A Day at elBulli: An insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adrià
by Ferran Adrià, Albert Adrià, Juli Soler
Publisher: Phaidon, Country: UK
ISBN: 9780714848839, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

In the public imagination, the leading light of what has commonly been called the Molecular Gastronomy movement is the restaurant elBulli and its head chef, Ferran Adrià. For many years, elBulli has produced large, beautiful volumes of innovative dishes, techniques and the philosophy of their creation, first in Spanish and then, with some delay, in English. Unattainably expensive for many chefs and non-chefs alike, these books have provided one of the few clear insights into what Ferran Adrià and his restaurant is about, minus the breathless enthusiasm of food critics or hyped “weird-shit” descriptions of lesser food writers. At last there is a book that is aimed at the public, perhaps leading to better understanding of what this approach to cooking and eating is about. Sceptics might not make it through to the interesting bits, however, as this book is a vanity work of many pages and photos that only becomes interesting the further you look. In many ways this is little more than a coffee table book, yet fails in that form. It is simultaneously dull, unwieldy, informative and complex. The “potted guide” to elBulli, to use a slightly old fashioned term, just without the brevity!

Full review

Structure of the book

A Day at elBulli provides a pictorial diary of a day. There is at least one page of photos for every five-minute period from 06:05 to 02:00, with occasional captions. It’s big. Alongside far too many photos of:

15:15 Ferran looks into the distance, 18:10 Ferran eats something, 10:00 Ferran arrives at the secret workshop (five photos), 10:10 Ferran looks at some papers (two-page spread), 11:10 Ferran drinks coffee

there are also such thrills as:

00:50 staff clean a glass panel, 16:00 staff wash the cutlery, 17:15 restaurant staff recycle bottles, 20:30 the route guests take through the restaurant.

It’s lucky that at least some of the images are of the food, in preparation and in presentation, because they rescue the reader from indifference.

Between some images are coloured inserts providing more detailed (or mundane) textual information. While the photos are on heavy high-quality white paper, the inserts are of lighter, perhaps photocopy-quality stock. Each insert seeks to be informative, whether listing titillating statistics (8000 guests per year, 200 kitchen cloths and aprons used every night), detailing the philosophy of the senses that guides the creation of dishes, providing Ferran Adrià’s curriculum vitae, or explaining the kitchen.

How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?

One of the reasons this book is valuable is that it presents what feels like an unadorned, unhyped explanation, with clear attribution of influences, inspirations and acknowledgement of the often unseen staff. Some of the text can feel a little self-obsessed — this is, after all, a work about a restaurant that has a philosophy.

While you do learn a bit about the (often mundane, sometimes fascinating) workings of the restaurant and conceptualisation of dishes, it’s unfortunately not until the second half of the book (p280) that you discover some recipes, and I feel that this is what makes the volume most worthwhile. Although most owners of the work won’t attempt the recipes for the 30 dishes presented, not least because some require special ingredients and techniques, these recipes illustrate the care of construction, the technical and culinary expertise and, indeed, make the food accessible in a way that many home cooks and armchair critics have failed to understand.

The dishes/recipes include: 3Ds with ras-el-hanout and lemon basil shoots, samphire tempura with saffron and oyster cream, baby snails in a court bouillon with crab escabeche and amaranth with fennel, yoghurt and raspberry mochi.

The most important thread through A Day at elBulli and, more to the point, the major point of Ferran Adrià’s philosophy of food and eating, is creativity. The book provides both an explanation of the origin and development of this obsession, and a timeline illustrating the influences and innovations between 1987 and 2005. This creativity is often interpreted by outsiders as smoke-and-mirrors or a form of marketing exhibitionism, but it is possible that reading the more useful sections could be sufficiently illluminating. (Of course, there are some devotees-of-the-moment as well, but they’ll probably just throw around words like “genius” and “inspired” rather than spending time on understanding.)

What problems/flaws are there?

It would be easy to argue that A Day at elBulli is a waste of trees. It didn’t need to be 528 pages long, over 3kg (6lb) in weight, and full of fairly unnecessary images with dull captions. No doubt the marketing department felt this was the way to make it sell well to an enthusiastic audience.

More puzzling to me is the ordering of information. If you know almost nothing about elBulli, you’ll still know almost nothing of significance when you’re a third of the way into the book. Although the first insert is an overview of what elBulli is (famous restaurant, lots of guests, lots of stuff, odd menus), the first really interesting insert, Creative methods I, appears on p136, yet so far only a few mostly superficial illustrations of elBulli’s dishes have been shown. Iconic techniques/components such as Adrià’s “airs” (the soft foam on a beaten liquid) are mentioned long before they are explained. Even the significance of chef and restaurant in the culinary landscape is unclear until p184.

It’s a pity that the interesting content forms less than 20% of the book.

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

As a vanity work with what appears at first to be little substance, this could just be a volume for enthusiastic fine-diners who already know the reputation of elBulli. It’s rare that a vanity work can really justify itself, but if a reader is willing to stick with it, I think this is the first really useful account in print of the food and philosophy of Ferran Adrià and elBulli for a general audience. There are also enough recipes to make it interesting for ambitious cooks or young chefs who can’t afford the indulgence of one of the “annuals” but would like to practically understand what this approach to eating is about.

Main rating: Recommended – some flaws
Visual appeal: Beautiful
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
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A Day at elBulli, Ferran Adrià | 2008 | UK, 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

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5 Comments

  1. y
    Posted 14 Jan 2009 at 17:00 | Permalink

    I’m sort of with you on this one. I think it’s too big and long winded too, but I loved and appreciated the pictures of produce and food in production.

  2. Coby
    Posted 14 Jan 2009 at 22:26 | Permalink

    I adore beautiful cookbooks, but right now beauty isn’t enough to warrant forking out a significant amount of money on a cookbook that I’d be unlikely or unable to cook from. Perhaps if it’s available at our local library..

    Really enjoyed your review, I have, what I feel is a very good understanding of A day at elBulli now.

  3. Posted 15 Jan 2009 at 03:50 | Permalink

    The book sounds wonderful, especially they way you’ve described this book “beautiful”, but the book that thick is always make me think twice before I buy it. Thanks for the great review Duncan.
    Cheers,
    Elra

  4. Posted 15 Jan 2009 at 20:02 | Permalink

    Was I the only one to see the big tusks in the photos, but I did like his new clothes a lot!
    best for 2009

  5. Posted 02 Feb 2009 at 15:58 | Permalink

    What a wonderful site, I’ve just discovered it! Thank you for your honest review on this one, you’ve saved me a few dollars. Although I still am slightly tempted to purchase it for the recipes!

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