Creative Strategies From elBulli’s Cookery

by Thomas Brett

This blog post is not about music or sound per se, but about the creative process of cooking.  I am a big fan of books about cookery, and they can be read from a sideways perspective–thinking by analogy about how they may offer insight onto other domains.  With that said, every once in a while you encounter a book that is not only beautiful but inspiring and thought-provoking too.  One such book is A Day at elBulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria (Phaidon 2008).  Adria is a Catalonian chef famous for his innovations associated with the “molecular gastronomy” movement in cookery.  In fact, one could argue that Adria is the prime architect of this meticulously adventurous and scientifically precise approach to preparing, cooking, and conceiving of food.  His restaurant elBulli is open just six months of the year, and Adria spends the other six in research and development mode, designing new dishes, new flavors, and trying things with food that have never been done before.  He’s a creative artist who just happens to work with edible things.

In A Day at elBulli, Adria and Phaidon have created a 528-page wonder of a manual on creativity that I think is applicable well outside of the culinary arts.  The book follows a typical day in the elBulli universe, from daybreak to closing time, beginning with the backdrop for the restaurant–pictures of Cap de Creus park and the natural textures of its environs: water, stone, trees and sky.  From here, the book proceeds in 5-minute increments, tracking the assembling of a multi-hour elBulli meal by a crew of cooks, from shopping to prepping and cooking and serving.  The rhythm of the day is documented through hundreds of photographs, recipes, and quotations.

But what really makes the book extraordinary as a creative manual are three different 4-page inserts (complete with different sized paper) titled “Creative methods” (I, II, and III).  Here we get a glimpse of the conceptual framework underlying the restaurant’s machinery, and Adria outlines a number of ideas that could be of interest to anyone interested in the creative process.  In Creative Methods I, he discusses traditional and local cuisines, influence, and technique-concept searching.  In Part II, he explains and defines the concepts of association, inspiration, adaptation, deconstruction, and minimalism as they apply to his work.  And Part III discusses the importance of the senses, including the sixth sense that Adria describes as “pleasure experienced by the mind.  [This] sense often relies on setting up a tension or a contrast between the guest’s own knowledge and experiences, and the elements in the dish in front of him.”

These inserts inspire the reader to think systematically about his or her creative process in whatever field they work in.  Not to control everything down to the tiniest detail, but rather to try to cultivate a sense of order over what is potentially an endless universe of flavor (or sound, or texture, or color, or textual) combinations made possible through transformative techniques.  A Day at elBulli chronicles that sense of possibility by documenting how experience is organized at a most singular restaurant.

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