Feasts for Foodies

Two new books showcase the world’s top chefs

It’s old news now that the Catalan chef Ferran Adrià for four years ran the “World’s Best Restaurant”—until his El Bulli lost the title last April to an equally unlikely candidate, René Redzepi’s Copenhagen nosherie called Noma. The title may be meaningless, but it does point to a genuine phenomenon, and one about which there is near unanimity: Ferran Adrià (Mr. Redzepi is one of his disciples) is doing something radically different with food, and has led the first genuine revolution in professional cooking since the French nouvelle cuisine movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Fundamentally this consists of altering the structure of familiar foodstuffs while retaining, or even intensifying its flavors. Mr. Adrià’s first metamorphosed foods were foams, for example his frothy white bean foam with sea urchin; or his smoke foam of 1997, “a lightly gelatinized froth of nothing but water flavored with woodsmoke, served in a glass with a few drops of olive oil and some strips of toast. ‘The idea,’ Ferran explained, ‘was to make you recall eating grilled bread with olive oil. It is an iconic dish, used to arouse a reaction.'” (It did. One Spanish critic who loathed it said it was “like what you get when you cross a busy street.”)

El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià has changed the way we think about food, but not the way we cook.

This dish is designed to provoke both our intellect and our feelings. As Mr. Adrià’s biographer, Colman Andrews says, “we’re used to foam, and tend to like it when it is attached to certain beverages.” He cites the crema on our espresso, the whipped cream on hot chocolate, the head on a pint of Guinness and the mousse of champagne. But our ancestors, Mr. Andrews points out, would probably, and very sensibly, refuse to eat anything foaming, as it was “a sign that food was spoiled, or noxious.” It is the nervousness of the human race that Mr. Adrià is playing with here, our ancestral uncertainly in the face of foaming food, trumped by the delight of finding that it actually tastes deliciously of wholesome, earthy pulses and the iodine tang of sea urchin.

Another of Mr. Adrià’s party tricks is “spherification.” I was lucky enough to dine once at the kitchen table at El Bulli, when he summoned us to watch him inject some viscous orange liquid containing calcium carbonate into a bath of an alginate solution. The result looked exactly like keta, salmon caviar—even to the blue top of the tin bearing the legend “IKRA” in which it was served. When I popped a bubble in my mouth, it exploded exactly like a lightly preserved fish egg, but there was the unmistakable taste of melon. So you get a liquid hit surrounded by (as it were) a skin of itself. Melon caviar is good, but the self-referential tiny peas and big olives are even better.

The only thing harder than to get a table reservation at El Bulli is to be accepted as a stagiaire, working there as an apprentice for the few months of the year the place actually opens for business, but for no pay. Mr. Adrià has not only had his ersatz world-champion title, but also the real one, three stars in the Michelin guide, since 1996. Mr. Andrews thinks, with pardonable exaggeration, that his subject has changed restaurant food forever; but his title implies, less forgivably, that Mr. Adrià has altered the way people eat at home. As the two paragraphs above make clear, this is not so, and probably never will be.

Mr. Adrià has long devoted at least half the year to research, at his Barcelona “Taller.” He would be the first to acknowledge that this boils down to playing with your food—in his kitchen, imagination is the only indispensible ingredient. He says El Bulli will close for good in its present form on July 31, 2011, and will probably reopen as an educational foundation, rather than as a business.

Mr. Adrià has the distinction of having been invited to participate in one of the international art world’s blue ribbon events, the 2007 “Documenta 12” in Kassel. He is also a friend of the artist, Richard Hamilton, the British father of Pop Art. Mr. Hamilton has written elsewhere (in a volume about Mr. Adrià called “Food for Thought”) a very impressive essay on the whole idea of food as art, and Mr. Adrià’s relation to it; and I wish Mr. Andrews had devoted more space to the question. He is certainly able to do so: Mr. Andrews is one of the most intelligent, erudite people who write about food, and is probably the only non-Spaniard qualified to do this biography, as he not only understands the Catalan language, but has written an entire book on “Catalan Cuisine.” The trouble is that Mr. Adrià is still only 49, has lived only half a life yet, and surely had only half his career. Mr. Andrew’s book is lovingly and beautifully written, and a handsome physical object, but there is as yet only the material for a book half the length of this one.

Mr. Adrià hates it when he is said to be practicing “molecular gastronomy” (an expression coined—to set the record straight—by the late Prof. Nicholas Kurti at a meeting in the early ’80s of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery). It’s not clear why he so dislikes it; after all, cooking consists almost entirely of physical and chemical processes. But his British colleague Heston Blumenthal (of the Fat Duck) also disdains the term; and so, apparently, does Mr. Redzepi, who prefers to call his cooking “new Nordic cuisine.” His book (with photographs by Ditte Isager) is not only the most beautiful I’ve seen this year, but also—caveat lector—carries the most emphatic hazard warnings I’ve ever seen in a cookery book. In any case, it is unlikely you will want to attempt any of the recipes in this book. Like the several books written by Mr. Adrià himself, this is not really a cookbook, but a vibrant visual record of dishes invented by Mr. Redzepi—and, for those lucky enough to have eaten at Noma, a sumptuous souvenir.

Mr. Levy is a writer based in Oxfordshire.


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989304575504690152423612.html