How does the history of art compare with the history of cuisine?
We had food, then we had art – we know that for sure. We are humans; what makes us human is the fact that we started eating meat and that’s how we developed our brain and that made us what we are; so food is probably the most important fact in human existence.
What we really should talks about is what is cooking, what would separate food and cooking? But, there hasn’t been much dialogue between cooking and art. I’m not talking about food and artists, I’m talking specifically about actual cooking.
Don’t you thing that early cave paintings probably related to food?
There wasn’t a dialogue; the idea of a dialogue between a chef and artist is very new.
When did it start?
The most important factor is documenta, [a contemporary art exhibition that takes place in Kassel, Germany every five years] that was a key moment in the history of the relationship between art and food.
Who was the first person to present a food project at documenta?
As chefs, it was us.
Why have food and cooking been transformed and become so popular?
Because it’s something we do everyday; the strange thing is that it didn’t happen before. It’s very simple in one sense, because until you get sustenance you can’t actually move on to cooking. Unfortunately, in a poor country people don’t talk about ‘cooking’ because first there is hunger. It’s only in recent history that we’ve experienced social democracy in the world; until recently, cooking and gastronomy were only enjoyed by elites.
What do you think chefs and artists have in common?
It depends on which artists and which chefs you’re talking about (laughs)… I don’t consider everyone that paints to be an artist. That was a lesson that Richard Hamilton taught me. There are ‘artists’ that make craft/reproductions and this is something that’s also done [with food] in a restaurant. The other issue is creativity, that is something that could bring a chef together with an artist, except that one creates dishes and the other paintings.
I’d like to touch on the issue of elitism. You took part in a documenta in 2007; your project was quite exclusive…
Here, in the (Somerset House) exhibition we don’t eat, it’s educational, about sharing ideas and understanding about cooking. My participation in documenta contextualised very clearly what vanguard cooking is. It’s not possible for many people to do that.
I went to documenta in 2011 and wrote about all the different food projects. There were maybe ten projects but, by comparison, these were very social.
I do the two things, but they don’t have anything to do with each other.
Can you talk about an artwork that you love?
More than a single piece of work, I love the history of the world of Picasso, as a character. But I think in terms of art I’m much more pulled towards new technology: video, installation, performance…
I saw a lecture you gave where you mentioned a painting by Diego Velazquez called An Old Woman Cooking Eggs.
it’s one of the few paintings where you actually see someone cooking. This painting shows how they cooked eggs four hundred years ago.
Can you tell me about the relationship between the appearance of food and the taste?
Food is the most complex thing in the sensorial sense; every sense participates in eating. You could say that hearing is less relevant, but that’s not totally true because talking about food is wonderful. That’s something that you can’t do when you go to the cinema or the opera, you can’t have a conversation while you’re in there.
What did you think of the Futurists’ Manifesto of Food? (Whose recipes include such mouthwatering delights as chicken with ball-bearings…)
It’s fantastic but it’s another issue; there are people who are studying that very seriously at the moment and the concept is amazing.
Do you think what you do is borrowing some of those Futurist ideas?
No, the aim of what they were doing and the aim of what we do are totally different; yet despite that we come up with some similar things.
Can you tell me about working with Richard Hamilton and Vicente Todoli on your book Food For Thought? [Hamilton and Todoli edited the book]
Incredible… this was the best present I ever received. These two people, they make your book for you. The most important work in this exhibition is the book. Richard Hamilton worked as a designer, he was the boss.
Do you have any memories of anything he said?
I learnt a lot from him, a lot of what he said helped me understand things. One of the most important things that has happened to me in my career was being able to listen to Richard Hamilton speak several times.
Questions from the public via social media (and a few more from me).
Can you talk about the army and food?
Ninety percent of the time that I was doing my military service, I was cooking. My responsibilities were related to cooking.
Did you learn anything from this?
Discipline, seriousness and responsibility.
What is your go-to food for a hangover?
It doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you get rid of the hangover. But, really the only solution is getting drunk again.
How do you deal with failure?
I think I do this very naturally because we fail every day.
What do you have for breakfast?
Do you pay the people that work for you or do they pay you?
We had this concept at elBulli, of people coming to the restaurant for [unpaid] practical experience; they didn’t pay anything of course, but they took with them an experience which was priceless. Some of those people have become the most influential chefs working today. It’s about sharing; they give you something and we give them something.
Are you going to open another restaurant?
My brother, Albert, has a restaurant and I help him with that project as much as possible. I’m not planning to open another restaurant but I help him whenever I can.
What do you think of the visual aesthetic of restaurants, especially your own?
They (my restaurants) are the most kitsch you can imagine in the world; it’s totally decontextualised. elBulli now forms part of history, we’re not going to change it.
What role do you think governments and regulation play in the promotion and substance of healthy cuisine?
It’s really society that should play that role. Obviously the government participates in society, so it plays a role also.
What do you think about the future of food – are we all going to be eating insects?
We eat insects a lot of the time, all year: prawn and crab, these are arachnids. In the sea there are thousands of species that we have never eaten and maybe in the future we’ll be farming them.
As the godfather of molecular gastronomy what do you think this form has brought to the rising problems of food production, obesity and the basic teaching of people how to eat?
There’s what we know as gastronomy, and that’s one story, and cooking is another issue. It’s like asking a Formula One racing driver what they think of the new saloon car steering system. I could talk about it but it’s another field. If you mix things too much you can confuse people.
There’s a strong history of art in restaurants, from Mr Chow to the Paris Bar in Berlin. What do you think of this?
It depends on the type of restaurant; there are all kinds of different restaurants from Pret a Manger to The Fat Duck. If you have a big place you can have big artworks, and obviously if you have a small place you can’t.
But there is a particular history of artists making work for restaurants [Martin Kippenberger famously curated a display for Belin’s Paris Bar, he then turned the scene into a painting reminiscent of eighteenth and nineteenth century salon interiors].
Yeah, I think that’s good. It depends on the art as well; if you put in a work by Richard Hamilton [in elBulli] I don’t think it would suit the restaurant.
There is a big movement now toward growing food at home, and that DIY idea seems to be feeding back into art. Do you think this is an interesting development?
From a gastronomy point of view I don’t care about that, but from an artistic point of view that could be interesting. When you’re mixing art and cooking you have to have artists from both disciplines at both levels, you can’t have a great artist with a mediocre chef or vice versa. You have to be careful, because sometimes things can emerge that aren’t actually very helpful to that dialogue. If you mix things too much and you do a bit of cooking and a bit of an art installation it’s very frivolous.
Take an artist like [Futurist Manifesto author Filippo Tommaso] Marinetti: it’s very hard to find a chef who is at an equivalent level.
I have a theory that there are artists that make art the way chefs make food. Have you ever noticed that?
For me it’s more complex. If you paint you’re an artist, it doesn’t matter about the quality; from there everything is manipulated and to be honest the majority of artists or painters do work that is pretty normal quality and it doesn’t have any repercussions. You could say they’ve done it with the intention that you will be excited with looking at it. When I was younger and I played football my intention was to be the best in the world, but I didn’t get beyond the fifth division so obviously something wasn’t working. That was my experience in documenta, too. I had to think about everything we’ve been talking about, in fact, over a year and a half; that’s why I took the decision that I did. Some important artists asked why don’t we do something together at documenta and I said I didn’t want to because I’m a chef.
As far as I know there hasn’t been a really top level collaboration with an artist and a chef, not in terms of a dialogue but an actual piece of work. Carsten Holler did the Double Club [a six-month collaborative art project between artist Carsten Holler and Fondazione Prada that took the form of a restaurant, bar and club. Each area was divided equally between Western and Congolese culture, hence the title ‘Double Club’], for example. He is one of the most important artists in the world, we have a lot of mutual respect for each other, but what would we do together? Would he want me to go to Africa? What we do alone is so powerful – what would we gain by doing that job together?
Were you happy with Documenta?
It was the most important intellectual activity that I’ve undertaken in my whole career because I had to ask myself: Who am I? What am I doing? And I had to contextualise that with other creative people… including some of the most important ones. It was very important because the only thing an artist does in a day is create.