It's not everyday you get to visit a museum exhibition with the protagonist of the show. So when FDL were invited to attend a special viewing of the elBulli exhibition in Barcelona with the main man Ferran Adrià, we quickly packed a suitcase and jumped on a plane faster than you can shout the words 'Spherified Olive'.
Held at the Palau Robert Museumin Barcelona, the exhibition documents the history of elBulli, a restaurant in Spain that was five times voted number one on The World's 50 Best Restaurants List. A venture that was transformed back in 1987 when, at just 23, a young Ferran Adrià picked up the helm as assistant head chef in what was to become one of the world's most famous kitchens.
It's a scorching day in Barcelona and Adrià is waiting at the entrance of the museum as we arrive. Unassuming, jeans and T-shirt, evidently excited to show us around and bursting to tell us about the exhibition, called: elBulli: Risk, Liberty and Creativity.
"The idea was to make a formative exhibition, there is a lot of myth about elBulli and we wanted to show the world what was real and what was not. Who we are, what have we done, what have we achieved. The other idea behind it was to do something that was not a restaurant but that people would still enjoy like a restaurant", explainsAdrià.
The huge ammount of material on show in the museum leads one to wonder whether the chef is in fact a closet hoarder? Adrià managed to find around 30,000 items from the elBulli archives - documents, pictures, wage slips, old designs, videos, sketches, notes, tasting diagrams, menus - all in perfect condition. It's as if he somehow knew all along that what he would do in the kitchen would be important to the world of gastronomy. As if he already had the forsight back in in 1987 when he met the French chef Jacques Maximin, who told him that creativity was quite simply never to copy, embraced the idea and started to invent new culinary ground in Catalonia, that one day people would want to see this story told in a museum. Ferran's response to this question: "Everything in my career and the history of elBulli has been down to accidents and coincidences."
The exhibition goes on to explain these accidental happenings in detail. How elBulli was started as a mini-golf course, was nearly a home for the elderly, became a beach hut that served sandwiches, and how, fresh out of the army, Ferran fell coincidentally into the job as elBulli chef. All of them landmarks in the history of the restaurant and all of them the chef explains as coincidences.
There are classic pictures of a fresh faced Ferran with his brother Albert. A huge wall showing every dish the chef has created, a room to express the idea and philosophies behind his food, Ferran's first ever pay check. The life and soul of elBulli sits on the walls, brought to life with sound, video and atmospheric lighting.
There are cutlery, plates, projected meals, the signature plastesine kit used to practice and perfect dish arrangements. Books, documentaries and films. A signed picture of a cartoon Ferran from the creator of The Simpsons, a whole section devoted to chef's love of pop art.
It's a fascinating tour and one we do twice. Once to watch, read and take notes. The second time, on Ferran's recommendation, to have fun and take it all in. He proudly tells us that many visitors have been going round three or four times.
He's still evidently excited on our second walk through, explaining: "200,000 people have already visited in three months, this is crazy. We didn't know that it would be so popular, it's like getting a million in New York and the best thing is they all seem to leave with a smile."
"After seeing these smiles we decided that at the elBulli Foundation(Ferrans next big venture) we will also include an exhibition center." An exhibition center that will be part of a creative hub for artists, architects, chefs and musicians. A place to research the basis of creativity and as he says a return to food.
The exhibition would be more accurate labelled as 'elBulli Part 1' - why? Because the food, the restaurant, the knives and the forks. The endless pictures of wonderful creations, the archives and the memories. They're all just the beginning of a much bigger plan.
Phase two started as soon as the final elBulli table was wiped and it's phase two that will really elevate the legend of Ferran Adrià and elBulli. The foundation, the open source website, creative hubs, a network of influence, a return to food and new restaurants around the world... It's phase two that in years to come has the potential to create a newer, bigger and even more ground breaking exhibition.
No one knows if the chef will achieve all he has set out to do, but one thing is certain...When a man like Ferran Adrià looks you straight in the eye and seriously proclaims that that he's still looking to develop a hot ice-cream, you get a brief glimpse of his magic, the glint in his eye, the realization that this is a man for whom boundaries should be tested.
A man who can achieve so much, yet plan for so much more, a man for whom the scientific improbability of creating a hot ice cream is not so much a challenge but a game. It's this magic that's on display throughout the exhibition and this magic that makes people leave with a smile.
The elBulli exhibition will remain in Barcelona until the end of 2012. It will then tour to London and New York.
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