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Ferran Adria brings elBulli exhibition to London

You've eaten at the restaurant — or probably you haven't. Now visit the exhibition.
/ Source: The Associated Press

You've eaten at the restaurant — or probably you haven't. Now visit the exhibition.

Spanish chef Ferran Adria, the man behind the late, lamented elBulli restaurant, is bringing an exhibition dedicated to the art and science of his distinctive brand of molecular gastronomy to London.

Diners lucky enough to get reservations at elBulli before it closed two years ago feasted on 50-course tasting menus featuring frozen cocktails, ham tapioca, lobster and lamb's brain salad and many other challenging creations.

Visitors to "elBulli: Ferran Adria and the Art of Food" will see sketches, menus, film, photographs and even plasticine models of food, showing how those memorable menus were created. Just don't expect to eat.

"If you go to the Barcelona football team museum, you don't play football," Adria said unapologetically Thursday as he announced the London show. "If you go to an airplane museum, you don't fly a plane."

The hunger-inducing nature of the exhibition didn't prevent 650,000 people visiting it over the course of a year at Barcelona's Palau Robert.

In London, it will be on display from July 5 to Sept. 29 at Somerset House, a palatial 18th-century edifice beside the River Thames that has been transformed over the last decade from dusty tax office to busy arts and cultural center.

The exhibition is the latest stage in the expanding afterlife of elBulli, which closed its doors in July 2011 after a final meal that included "Clam Meringue," "Olive Spheres" and "Hot Cold Gin Fizz."

Adria, who started at elBulli in 1984 and became head chef three years later, used the restaurant to explore his fascination with the essence of food and the experience of eating.

In the restaurant's kitchen and a scientific lab in Barcelona, he and his team deconstructed ingredients to what he calls the molecular level, then reconstructed dishes using unexpected re-combinations of the original components, presenting the results in mouthful-sized portions.

"For every 100 dishes we created, one was brilliant," said Adria, a compact, energetic 50-year-old in gray jeans, black jacket and sneakers, who proves incapable of remaining seated as he discusses his work with journalists.

The restaurant, tucked in a cove on the rocky coast of northeast Spain, maintained a three-star Michelin rating for more than a decade and was ranked the world's best place to eat five years running by Restaurant magazine.

It also made Adria — part celebrity chef, part twinkling mad scientist — one of the food world's most famous figures. He voiced a character in the Spanish version of Pixar's animated film "Ratatouille," and made an appearance in "The Simpsons."

Molecular gastronomy has inspired chefs from Britain's Heston Blumenthal to Chicago's Grant Achatz and Denmark's Rene Redzepi. Some of its signature touches — foams, jellies, liquid nitrogen — have almost become culinary cliches.

"Everybody agrees that there is a before and an after in gastronomy, thanks to Ferran," said Ignasi Genoves, general director of Palau Robert.

Adria, however, says elBulli's legacy isn't a style of food, but an ethos of authenticity, experimentation and risk.

"People believe the legacy of elBulli is a type of cooking, but it's not," he said through a Spanish interpreter. "The important thing is the philosophy we are transmitting to all the people who worked with us."

Hundreds of people have passed through elBulli's kitchens, then marched out into the food world. Adria noted with pride that the four top chefs on Restaurant magazine's influential top 50 ranking this year are elBulli alumni.

The restaurant may be closed, but Adria says elBulli's work is just beginning.

In 2011 he and business partner Juli Soler announced plans to transform the site into a gastronomic think-tank and research institute called elBulliFoundation.

Due to open in 2015, it's an ever-evolving concept. Adria's attempt to explain it Thursday involved much arm-waving and diagram-scrawling, as he described a multipronged structure that will encompass a history of cuisine ranging "from the Big Bang to the Neolithic period" and beyond, taking in the origins of human life.

"If there's no homo sapiens, there's no cooking," he said.

More prosaically, Adria and elBulli have been the subject of a documentary, and a feature film about the restaurant is in the works.

The chef, who ranges the world collaborating with artists and scientists, clearly enjoys the freedom of not having to run a kitchen and worry about his Michelin ranking.

"The restaurant is closed — not elBulli," he said.

"We have a bigger impact being closed, because I'm not competing anymore."


Jill Lawless can be reached at