So, Bonkers Lady, you’re thinking, what does this Spanish chef have to do with me sitting here with my kids who are rubbing play dough into the carpeting, and the dog who is shedding a storm, and the lost soccer shoes, and the tax extension — much less the novel that’s not getting written?
I’ve been toting around this GIANT book for more than two weeks and really must get it back to the library. But I love dipping into it here and there. I love the ideas it sparks. The book is A Day at elBulli: An nsight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria, and it is amazing in every sense. First there is the size – larger and heavier than most hardbound dictionaries, it weighs in at 7 lbs. I’m a book nut, so I’m also really into how it’s put together. There are lovely photographs–over 1,000 of them– on every page, but most intriguing are the inserts on very plain paper that provide the nuts & bolt information, e.g., “The stages of developing a dish,” or “The electronic wine list.” (Why an electronic wine list, you ask, because elBulli has a 1,666 different wines available.) How Amazon is selling this tome for $32.97 is a mystery.
Let me back up. elBulli is widely considered to be the best restaurant in the world. Located on a secluded bay, several hours from Barcelona, it is open six months a year. It serves a 30-course meal to 8,000 people a year – 50 a night – though as many as 2 million people try to make reservations a year. Owner-chef Ferran Adria has introduced new methods of cooking and combinations never seen before, most of which are invented during the six months when the restaurant is not opened but the staff plays and concocts.
“A creative person tries to do what they don’t know how to do,” Adria says. Not surprisingly, this chef who owes is reputation to thinking outside the traditional confines of great cuisine has a series of methods for creativity. The result has been such offerings as an edible “paper” infused with hibiscus, blackcurrant and eucalyptus; lemon tempura with licorice; or pisatchios coated in their own praline and submerged in liquid nitrogen; or homemade marshamallows coated in a grated hard goat’s cheese.
The heart of Adria’s creative process has six components:
1) association – make lists of ingredients, cooking methods and finished dishes and think of new ways of putting them together.
2) inspiration – take a reference from any field, e.g., painting, music, as a starting point and then emulate it in cooking, trying to capture the spirit or form of the original starting point in the dish.
3) adaptation – take an existing dish, such as an icon of French cooking, and remake it. elBulli chefs enjoy, especially, adapting the unlikely, such as turning a dessert into a main course, or vice versa.
4) deconstruction - if, like me, you encountered this term in school, you may be squirming, but hear it out; it is basically an extension of adaptation. Something that’s adapted is still recognizable and is a sort of wink and nod joke. But something that’s been deconstructed is in an entirely new form — appearance, form, texture are all different, though the essence is the same. At its best, deconstruction accentuates the original and helps one to understand it afresh.
5) minimalism – use the minimum number of ingredients to achieve the greatest effect.
6) changes in menu structure – elBulli plays with how menus are organized, something that rarely changes in Western restaurants. In fact, there’s no menu, per se; guests only receive a menu after the meal as a token. But the order of food is different, and includes entirely new courses, such as one called “morphings.”
7) search for new ingredients – viewing ingredients as the “genes” for the dishes, it’s vital to find new sources and products from around the world, including kinds of charcoal and oils.
So, Bonkers Lady, you’re thinking, what does this have to do with me sitting here with my kids who are rubbing play dough into the carpeting and the shedding dog and the tax extension and the novel that’s not getting done? Ok, none of us is going to have 2 million requests for our work this year (though, if you start counting, you may find that someone hollers “mooooommmm!” 2 million times), nor are we lucky enough to have have a secret workshop like Chef Adria (or Santa). But he’s presented a great baseline of rules for creativity, worthy of sticking on a bulletin board. I think I could take any of these and imagine the writerly equivalent and get myself out of the blahs.
Second point is that getting a honking big book, or a huge stack of new music, or a new piece of art — something outside your usual milieu but something that’s new and shows the work of someone who is really groundbreaking – can do wonders for your work. I often find that as a writer it’s really daunting to read a work that strikes me as excellent. When I first read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius I didn’t want to write for months. It was so good. How could I do anything half that good?
But when I checked out a giant book of Anselm Kiefer’s work or watched the film American Splendor, about the work and life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar, I was inspired. These products from artists in different realms helped me to see my own creative projects beyond the play dough and the seeming limitations of my beautiful but sometimes little mama life. They helped me to DREAM BIG.
So get thee to the library. Borrow music from a friend. Turn your head sideways and squint while wearing your kid’s rose-colored glasses. Whatever it takes to get a new take on the same ol’, same ol’. Think of it as spring cleaning for your creative spirit!