Chef Ferran Adrià and the problem of calling food art

As a museum makes the case for haute cuisine as art, Jason Farago argues that the implications for the art world are less than palatable.

Downtown New York has no shortage of impressive restaurants, but this month the most famous chef in the world won’t be cooking at all. The Drawing Center, a small but important institution in SoHo, is devoting its galleries to an exhibition of the work of Ferran Adrià – the Catalan trailblazer whose restaurant El Bulli on Spain’s Costa Brava became a pilgrimage site for gourmands worldwide in the last decade. Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity brings together sketches, charts, diagrams, shopping lists and messily scribbled notes, plus a video that cycles through the nearly 2,000 strange, at times baroque, dishes prepared at El Bulli over the years, such as licorice nitro-dragon, or smoke foam. You may or may not leave inspired, but you will leave hungry.

This is the first exhibition ever devoted to Adrià by an arts institution, and the show argues that drawing played a key role in the development of his innovative cuisine. (It opens on 25 January and will travel to Los Angeles, Cleveland, Minneapolis and Maastricht.) But the show demonstrates Adrià is an artist, and that his work at El Bulli transcended mere hospitality and achieved a higher, greater status.

Did it? It’s hard to say – but either way, the shifting terms by which we judge that question say something important, and maybe not very positive, about food and art.

El Bulli was voted the best in the world by Restaurant magazine five separate years, but Adrià never made any money from it. In fact, it operated at a substantial loss right up until the restaurant’s closure in 2011. He refused to hike prices even when two million diners were fighting for only 8,000 available meals per season. For the chef, money came through other avenues, from book sales to consulting, while the restaurant served other, more aesthetic aims. El Bulli, for Adrià, was less a restaurant than a laboratory and a studio.

According to his biographer, Colman Andrews, what was one of Adrià’s proudest moments  was his inclusion in documenta, the prestigious once-every-five-years German art exhibition, as an artist. The distinction meant everything to him, while many critics and art professionals voiced confusion; the director of Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum branded Adrià’s inclusion as “dilletantish”. Either way, it got to something: Adrià has always had a gnawing hunger – I use the word advisedly – for artistic legitimacy, as if being known as the world’s best chef is somehow not enough. In 2009 Blake Gopnik, an incisive writer then at the Washington Post, travelled to Catalonia to eat at El Bulli. How did he get the nearly impossible reservation? Because he is an art critic; for us, Adrià would happily make space.

Feast or famine?

The relationship between art and food is a long one, and artists in the 20th Century have included cooking and eating in their practices. The Futurists in interwar Turin mounted over-the-top, deeply unpalatable banquets that replaced pasta with steel and sandpaper; the artists of Fluxus in 1960s New York held ‘eat-ins’ that featured only white dishes, or ten different flavoured mashed potatoes. Tastier stuff was to be found at Food, a restaurant founded in SoHo in 1971 by artist Gordon Matta-Clark, which was at once an artists’ canteen and an artwork itself. More recently the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiranavija, subject of an upcoming retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, has offered free meals in his exhibitions, encouraging conviviality among gallery-goers rather than quiet contemplation.

But the desire for chefs to declare themselves artists – more precisely, to brand their cooking not just artistic but actually art itself – is a newer thing. Earlier chefs such as François Vatel or Auguste Escoffier might have called themselves artists, but it’s important to unpack that term: it was used as a means to analogise their work to painting and sculpture, not as a claim that no distinction existed. The expansion of the boundaries of contemporary art, however, has let chefs such as Adrià say they aren’t just like artists, but are artists. And this has gone hand-in-hand with a boom in popularity for high-end cuisine, seen everywhere from Top Chef to the bookshops. When Nathan Myhrvold, a multimillionaire foodie with a taste for technology, published his 2,400-page Modernist Cuisine, at a list price of $625, his publisher deemed it a vanity project and only printed a few copies. It went on to become the most profitable cookbook of all time, and has generated – what else? – an art exhibit.

Hard to swallow

Can food be art? Maybe. The reasons food is increasingly being embraced as art are cause for concern and may even reflect something else: a shift in the boundaries of culture itself. As the writer Bill Deresiewicz has argued in The New York Times, in the last decade food has supplanted art and literature as the principal means by which urban professional classes establish their cultural bona fides. It’s now totally common for self-styled knowledgeable people to be clueless about Schiller and Strauss, yet be able to hold forth on the virtues of 12 different kinds of olive oil or distinguish allegedly superior Mexican Coca-Cola from its American cousin. The palate, not the intellect or the soul, has become the dominant authority. Pleasure, rather than insight or antagonism, is all we ask.

When a chef like Adrià is acclaimed as an artist, or when organic obsessives wax rhapsodic about the cultural virtues of turnips, it says we expect less from art than we used to, and food can do the rather small job as well, if not better, than a picture in a white cube. But in aspiring to the status of art, chefs unwittingly expose food’s own shallowness as a medium. Gopnik, the art critic, observed as much when he made his pilgrimage to the Costa Brava. El Bulli, he noted, offered him one of the greatest meals of his life. In artistic terms, however, it was “relatively tame, at least when compared with the most daring contemporary art…more charming and witty than deeply affecting.” I agree – but in an age when every inanity at the art fairs can be sold for six figures and gallery-goers will queue for eight hours to experience the New York MoMA’s daft Rain Room, maybe “charming and witty” is enough for us.

The better question than ‘Is Adrià an artist?’ may be this: what does it say about our expectations of art if food can meet them so easily? Rather than rehashing a tired debate about the boundary between art and cooking, it seems far more profitable to advocate for higher standards in artistic achievement, and to recognise that sensory pleasures need not be art to be worthwhile.

I felt that myself in Catalonia recently. Though I never made it to El Bulli, a few months ago I did have the chance to eat at El Celler de Can Roca, about an hour’s drive away, which now wears El Bulli’s former Restaurant magazine mantle as the ‘world’s best’. My meal there was a four-hour, twenty-course voyage that stirred, surprised, comforted and thrilled me by turns. It did so not through the theatrical gluttony of Adrià’s laboratory experiments, but through a sensitivity and warmth I’ve never felt in any other restaurant. It was not art – and it was fabulous.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.