3rd-Course-Primavera-592x444

Food as Art

In Alicante there’s a restaurant named after it’s founder-chef Quique Dacosta Restaurant. You can find out more about Dacosta’s food on the excellent alifewortheating site from where these next images came. Here’s a taster.

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Dehydrated watermelon re-hydrated in charred piquillo sauce with mustard seeds.

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A collection of mushrooms and greens laced with black truffles julienne growing from an edible dirt floor.

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Lobes of foie gras mixed with raw local prawns, decorated with candied leaves and flowers.

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A miniature sweet pea forest of almonds, mushrooms, small flowers, black truffle, and edible dirt.

Dacosta’s food is pretty and tasty. The emphasis seems to be on excellent seasonal produce, which puts it in the same realm as Japanese kaiseki-ryōri懐石料理) except the courses all come separately.  With kaiseki-ryori, you just appreciate the seasonal flavours, write haiku about the fleetingness of transitory pleasures and so on. It would be considered vulgar to get full on it – as it is with sushi.

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Until recently, there had also been the legendary restaurant El Bulli which perhaps took food a bit further out there than Dacosta or even the Japanese did. There’s a film. el-bulli

According to Entertainment Weekly, it’s “a celebration of the human desire to turn food into art”. Hmm.

The El Bulli website lives on.

In the mid-1990s a new style of cuisine began to be forged. Today, this style has been wholly consolidated and may be defined in the following terms:

1.  Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.2.  The use of top quality products and technical knowledge to prepare them properly are taken for granted.3.  All products have the same gastronomic value, regardless of their price.4.  Preference is given to vegetables and seafood, with a key role also being played by dairy products, nuts and other products that make up a light form of cooking. In recent years red meat and large cuts of poultry have been very sparingly used.5.  Although the characteristics of the products may be modified (temperature, texture, shape, etc.), the aim is always to preserve the purity of their original flavour, except for processes that call for long cooking or seek the nuances of particular reactions such as the Maillard reaction.6.  Cooking techniques, both classic and modern, are a heritage that the cook has to know how to exploit to the maximum.7.  As has occurred in most fields of human evolution down the ages, new technologies are a resource for the progress of cooking.

8.  The family of stocks is being extended. Together with the classic ones, lighter stocks performing an identical function are now being used (waters, broths, consommés, clarified vegetable juices, nut milk, etc.).

9.  The information given off by a dish is enjoyed through the senses; it is also enjoyed and interpreted by reflection.

10.  Taste is not the only sense that can be stimulated: touch can also be played with (contrasts of temperatures and textures), as well as smell, sight (colours, shapes, trompe d’oeil, etc.), whereby the five senses become one of the main points of reference in the creative cooking process.

11.  The technique-concept search is the apex of the creative pyramid.

12.  Creation involves teamwork. In addition, research has become consolidated as a new feature of the culinary creative process.

13.  The barriers between the sweet and savoury world are being broken down. Importance is being given to a new cold cuisine, particularly in the creation of the frozen savoury world.

14.  The classical structure of dishes is being broken down: a veritable revolution is underway in first courses and desserts, closely bound up with the concept of symbiosis between the sweet and savoury world; in main dishes the “product-garnish-sauce” hierarchy is being broken down.15.  A new way of serving food is being promoted. The dishes are finished in the dining room by the serving staff. In other cases the diners themselves participate in this process.16.  Regional cuisine as a style is an expression of its own geographical and cultural context as well as its culinary traditions. Its bond with nature complements and enriches this relationship with its environment.17.  Products and preparations from other countries are subjected to one’s particular style of cooking.18.  There are two main paths towards attaining harmony of products and flavours: through memory (connection with regional cooking traditions, adaptation, deconstruction, former modern recipes), or through new combinations.19.  A culinary language is being created which is becoming more and more ordered, that on some occasions establishes a relationship with the world and language of art.20.  Recipes are designed to ensure that harmony is to be found in small servings.

21.  Decontextualisation, irony, spectacle, performance are completely legitimate, as long as they are not superficial but respond to, or are closely bound up with, a process of gastronomic reflection.

22.  The menu de dégustation is the finest expression of avant-garde cooking. The structure is alive and subject to changes. Concepts such as snacks, tapas, pre-desserts, morphs, etc., are coming into their own.

23.  Knowledge and/or collaboration with experts from different fields (gastronomic culture, history, industrial design, etc.,) is essential for progress in cooking. In particular collaboration with the food industry and the scientific world has brought about fundamental advances. Sharing this knowledge among cooking professionals has contributed to this evolution.

Food and shelter are the fundamentals for human existence so I was wondering if any of the above has any meaning or lessons for shelter – I mean, in a real sense and not as some loose-fit architectural analogy. Here’s my picks.  

1.  Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.

When food is being sold as art/experience/performance, it’s not surprising nutrition is ignored. In the world of art architecture, physical comfort isn’t considered a property worth expressing.

2.  The use of top quality products and technical knowledge to prepare them properly are taken for granted.

This kind of thinking guarantees the role of the artisan and the continuation of value-added products. Buildings would be prohibitively expensive if all construction materials and processes had to be of the highest possible quality? The situation we have is one where expensive buildings are flaunted by their owners. The Lloyds Building wasn’t cheap. Neither was St. Mary Axe, for what it’s worth.

3.  All products have the same gastronomic value, regardless of their price.

If this is rephrased as “all building materials have the same architectural value, regardless of cost” then this happens. Every now and then some formerly low-rent material gets used in a pretentious or possibly ironic way. Remember the OSB wall from MVRDV’s 1994 Double House in Utrect? In passing, it’s strange how little influence such usages have. This was a good idea but nothing much changed in the 20 years since. Avant-garde is a misnomer. It’s rarely a precursor of garde.

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4.  Preference is given to vegetables and seafood, with a key role also being played by dairy products, nuts and other products that make up a light form of cooking. In recent years red meat and large cuts of poultry have been very sparingly used.

Could we perhaps say “Preference is given to inexpensive and sustainable materials, with a key role being played by renewable timbers, recyclables and other inexpensive products that make up a light form of architecture. In recent years, rare stone and hardwoods have been very sparingly used?”  We possibly could say that in the case of the buildings of Lacaton & Vassal, but otherwise … no.

lapatie house interior

6.  Cooking techniques, both classic and modern, are a heritage that the cook has to know how to exploit to the maximum.

6.  Construction techniques, both classic and modern, are a heritage that the architect has to know how to exploit to the maximum.

This goes without saying, although I question the use of the word “exploit”. Nobody expects more than they input. And it’s not right to use the language of capitalist economics to describe supposedly artistic endeavour. “To use”, and to use appropriately and efficiently is sufficient. Perhaps I’m old skool. I may stand corrected.

7.  As has occurred in most fields of human evolution down the ages, new technologies are a resource for the progress of cooking.

7.  As has occurred in most fields of human evolution down the ages, new technologies are a resource for the progress of building.

I’m fine with this even though what constitutes progress is a question still to be hashed out in architecture. We’re being led to believe it’s a series of diverting novelties serving no greater purpose than mild media titillation – which is fine, if acknowledged by purveyors and consumers as such. Do we just get what we’re given? Is there nothing more substantial on offer?

8.  The family of stocks is being extended. Together with the classic ones, lighter stocks performing an identical function are now being used (waters, broths, consommés, clarified vegetable juices, nut milk, etc.).

The use of less-expensive and less-complicated substitutes is a good thing in any industry. If something else does the job just as well then there’s no need to continue using something just out of habit.

10.  Taste is not the only sense that can be stimulated: touch can also be played with (contrasts of temperatures and textures), as well as smell, sight (colours, shapes, trompe d’oeil, etc.), whereby the five senses become one of the main points of reference in the creative cooking process.

10.  Sight is not the only sense that can be satisfied: the five senses become the points of reference in the architectural experience.

Looking at photos of buildings is a bit like looking at photos of food. It only tells us one fifth of what we can experience.

Beets Notes: This roasted beet sat on a meaty sauce (meaty).  Then there was meat juice splattered on the plate.  Overall, a nice dish, but not terribly groundbreaking.

11.  The technique-concept search is the apex of the creative pyramid.

We’re familiar with this one. I still disagree and maintain that creativity can exist in creating something from fewer or less-expensive resources. If the objective is merely sensory pleasure, then creativity is merely the invention of novel ways to achieve that. Sadly, this is the working definition of creativity we have now.

12.  Creation involves teamwork. In addition, research has become consolidated as a new feature of the culinary creative process.

This sounds familiar. If the creative endgame is to produce an endless stream of novelty without copying oneself then I guess working on new ways to be novel is going to take up a lot of your time.

16.  Regional cuisine as a style is an expression of its own geographical and cultural context as well as its culinary traditions. Its bond with nature complements and enriches this relationship with its environment.

16.  Regional traditions are an expression of its own geographical and cultural context as well as its architectural traditions. Its bond with nature complements and enriches this relationship with its environment.

This is good. The alternative is Globalization food (or multi-national food) as in one-food-suits-all. Here in the UAE we have the MacArabia

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and over in Japan they have the Teriyaki Burger, but that’s not the point.

Mega-Teriyaki-Burger

Meanwhile, over in India …

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19.  A culinary language is being created which is becoming more and more ordered, that on some occasions establishes a relationship with the world and language of art.

19.  An architectural language is being created which is becoming more and more ordered, that on some occasions establishes a relationship with the world and language of art.

In the middle of the 1970s some architects, Peter Eisenman not least of all, championed relationships between architecture and language. It fizzled out. Or rather, everybody jumped ship to Post Modernism and the cachet gained from its loose-fit analogies with Post Modern literature. This was followed by the Deconstructivist bandwagon. Nobody seems to be aligning themselves with anything anymore. It’s not a bad thing. Although what’s taken its place in the worlds of art and architecture is the belief that if you make a big noise then you must be good. Like artists do.

Damien Hirst

This is a bad thing, but it’s no worse than before. It’s just more noticeable.

21.  Decontextualisation, irony, spectacle, performance are completely legitimate, as long as they are not superficial but respond to, or are closely bound up with, a process of gastronomic reflection.

21.  Decontextualisation, irony, spectacle, performance are completely legitimate, as long as they are not superficial but respond to, or are closely bound up with, a process of architectural reflection.

We also tried this once at the end of the 1970s and into the 80s – it was pants. It couldn’t help but be superficial. Here’s Venturi’s 1963 Guild House complete with its ironic golden television aerial-sculpture-commentary/insult.

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23.  Knowledge and/or collaboration with experts from different fields (gastronomic culture, history, industrial design, etc.,) is essential for progress in cooking. In particular collaboration with the food industry and the scientific world has brought about fundamental advances. Sharing this knowledge among cooking professionals has contributed to this evolution.

23.  Knowledge and/or collaboration with experts from different fields is essential for progress in architecture. In particular collaboration with the building industry and the scientific world has brought about fundamental advances. Sharing this knowledge among architectural professionals has contributed to this evolution.

We can only hope. This post is an attempt to see what ideas can or might be shared between food as art and building as architecture. These quick reflections do hide some major differences between the worlds of avant-garde food and architecture.

  • Adrian Ferrià of ElBulli ensured that, through his prices and his booking system, it was possible for anyone (who had the time and means to access his restaurant) could in theory get a table. Prices were held to €200 per head which meant running at a loss. The pre-booking system was by all accounts fair. He was selling rare experiences but they were accessible to all. It is not so with architecture.
  • Ferrià used to close his restaurant for six months each year to research and test the menu for the following six months. This does not happen with buildings. Research and production are concurrent and dislocated. A building coming online might be the result of dead-end themes and explorations of half a decade earlier. What gets built may not be the genuine product of research performed even though it may be presented as such.

Ferrià’s business model has been scrutinised by Harvard Business School here.

  • The inconvenient location of El Bulli made the two-hour drive through the mountains into part of the dining experience.
  • If one listens to customers then it will never be possible to surprise them.
  • Quirks and inefficiencies are part of the appeal.

I’m not suggesting everybody eat food like this. This are experimental food experiences for interested persons. Food like this is not going to eradicate world hunger. Notice how there was no mention of nutrition? It’s all about the flavour and the look. There’s every reason not to like food like this but what I admire is how it doesn’t pretend to have any kind of social function. And how its creators aren’t claiming that theirs is the only true food and that all other food in the world doesn’t deserve to be called food.

• • •

If there is a place in the world for art-food, then there is also a place in the world for many other types of food. We’re familiar with fast food. We know all about convenience food even though sometimes it quicker to make something from scratch than boil something in a bag. We’ve had various restaurants offering regional cuisines. There’s the Danish restaurant Noma that, according to their Wikipedia entry, uses local and seasonal ingredients foraged from the seashore and forests. (Check their website here.)

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We are already exposed to the full range of international food. We are used to vegetarian restaurants and organic restaurants that emphasise an ideological and/or health dimension to what we eat. There are now gluten free restaurants as well. And restaurants where everything on the menu is 500 calories or less.

Grilled mackerel

Grilled mackerel with green beans – 335 calories

If all these different ways of doing food can exist on the same planet, then I think there’s room for an architecture that’s good for us. It’s always been there at the top of this blog.

The built environment is always going to have its bread buildings and its cake buildings, its caviar and its junk. Somewhere in the middle, there has to be a “nutritious” architecture that makes us feel good because it is good for us – an architecture that does The Shelter Thing well and that doesn’t cost the earth. This is what we care about.

One thought on “Food as Art

  1. jens wolff

    Well, NOMA is abbreviation of NOrdisk (nordic) and MAd (food). It lies in Copenhagen – in case you happen to get a table.

    Reply

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