There are few things quite as dread-inducing as the crossover of someone from some other creative discipline into art—think Sylvester Stallone, James Franco and so forth. Thankfully, Ferran Adrià, the star chef of the now-closed Spanish gastronomic temple elBulli, largely shines in this comprehensive show.
The exhibition, organized by the Drawing Center’s director, Brett Littman, is at its best when it is focused on Mr. Adrià’s rigorous, multifaceted culinary practice. It lags when the chef dabbles in amateurish drawings that purport to depict the 40,000-year history of cooking across 60 sheets of elBulli stationary.
Like a classical conceptual artist, Mr. Adrià is a great maker of lists and a superb organizer, using charts and diagrams to tease out ideas for the 1,846 dishes he codified at elBulli, each dish luxuriously documented in a quick-cutting video with a dramatic soundtrack on view in the The Drawing Center’s basement. While his rudimentary sketches for plated food don’t quite dazzle, it’s intriguing to learn that he often draws them before picking ingredients, a little flip of standard practice. Also thrilling are a wide array of little plasticine shapes that Mr. Adrià’s kitchen produced to model (and ensure) the exact dimensions of their peculiarly shaped foods; sitting in its little vitrine, it is evocative of sculptor Tony Feher’s better moments.
In the exhibition catalog, the great, recently late British Pop artist Richard Hamilton, the only person known to have eaten at elBulli every single year since its start in 1963, insightfully defines Mr. Adrià, who joined the restaurant in 1984, as an artist of language, carefully and relentlessly building new tongues, a relentless innovator of practices big and small. Mr. Adrià is clearly also a genius collaborator, bringing into the kitchen graphic and industrial designers and even architects. The exhibition is a lot to take in. It may leave you as it did me: awed and more than a little saddened about the chef’s decision to close elBulli while he was in top form.
(Through Feb. 28, 2014)