Franziska and Gerhard Flögel are a middle-aged German couple who love and collect art. In early July they traveled to this remote cove in northeastern Spain to visit the creator in his studio. They toured his inner sanctum in appreciative silence. They marveled at his unusual materials, his precise execution, his sheer ingenuity. And then, like everyone else at El Bulli, they sat down and ate the master's work.
El Bulli may be the most fussed-over restaurant in the world, its 33-course meals the object of countless gastronomic pilgrimages, its 8,000 reservations per season snapped up in a single day, its edible foams and spheres part of the current culinary vocabulary. But since its famous chef, Ferran Adrià, was named a featured artist in this year's edition of Documenta, the provocative contemporary-art show held every five years in Kassel, Germany, El Bulli has become the focus of a lively debate about the aesthetic value of avant-garde cuisine. Suddenly art critics and foodies alike are scrutinizing the gin fizz that manages to be simultaneously hot and cold, the edible paper dotted with flowers, the frozen Parmesan "air" that comes packed in a Styrofoam tub, and asking, Is it art--or is it dinner?
"We aren't saying that cooking is a new art form," says Ruth Noack, Documenta's curator. "We're saying that Ferran Adrià shows artistic intelligence." That distinction is lost on Spanish artists, who feel underrepresented at Documenta and have long toiled in obscurity even as Spanish chefs became international superstars. Others complain that the move signals the banalization of Documenta. "Both Adrià's participation and contribution seem ridiculous to me," sniffed the great art critic Robert Hughes, adding that "food is food." Adrià counters that his critics don't understand what he does or his role in the art show. "My work is my menu," he says. "It wouldn't be respectful of art to try to bring El Bulli to Documenta." Instead, Documenta would come to El Bulli. For each of the 100 days of Documenta (it ends Sept. 23), Noack and director Roger Buergel select two people from the exhibit goers and fly them to dinner at Adrià's restaurant.
For the lucky Charlies who win golden tickets to the Chocolate Factory, Adrià is an enthusiastic Willy Wonka. "This is the most beautiful thing I've done," he says about hosting the Documenta visitors. "You have to see their faces to understand it." Although Adrià is quick to point out that other media like photography encountered artistic resistance when they were introduced, he prefers to stay out of the debate over whether what he does is art. "That's for other people to decide. Cooking is cooking. And if it exists alongside art, that's wonderful."
Of course, Adrià's cooking isn't like anyone else's. He and his team spend six months of the year traveling and tasting, trying new ingredients, inventing new techniques. For the Flögels and El Bulli's 48 other customers that July night, the result of all that investigation and inspiration took the form of spherified olives that, when put in the mouth, exploded with a gush of intensely flavored olive oil. The liquid yolk of a quail's egg came wrapped in a hard, burnished shell tasting of candy. Citrus pulp turned into a tangy risotto.
If they hadn't been invited to El Bulli by Documenta, the Flögels would have been set back nearly $500 for dinner. When it was over, Franziska, an architect, and Gerhard, a civil engineer, had succumbed to Adrià's peculiar magic. "This is a new way to create taste," said Gerhard. "When you're here, it's clear that it's art." Perhaps. But by the time the Flögels worked their way through those 33 dishes, such abstract questions faded into insignificance. They filed out after midnight with childlike smiles of wonder on their faces. For Adrià, their response only reinforces his core belief about cooking. "Food," he likes to say, "is happiness."