The Times July 11, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

Food and art fusion cooks up surprising results

There are several moments in my interview with Ferran Adrià, the head chef of El Bulli, and the artist Richard Hamilton, when I feel like screaming very loudly or simply giving up.

We are here to discuss the surprising friendship that has grown up between the two men over the past 25 years.

First, for those who have not already read about Catalonia’s El Bulli phenomenon (with its three Michelin stars; regularly voted the best restaurant in the world): this is “an experience” rather than a meal, with an entirely new menu every year — the restaurant closes for six months while the chefs reinvent — and where nothing is what it seems to be. The dishes are beautiful, sculptural, outlandish and mess with your head. An “Oreo cookie”, for example, is made out of artichoke caramel, black olives and sour cream.

Hamilton is still probably best known for two memorable works — Just What is it That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? in 1956 (cheeky collage, Mr Universe man; pin-up woman on sofa, with a lampshade hat, clutching a perky breast), and Swingeing London 67 (different tinted versions of the photograph of Mick Jagger handcuffed to Robert Fraser in the back of a police car, after the infamous drug bust). In the intervening time the artist has been honoured with three retrospectives at the Tate, represented Great Britain at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and, at 87, is still hard at work. (In his faded jeans and trademark cap, Hamilton remains as switched-on and “now” as that other octogenarian cool old daddy, Elmore Leonard.) His latest pieces are protest pictures (the name of his show last October), continuing a theme that has been a constant in his career: a television screen depicts the tanks of Desert Storm, blood dripping from the bottom of the set; Tony Blair, an anxious-faced little boy, is dressed up as a gun-toting John Wayne cowboy.

The first problem with our conversation is that Adrià doesn’t speak English and talks muy rápido, but with a stammer, which means that his interpreter helps him to finish sentences, so they end up talking over one another. The interpreter’s Spanish accent, alas, comes with such a frothy lisp that it is quite difficult to understand her translation. (It took several attempts of “newellequeetheeen” for me to get “nouvelle cuisine”.) Hamilton, who doesn’t speak any Spanish, also talks into my ear, usually to correct Adrià’s dates: “No, that’s not right at all” and so on. Then there is Adrià’s press man, who feels the need to reinterpret the interpreter’s translations . . . and thus no fewer than four different voices can all be competing at the same time.

In addition, we are sitting around a table in a disco with oppressive black walls and ceiling, enlivened by a fluorescent palm tree and a number of suspended silver glitter balls. The only illumination is the hostile glare of a makeshift lighting rig and the total effect is similar to an interrogation room in a country run by a tinpot dictator.

This sense of dislocation would doubtless delight Carsten Höller, the German artist who created the slides at Tate Modern and also this venue, the Double Club — a temporary six-month installationcum-nightclub-cum-bar-cum-restaurant in Islington, “produced” by Prada and funded by a Nigerian bank. The idea behind it, to quote from its website, is that each space (hello Pseuds’ Corner) “is divided into equally-sized Western and Congolese parts on a decorative and functional level, generating an inspiring perspective on double identity as well as on cultural co-existence”. Whatever else it is — and, at night, it’s as absolutely fabulous as New York in its clubbing heyday — it is most certainly a “vanguard” experience, which is Adrià’s interpreter’s quirky version of “avant garde”.

We are celebrating Adrià’s transcendence from cook to artist, after his controversial 2007 inclusion in Documenta, an art show that is held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Spanish art critics fumed: “Adrià is not Picasso.” Robert Hughes pitched in with: “Both Adrià’s participation and contribution seem ridiculous to me. Food is food.”

The new double-titled book inspired by the Documenta show, Food for Thought. Thought for Food, which is being launched at the Double Club (its own delicious food masterminded by Mourad Mazouz, the restaurateur behind Momo and Sketch in London), includes a photographic panoply of 1,500 dishes that Adrià has created over the past 25 years, round table discussions of the cuisine — featuring Anya Gallaccio, Heston Blumenthal, Bill Buford and Höller — and various maps charting the cook’s revolutionary development (“jellied molluscs”, 1992; “hot jelly”, 1998; “foie-gras as butter”, 2008, etc), as well as a section of responses from the lucky Willy Wonka-like winners of Documenta attendees who were selected by its director, two a day, to dine at El Bulli.

The book’s editors are Vicente Todoli, the foodie director of Tate Modern, and Hamilton, who has also written an elegantly persuasive introduction.

Hamilton has been eating at El Bulli since maybe 1963, possibly 1964 or even 1969 — it’s one of those debatable dates — at least once every year, long before Adrià’s arrival. He first visited nearby Cadaqués, where Salvador Dalí had a home (other artists who spent time there include Picasso, Miró and Marcel Duchamp) in 1962 and bought his own house in 1968.

His memory is of going to El Bulli for the first time with Duchamp’s widow, Teeny, when it was little more than a shack on the beach where you could enjoy a picnic lunch. He would arrive in his Zodiac inflatable boat, 25 minutes by sea from his home, and “they had a nice toilet, so I would go in and squeeze the water out of my shirt and put it on again. I looked pretty disreputable. The food went up and down over the years (according to the ability of the chefs) and then one year it was up like that,” Hamilton points a tapered finger to the ceiling, “and that was when Ferran had arrived.” How dramatic was that change? “Suddenly it was, ‘This is the best food I’ve eaten anywhere’.” Later, as part of a panel of Adrià aficionados attended by an audience (including Blumenthal, Antony Gormley, Bianca Jagger), he says: “There came a time when it was difficult to get in, but I developed a relationship with the staff and that helped .”

One of Hamilton’s abiding pleasures — not that his lean physique and long El Greco face would betray it — is eating. When he was a child his mother worked long hours waitressing at banquets in the City, and the young Hamilton would always ask her: “How many courses did they have, Mummy?” He was recently reminded of this by his artist wife, Rita Donagh. He supposes that he got the idea then that the more courses there were, the better the meal: “And at El Bulli [35-odd courses] I will sometimes say, ‘How many courses have I had now, Rita?’ and she will add them up. But then I can be there for three hours, and I rarely say, ‘Have we got to the dessert now?”

He recalls his first impressions of Adrià: “In the early days, Ferran wouldn’t appear very much and if he did he would come out of the kitchen and stand on the terrace, with his legs slightly apart and look out over the bay,” he says, his voice descending to a basso profundo, hinting at a certain gravitas. “I always felt that he should have had his hand in his jacket, like Napoleon. He didn’t speak to anybody. I don’t think he smiled much. He just looked. He’d had a long morning’s service and he was tired and wanted to get some fresh air.”

The chef, with his plumpish, morose José Mourinho good looks, can still appear solemn, chewing gum glumly (one audience member asked about its flavour but was not enlightened) and coming to life only when he understands the odd word — Hamilton’s mention of Henri CartierBresson, for instance, elicits an enthusiastic “fantastique”.

I ask him whether he had been aware of “Richard Hamilton, the famous pop artist,” when he took over as El Bulli’s head chef in 1984. “There was a type of customer who came every year — maybe 50 of them, not all at the same time! — and Richard Hamilton was one of them. He always used to come by boat, which was unique, and he was someone I already had a lot of love for. He never gave us any problems.

“Juli, my partner, told me that he was an artist, but I was 22 years old and I didn’t have any relationship with the world of art. But over time, slowly, I have become a fan.”

He tells a story of the time when the artist asked him to take a Polaroid photo of him for a book, which he thought was “loco!” This was for the final volume of Polaroids of Hamilton taken over the decades by an incredible roll-call of artistic heavyweights, from Brecht and Man Ray to Yoko Ono. Not long after the loco photo session, Adrià was in Barcelona, where he saw a book called Pop Art. “I read, and discovered exactly who that Richard Hamilton is. I phoned Juli and said, ‘Did you know what type of artist is that Richard Hamilton? He’s an incredible man!’ And whenever I spoke then to people in the art world about Richard, they said that he only talked about El Bulli.”

Others may label Adrià an artist now (Hamilton prefers to call him a poet), but Adrià insists that he is a cook: “Cooks shouldn’t become painters and painters shouldn’t become cooks. In the world of art, I’m only there as a fan, to learn, watch and listen. But cooking is a different matter because that is my world.”

I ask him what prompted his revolutionary tactics and his cryptic response is: “Things happen and one doesn’t know why they happen.” On reflection, he says: “I am a cook and that is not my business — it is my passion. It is a way of understanding life through the kitchen. The chefs and I cook so that we ourselves are happy, and we need a challenge to be happy. The great revolution that happened in 1993 was when we started to play out our very own language, whether people liked it or not. So after we are happy ourselves, we share this happiness with the people.” He points to Hamilton and says: “Richard was the first man to talk about El Bulli as a new language. I never thought of it that way, but he gave me this explanation and he opened the world for me.”

The shock of the new, however, was far too shocking for some of El Bulli’s customers when Adrià unleashed his first new dishes. A deconstructed chicken curry from 1995, for instance, emerged as a savoury ice-cream in a puddle of garlic jus, coconut and electric-green apple froth. Many of the punters reeled in horror, saying the chef had gone “loco!” and walked out. Hamilton, however, embraced the changes.

But even Ferran’s biggest fan has his limits: “The only thing I’ve had there that I’ve had a bit of a misgiving about was a rabbit’s ear. It looked like a rabbit’s ear although it didn’t have fur, but it’s the skin, the tissue. Even when I tasted it, I didn’t think ‘This is a great experience’, but I wouldn’t complain. On the whole, I think, ‘I trust Ferran and he would not suggest I eat this without being right’.”

Not yet having had the pleasure of eating at El Bulli – it is £200-odd for a meal, and a two-year waiting list — I am unable to comment on the food. (Although I have enjoyed several meals at the Fat Duck, a close relative.) What is certainly the case is that Adrià’s gastronomic experimentalism can be a culinary disaster in the hands of less skilled disciples. I once had the worst meal of my life, cooked by a bullishly arrogant El Bulli wannabe in Oman, of all places. Imagine, if you will, the taste sensation of over-brewed Earl Grey tea bursting out of a cold jelly tablet, and a frozen sorbet of dog-food pâté.

“This is not something to do with El Bulli,” Adrià says. “Richard from the art world could say the same thing. A lot of people did very bad Pop Art. Some people did it very well. It is not the problem of the type of cuisine. How many good paellas can you get in London? Or a great osso buco?”

I say that it is a bit different; there’s not the same amount of fanfare over that sort of eating experience. “No-no-no-no-no-no,” Adrià flashes one of his rare but engaging smiles. “A bad paella is a bad paella.” And you can bet he cooks a mean one of those, too.

* * *

Food for Thought. Thought for Food is published by Actar

Related posts:

  1. Old at heart: Richard Ingrams
  2. One Paston Place
  3. The Jolly Sportsman
  4. Subodh Gupta, India’s hottest new artist, talks about skulls, milk pails and cow dung
  5. The Gingerman at Drakes