is a person sitting alone in a room, fist on chin like Rodin's “The Thinker,” cogitating about big ideas, when really it is about sketches and plasticine models and index cards and many, many hours of often interesting but also completely unglamorous work––which, frankly, is as it should be. To create something magical, you must earn it. That’s probably very Spanish Catholic of me, but there you have it.
What is the most striking or profound aspect of this exhibit, or Ferran's work as a whole, to you? Has interaction with Ferran and/or the exhibit changed the way you think about food?
The experience of knowing and learning from him has definitely cemented my feelings about food writing. I love to cook, eat, and drink delicious things, but when it comes to writing about food, I'm not interested in endless descriptions of flavors and textures. Of course, you must have some of that in an article about food or drink, but it's not what draws me to the subject or keeps my attention––and it’s definitely not what inspires me to want to write about it.
I care about the stories behind the food or beverage––whether it’s about art, design, philosophy, politics, history, culture, innovation, or the idiosyncratic vision of a particular individual. The human element is what’s most compelling, and it’s something that Ferran expresses quite clearly in his work. He and his peers create things that are grounded in a narrative. Although the specific narrative changes from dish to dish––and some dishes tell more complex stories than others––there’s always a story there that links to some aspect of human existence.
I feel a total disconnect when I read what most critics say about him (and other chefs that he’s influenced). They fixate on technology and techniques, to the point of obsession––the whole “molecular gastronomy” thing, which is meaningless. Today’s “advanced” technology may very well become tomorrow’s “tradition.” Cooking has always involved science, and things are new and weird to us until they’re not. Those folks who talk only about his “technological food” miss the point entirely. It’s like they're standing in front of the Wizard of Oz, and all they absorb is the ponderous quaking voice and the oversized head projected onto the wall, when the real story is actually the little guy behind the curtain pulling all the strings. If you fail to notice that version of the wizard, you're only seeing the smoke and mirrors, which ultimately is rather empty.
The most fascinating thing about the whole undertaking is finding out more about the mastermind directing the show. What’s he's up to? Why has he made the choices he’s made? What is he trying to say? That’s the story I want to hear.
Most exciting or unexpected experience during your travels with Chef Adrià?
When you travel with someone who’s been dubbed the Dalí of the kitchen, there are many interesting moments, as you can imagine.
The most unique experience by far was the 50-course meal we were served by Nathan Myrhvold (the creator of Modernist Cuisine) and his team at his lab/think tank in Seattle. After a tour of the amazing facility (which included a look at some of the work he’s doing to combat malaria and preserve vaccines through portable cold storage), we sat down to the meal itself––which was chronicled by Dwight Garner of The New York Times and lasted nearly five hours, I think.
There was much that was fascinating about what we were served and the way those dishes were served to us, but the senses do get a bit dulled (as does the impact of individual courses) by the hours of consecutive sitting and eating. I do, however, remember a tortilla imprinted with Ferran’s face, as well as a spectacular cocktail involving an homage to the famous chimneys that Gaudí designed for the roof of Palau Güell in Barcelona. Nathan’s team recreated them in miniature with a 3-D printer, using sugar as the medium, and each chimney was presented atop a glass over which absinthe was later poured tableside, slowly melting and dissolving the colorful creations into the liqueur. The other abiding memory from that meal was the challenge of having to deconstruct for Ferran the title of one of the courses, which was built around a play on words––a pureed-pea dish called, “Give whirled peas a chance.” Let me tell you, it is not easy to translate a double pun that also references a song. The title’s whimsical spirit definitely suffered in translation.
On a more personal level, there were two experiences that tied for most exciting:
1) Appearing with Ferran at the 92nd St Y. (As a writer, it was humbling to step onto that stage, knowing that it has provided a platform for some of history's most important literary and historical figures.); and
2) Being seated at the table with Ferran for a taping of Charlie Rose’s PBS show. The interview began with Charlie’s first question, followed by my translation of it, Ferran’s answer, and my translation of his response, at which point Charlie turned to me and said, “This isn't working. Can you do simultaneous translation? Just speak right over us as we talk.” I'm pretty sure my assent came out as a terrified squeak, although looking back I realize how lucky I was that the interview took place a full week into the book tour, because by then I was already quite familiar with most of what Ferran might say, allowing me to anticipate many of his responses. As someone whose career began in broadcast news, and who has great admiration for Charlie’s gifts as an interviewer, it was exhilarating to be at that table and listen to their conversation as it unfolded.
What else would you like to share about your role as translator and working with Chef Adrià?
The greatest misconception about traveling with Ferran is that you spend every moment gorging on incredibly elaborate and decadent meals. Yes, we had that 50-course dinner in Seattle, which fits the bill, as well as two (much more modest) restaurant meals during the ten-day book tour, but those were the exception.
Like many chefs, I guess, Ferran has this incredible ability to survive for hours and hours on just espresso and fumes. I, like many food writers, do not. There were definitely moments when Ferran saw my face and took pity on me, letting us take a five-minute break that he otherwise probably wouldn’t have taken so that I could inhale a few bites of whatever our hosts had generously set out for us. (I'm sure the sight was anything but pretty, but I make no apologies for the hoovering that ensued, because when you’re about to ask your brain to spend nearly two hours doing live translation, you need fuel.)
The night before we left for Chicago, for the final stop of the book tour, all of us (including the two New Yorkers in our group) stayed at the same hotel as Ferran so that we could leave in the same car for our ridiculously early flight out of LaGuardia the next morning. At the previous night's reception, all I was able to forage (between translating for folks taking Ferran selfies and getting their books signed) was a few squares of cocktail-party cheese. That night, my entire dinner consisted of Parmesan crackers, nuts, gummy bears, and bubbly from the hotel mini-bar.
"Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity" is on view February 28–August 2, 2015 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Arts, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, 816.751.1278, nelson-atkins.org
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