Where Gastronomy Meets Art

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

elBulli, Venue for Documenta 12 by Ferran AdriáReal Academia de Gastronomía

Art Historian Marta Arzak explores the unique relationship between Spanish gastronomy and art

Nomenclature or terminology — what things are called within a specialism or area of knowledge — has always been a hugely important concept. It helps us to identify and understand why these things exist and to give them meaning. It can also be a response to the development of diverse sociocultural, political, anthropological, religious, and historical realities.

Taking "art" to mean (among other things) "the capacity or ability to create something," this article looks at how the term has been used in culinary and gastronomic circles for centuries, both in Spain and abroad. It also offers some examples of chefs whose work transcends creative boundaries, as well as Spanish artists in whose work within gastronomy, food, and cooking have played a fundamental role.

Looking back over many centuries, influences from foreign civilizations, including the Arabs, have made Spain a melting pot of cultures that has generated rich gastronomic diversity. Similarly, the arrival of previously unknown products (rather than recipes) from places such as Asia or the Americas, inspired examples of creative cuisine that are now an inherent part of Spain's gastronomic history.

In the Early Modern period — particularly the 17th century — several essays on cooking appeared in courts, universities, and ecclesiastical institutions in Spain and the rest of Europe, featuring both "art" and "cookery" in their titles. These include the 1607 Libro del arte de cozina (Book on the Art of Cookery) by Domingo Hernández de Maceras, who was a chef at the Colegio Mayor de Oviedo in Salamanca. Another is the 1611 Arte de cocina, pastelería, vizcochería y conservería (The Art of Cookery, Pastry-Making, Baking, and Preserving) by Francisco Martínez Montiño, Royal Chef under King Philip II of Spain until the reign of Philip IV.

However, it was not until the Enlightenment that the "art of cookery" reached the kitchens of the bourgeoisie, and people became aware of the importance of cooking and the act of eating. This led to the word "new" appearing in several written works, such as the 1739 "Nouveau traité de la cuisine" (New Treatise on Cooking) and the 1746 La cuisinière bourgeoise (The Bourgeoise Chef) by the enigmatic Menon, who coined the term "nouvelle cuisine." Another example is the 1745 Nuevo arte de la cocina española (The New Art of Spanish Cookery) by the Franciscan friar Juan Altamiras, who was chef at the San Diego and San Cristóbal monasteries in Zaragoza.

elBulli, menu for Documenta 12 by Ferran Adriá (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomía)

Adolfo Solichón, pastry chef to the Royal Household and a disciple of Madrid's Casa de Lhardy, said in the prologue to his book, El arte culinario (The Culinary Art) (ca.1900):

"The art of cookery follows the path of progress, to which it is intimately connected. Nobody would dare deny that the artists who work with such brilliance today have added great momentum, bringing a high level of perfectionism, majesty, and luxury, as well as useful methods. To deny this would be to suggest that the art is in decline." [1]

I do not claim to equate cookery with art, or vice versa. There are numerous historical references to the relationship between culinary and artistic practices; records document the wonderfully opulent banquets of ancient times, and great masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci and the composer Gioachino Rossini were extraordinary gourmets and superbly creative chefs. For their part, artists have used food and the act of eating as a theme in still life paintings (including those by Spanish artists from the early 17th to mid-19th century) and in genre painting. In the first half of the 20th century, Futurist, Dadaist, and Surrealist artists celebrated the act of cooking and eating, and began holding banquets. During the 1960s and 1970s, the use of food and culinary activities featured increasingly in the work of artists, who used them as a means of visual, conceptual, and relational expression, and even political, social, or agricultural activism. Examples include Salvador Dalí and his gastro-aesthetics; Peter Kubelka, for whom cooking or preparing food is humanity's oldest poetic and creative activity; the father of "Eat Art," Daniel Spoerri; Martha Rosler's "Semiotics of the Kitchen"; Antoni Miralda and the FoodCultura project, developed with chef Montse Guillén; the discreet host Rirkrit Tiravanija; Fernando García-Dory and the artist as agroecologist; and Asunción Molinos Gordo and her reflections on agriculture and food, to name but a few.

Eating and creating are needs; human impulses that have always existed, everywhere. For a long time, the first of these was considered to be something fundamental — a vital function. This changed significantly with the introduction of creativity and research into a number of culinary practices, especially from the 1970s onward. This period saw nouvelle cuisine in France and "Nueva Cocina" in the Basque country and Catalonia, with the example of chef Ferrán Adrià and his restaurant elBulli. These movements represented a paradigm shift in the gastronomic restaurant business. The creative cuisine of today seeks to heighten the senses, although chefs are also increasingly trying to incorporate a level of usefulness and responsibility into their work, in response to environmental, social, and nutritional issues.

A turning point was the controversial invitation extended to Ferrán Adrià to take part in the international art event documenta12, in Kassel, Germany in 2007. Adrià's response was unusual: the work of art he presented was his restaurant elBulli, as a project integrating research and creativity. During the 100 days of documenta12, elBulli became an "external" pavilion at the event. Each day, two people were able to enjoy the gastronomic, emotional, and aesthetic experience of the "documenta table" hosted by the restaurant in Cala Montjoi. A decade on, elBullifoundation continues to promote creativity through projects such as the museum and archive LABulligrafía, the lab and exhibition space elBulli1846, and the Sapiens methodology.

"Astro Rey" (King of the Skies)Original Source: Restaurante Sant Pau

"Astro Rey" (King of the Skies) (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomía)

El Somni (The Dream), El Celler de Can Roca's opera in a dozen courses; Degustación de Titus Andrónicus (The Tasting of Titus Andronicus) and Taba (Knucklebones) by Andoni Luis Aduriz and La Fura dels Baus; and the exhibitions Ura frijitzen/Friendo Agua (Frying Water) by Elena Arzak and Quique Dacosta: Paisajes transformados (Transformed Landscapes) are further examples of this osmosis or mutual influence between culinary and artistic practices.

Let's take a brief look at this influence and coexistence in the world of museums and art. In the 1860s, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London opened its three Refreshment Rooms: the world's first museum restaurant. Since then, food and cookery have featured in museums in a number of different ways: in food, anthropology, or science museums, or in those dedicated to key figures in the history of cookery. One of them is the Museum of Culinary Art at the childhood home of Auguste Escoffier — founder of haute cuisine, and the father of modern cookery.

Today, there is an ever-growing number of artistic spaces with extremely high-quality culinary offerings. The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum's groundbreaking project is a prime example of this. Since it opened in 1997, it has interpreted gastronomy as an expression of cultural identity and hospitality, a sign of quality and creative expression, and an intrinsic part of the museum's overall vision. Its broad culinary offering has been developed through the work of chef Josean Alija in the Nerua restaurant. But besides that, its gastronomic spaces and infrastructures have been expanded, and various cultural and educational events and activities have been organized with cookery as the common theme. These have ranged from conferences on the creativity of chefs such as Ferrán Adrià, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Joan Roca, Ricardo Sanz, and Bruno Oteiza, to different kinds of workshops, visits, and events in which gastronomy and art interact.

In his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí (1942), the artist says, "At the age of 6, I wanted to be a chef." The chef Carme Ruscalleda tells the story of how, when she was a girl, she said to her parents, "I'd like to pursue a career in art." Fortunately, both found their true vocation. Playing, composing, drawing pictures with words… all these things can describe multiple realities. It all depends on what lens you are looking through, and at what moment.


[1] Adolfo Solichón: "El arte culinario. Tratado práctico y completo de cocina, pastelería y repostería" (The Culinary Art: A Complete Practical Treatise on Cookery, Baking, and Pastry-Making), Romo y Füssel, Madrid, 1900.

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