Photographs of dishes arranged chronologically
Design, Multidiscipline

Oil and water: gastronomy and food design

Exploring two attitudes to food innovation – the different approaches of super chef Ferran Adrià and food designer Martí Guixé.

The exhibition elBulli – Ferran Adrià and the art of food in London brought out two polar approaches to creativity and innovation with food. The show’s main food hero is star chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame – the three-Michelin-star Spanish restaurant that closed in July 2011 whilst still at the top of its game. From Adrià’s perspective, culinary innovation is about gastronomy, the stimulation of all possible senses, even food presentation alluding to performance, all underpinned by tacit technical mastery. His approach to cooking is experimental in nature; deconstructing traditional cuisines, cooking techniques and reconceptualising their executions and contexts.

A giant bull dog made of sugar, a chef’s jacket and an autographed table cloth.

A display of memorabilia from the El Bulli restaurant that closed its door in July 2011. Photo: Viviane Li

Contrast this with Spanish designer Martí Guixé, who gave a talk entitled ‘Food Design’ as a part of the event programme that accompanied the exhibition. He has published a Cook Book, but can’t cook. In fact, he declares no interest whatsoever in cooking and avoids handling foodstuff whenever possible. With a background primarily in interior design and influences in industrial design, he believes that food, as a mass-produced consumer product, can be considered as a design object and treated as such. Using the approach of a product designer, he imagines food not in terms of taste and texture, cookery and crockery, but ergonomics, functionality and form.

Martí Guixé gives a slide presentation to an audience

Martí Guixé speaking about his work on food design. Photo: Viviane Li

Guixé began experimenting with this idea of food design in around 1997. Early work such as Techno tapas came from observing our increasing habit of eating in front of the computer. Traditional food forms, such as sandwiches, are awkward to consume whilst using the computer, with morsels dropping in between the keys of the keyboard. Techno tapas addresses this issue ergonomically by inserting bread and oil into hollowed small tomatoes, so the meal can be consumed in bite-sized chunks similar to canapés.

His other food design projects include: a slab of silvered chocolate moulded to the form of the metallic plastic tray that is usually used to hold individual pieces of confectionary inside a box (2001) (the idea is that this would eliminate the component of packaging it mimics); cakes decorated like pie charts to visually indicate their ingredients’ percentages (2001); an art gallery filled with a dense fog of gin and tonic to aid the flow of conversations by helping visitors to become drunk (2006).

When asked whether Ferran Adrià is a food designer, the distinction for Guixé is clear, “if he is cooking, he is definitely not a food designer”. He saw Adrià primarily as a chef, although now that he is no longer in the kitchen, he declared a possibility that Adrià may be considered a food designer.

Guixé’s design ideas are charming and delightful. However, the mindset that a food designer does not need to understand cuisines, cooking techniques, or work with food materials is similar to declaring that product designers do not need to understand their history, context, materials and production processes – a suggestion I think product and industrial designers would disagree with. After all, these are all core component modules of an established formal training for them.

If someone applied a ‘design thinking’ process to their work, can they be considered a designer in some way?

In many respects, Adrià has demonstrated plenty of creativity; he introduced into the kitchen what designers call ‘design thinking’ – the process of problem solving through research, insight development, idea generation, followed by cycles of experimentation, prototyping and testing to arrive at a final product. Parts of this may be similar to how recipes have long been developed, but what made Adrià’s approach akin to that of a creative designer is the extent to which he rethought traditional boundaries and the diverse references from which he drew inspiration for solutions. For example, by rejecting reinterpretations of traditional recipes, but posing rather philosophical questions as starting points instead, Adrià continually created new and unique signature dishes. When questioning ‘What is a sauce? What is a soup?’ (1990), he played with the limits of the two definitions to challenge conventions; this was later further developed into a ‘Solid sauce’ (2000). With ‘Impossible combinations’ (1992), he explored “recipes inspired by the will to break with any memory that would allow us to recognise flavours and combinations.” ((elBulli – Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food, exhibition catalogue (2013).)) Lamb’s tongue with red mullet and sweet corn purée on EL Bulli’s 1992 menu may have been one of the results developed from this thinking (we have to trust that it tasted better than it sounds).

Photographs of dishes arranged chronologically

Some of the 1846 dishes developed at El Builli from 1987 to 2011. Photo: Viviane Li

Three members of the El Bulli team developing recipes in the kitchen

Cooks give Ferran Adrià (far right) a ‘mushroom juice’ to taste during its development phase, with two options cooked in different ways. Photo: Alive Mind Cinema

If someone applied a ‘design thinking’ process to their work, can he or she be considered a designer in some way? There is no agreed definition of food design; it is not an established discipline within the design industry as a whole. According to Design Boom magazine, Guixé is “considered a pioneer of the food design discipline which he began in 1997”. ((Martí Guixé interview, Design Boom)) In my view, the rather awkward and seemingly unchallenged definition of food design given by Guixé stems from the compara­tively few practitioners in this field, therefore fewer debates ensue. In a ‘young’ disciplinary field with few players, there is also less competition that may force further skill and knowledge acquisition in order to up one’s game. In short, not enough people are losing sleep over it just yet.

…the rather awkward and seemingly unchallenged defini­tion of food design given by Guixé stems from the compara­tively few practi­tioners in this field… not enough people are losing sleep over it just yet.

A clue to the niche appeal of food design is its ability to make money. When asked what proportion of his work falls within this discipline, Guixé revealed an estimate of 15 percent. He stated financial considerations as the reason for the relatively small proportion of time he devotes to it, which suggests that his other work (such as designing retail spaces for the shoe company Camper) are more lucrative. Adrià himself has always been open about the financial fact that the vital number on his restaurant’s balance sheet is the colour of raspberry coulis. Given two creative endeavours in food, both non-viable as stand-alone businesses, what Guixé’s creations lack so far is the audience that Adrià’s can attract by the millions (judging by the strong demand for dinner reservations). However, the high cost of continual and intense research and development did not balance the income from diners. Perhaps we are fooled by the label ‘restaurant’? It is more of a sandbox for experimentation; according to chef, “El Bulli is not really a restaurant because it hasn’t been set up as a business…we don’t make any profit we lose a lot of money. But I have many other businesses, books, images and brands, which allow all this to exist.” ((A day at El Bulli, video (5:30), The Guardian))

A taste of the fruit dangled at the apex of creativity can get you hooked like a drug; you are rewarded with an energising high when you reach that eureka moment and you want it again. Experimentation has overtaken cooking to become the raison d’être. “El Bulli didn’t close down, it got transformed” ((Ferran Adrià launches elBulli foundation, video (0:05), The Guardian)) declared Adrià (who also underwent a transformation over the course of his career, from a chef to a passionate advocate for creative thinking). Its reincarnation will be a foundation comprised of a museum, a creativity centre and an online encyclopaedia for haute cuisine. His dream is for this new organisation to be imbued with the seriousness and longevity of the Media Lab at MIT, the fun and happiness of Cirque du Soleil and the madness of the Dalí Theatre Museum in Figueres. ((Ferran Adrià launches elBulli foundation, video (2:35), The Guardian))

Experimentation has overtaken cooking to become the raison d’être.

To help inform the brainstorming stage of this new venture, Adrià created a ‘Global Ideas Challenge Competition’ for students to contribute their own visions for the foundation from which he can cherry pick. Tellingly, this was only opened to MBA students from a handful of top business schools, not to establishments we are usually led to perceive as hubs of creativity, such as design schools. This reflects the more holistic considerations Adrià had in mind (and aspects that design schools fail to teach) – the six specific challenges in the competition brief not only encompass creativity and innovation, but also business, leadership and marketing. ((Ferran Adrià chose ESADE as the business school in which to launch the Global Ideas Challenge Competition, ESADE Business School)) No doubt he wanted to ensure that this legacy he is consciously concocting does not become swallowed up like some of his past inventions of ‘Smoke foam’ (1997) or ‘Frozen air’ (2003).

Announced to launch in the year 2014 (but more likely in 2015 ((El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià on his Art of Food exhibition at Somerset House, video (3:00), The Guardian))), the El Bulli Foundation will also facilitate collaborations between creative chefs of all ages and practitioners from other disciplines. ((Authors@ presents Ferran Adria: The Family Meal – Google London, video (0:41:03), YouTube)) The value of disciplinary alliances is also appreciated by Guixé who explained, “…because I am working with concepts and ideas I don’t want to specialise. I build teams.” He has collaborated with Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi to create The Solar Kitchen Restaurant, a concept pop-up restaurant where the food is cooked only by the energy of the Sun. In a collaboration, there is one advantage to Guixé’s view that “to be a food designer… it’s better if you don’t know how to cook” ((Design Picnics: Martí Guixé, video (0:54), Disegno)) because it allows the designer to take a more objective view detached from gastronomy’s paradigm of taste, textures, smell and plate presentations.

What defines us can also separate us. Do our super chef and early pioneer of food design represent two schools of thought, like two sides of the same coin that can never see eye-to-eye, because each face has its back to the other? Is one oil, the other water? If that is the case, then I can’t wait to see the new foundation adopt the role of emulsifier – an agent that shakes up the unmixable – with a generous splash of creative juices.

What do you think?

  • Would you consider someone a designer in some way, if he or she practices the ‘design thinking’ process?
  • Does a designer need to have an understanding of materials and processes?
  • What is food design anyway?

Leave your thoughts below…


One thought on “Oil and water: gastronomy and food design

  1. Joe says:

    Other than the caption “Excellence inspires”, I have no idea what made me start reading – but once started, I was hooked till the end of these magnificently interwoven threads of design and food. Thank you Li.

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