Andoni and Ramón at the Berklee Cafeteria
Bridging Gastronomy and Art Requires Making Connections

Bridging Gastronomy and Art Requires Making Connections

The Basque Culinary Center's building, which is an impressive architectural structure , in front of which is an impressive piece of contemporary sculpture.

The Basque Culinary Center is as much a monument to contemporary art as it is an incubator of ideas for contemporary gastronomy.
(All photos by Ben Houge.)

Spain has been at the forefront of contemporary cuisine for many years, rising to international prominence with Ferran Adrià’s acclaimed and highly influential restaurant elBulli, which closed in 2011. Given my work combining music and food, when I was recruited to transfer to Berklee College of Music’s new campus in Valencia in 2013, this was no small consideration in deciding to accept the gig. (I was brought on to help develop curriculum for and serve as the full time faculty member in the new Music Production, Technology, and Innovation master’s program, and I also took charge of the video game component of our Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games master’s program.)

As a result of spending two years in Spain, I’ve learned a lot about the key figures in the fascinating gastronomy scene, a recurring theme of which is the desire to reach out and engage with ideas from other artistic disciplines. In fact, merging taste with other sensory experiences was central to the topic—La Vanguardia (the Avant-Garde)—of this year’s Diálogos de Cocina conference. Now in its sixth iteration, this biennial event, founded in 2007, is a product of the Basque Culinary Center and Euro-Toques, and from the beginning the focus has been on interdisciplinary dialog. The conference took place over two days, March 9-10, 2015, at the Basque Culinary Center’s gorgeous new building on the outskirts of San Sebastián (the city with, not coincidentally, the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world). This was the first conference I had attended that was devoted solely to gastronomy—I typically find myself at video game or digital art conferences—but after experiencing the amazing dishes served up at every coffee break, this is the only kind of conference I want to attend from now on.

This is what gets served at a

This is what gets served at a “coffee break” during Diálogos de Cocina.

The entire event was focused on the future, investigating ideas from other art forms as well as innovations in technology. Leading crossmodal psychologist Charles Spence was one of the presenters (in fact, it was he who commended the conference to my attention, following my presentation to his Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University last February), and in his fascinating talk, I finally got to hear the sound of Heston Blumenthal’s influential multimedia dish The Sound of the Sea (which was heavier on the gulls than I had expected). Adrian Cheok of the Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore shared some really wacky progress on his efforts to digitize taste and smell; one lucky volunteer got to taste one of Cheok’s digitized flavors via a device he put in his mouth. Other presentations included a history of avant-garde art, an overview of recent technological trends, and a meditation on communication in the internet age, plus panel discussions on the dining experience of the future, socializing culinary innovation, and what experimental art can bring to cooking (and vice versa).

The consistent theme was how to draw on ideas from other creative practices to enhance what’s going on in the kitchen, an investigation many of the participating chefs were already pursuing in their own restaurants.

Members of the board of the Basque Culinary Center were the main hosts of the conference, and one chef whose inviting presence was most continuously felt was Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz.  His smiling demeanor extended throughout the sessions and into a group dinner at the amazing sidrería Zelaia, where he was seen cutting enormous traditional Basque steaks for conference attendees to ensure that everyone felt welcomed. Andoni has pushed Mugaritz to explore unique collaborations over the years, working with musician Felipe Ugarte on the Mugaritz BSO (Banda Sonora Original, or Original Soundtrack) in a project that involved visits to Ethiopia and Peru, developing a food ritual with the choreographers Idoia Zabaleta and Filipa Francisco, and providing the climactic meal to a production by Barcelona-based theater group La Fura dels Baus of Titus Andronicus. After I met him and told him about my food opera project, he invited me back to give a presentation to the whole R&D team at Mugaritz, who received me with warm inquisitiveness last August.

On the other side of the country, on Spain’s northeast coast, the three Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca have also stretched the interdisciplinary boundaries of gastronomy, most notably with an immersive multimedia “gastropera” called El Somni (The Dream). Twelve invited guests were treated to an extravagantly high tech, one-time event on May 6, 2013. The event, documented in a film by Franc Aleu (another presenter at Diálogos de Cocina), was in twelve eclectic movements, each with music by a different composer, ranging from robotic string instruments to traditional Catalan vocalizations to neo-romantic piano, while motion captured 3D graphics were projected onto the table and onto screens surrounding the diners. Sound also plays a role in one of the dishes on their regular menu: an edible reenactment of a goal scored by soccer star Lionel Messi, who plays for the Barcelona hometown team, which comes accompanied by a recorded sports announcer commentary.

Since elBulli closed in 2011, Ferran’s brother Albert Adrià has been working to keep the family business flourishing. Currently there are five Adrià-branded restaurants in Barcelona (all located within a few blocks near the Plaça d’Espanya, dubbed El Barri Adrià), including the acclaimed Tickets, with a new restaurant named Enigma to open soon. But their most recent opening occurred last summer fifty leagues south, in the Balearic island of Ibiza, an ambitious interdisciplinary collaboration with Cirque de Soleil called Heart Ibiza. Advertised as a fusion of gastronomy, music, art, and performance, this elaborate take on dinner theater proposed a tantalizing opportunity to observe how live performance might complement a meal.

But unfortunately the meal I experienced there last summer was less than the sum of its parts. Throughout the restaurant, dancers danced, actors acted, and bodies were painted, while live video feeds illuminated the walls, but servers clashed with dancers in the aisles (resulting in having a drink spilled on me, for which the waiter did not apologize), and the performances were completely out of sync with the dining experience. Halfway through a course, the lights would dim, leaving me to munch in a lurid blue glow, which, as Charles Spence will confirm, has been shown to have a deleterious effect on food. When I could see it, the food was fantastic, served in some imaginatively sculptural tableware, such as a porcelain frog you had to kiss in order to extract the first bite, but the chaotic surroundings, completely out of sync with the meal, prohibited the performance from enhancing the dining experience. Some issues may be a result of poor logistics and layout (despite reassurances to the contrary, I missed a lot of what was happening on a stage around a corner), but I suspect that the very presence of live performers in the restaurant inherently distracts from the meal on the table.

Ibiza is also home to Paco Roncero’s infamous Sublimotion. Representatives from InHedit, the Madrid-based company that provided some of Roncero’s technology, shared the stage with Adrian Cheok at Diálogos de Cocina to discuss the use of new interfaces in gastronomy. The cost of the technology is surely one reason Sublimotion proudly proclaims itself to be the most expensive restaurant in the world, although I have to say that this elitist stance is anathema to my goals as an artist. But fortunately I already had the Sublimotion experience when I visited Ultraviolet, Paul Pariet’s innovative multimedia restaurant in Shanghai that Sublimotion has been widely derided for having plagiarized.

As Ultraviolet demonstrates, Spain does not hold a monopoly on multimedia dining experiences. Ultraviolet seats ten people per night for a twenty-two course meal in a room that has been outfitted with video projectors, a sound system, and a mechanism to waft in different smells throughout the evening. Back in 2012, my experience at Ultraviolet was wonderful, including a few truly transcendent moments. The one that sticks with me the most was the most understated: a simple slice of bread in meunière sauce with a few truffle slices, experienced in a projected forest, while subtle ambient sound played in the background, a profound synergy of the senses that remains for me a benchmark of what can be achieved in this arena.

But I must point out another course that exemplifies the pitfalls in trying to bridge the worlds of gastronomy and art. Towards the end of the meal, there was a riff on traditional gazpacho (in the world of food, Spain is never far away) that involved two different elixirs separated by an edible shot glass. As the dish was served with a lighthearted “Olé” and flamenco music began to play, the video screens metamorphosed to display not an idyllic Iberian landscape or a boisterous cervecería, but Picasso’s devastating Guernica, commemorating the horrific slaughter of civilians in a Nationalist bombing raid during the Spanish Civil War. When I first saw the painting in 1998 at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, I was somberly transfixed for twenty minutes. Projecting it on the walls of a restaurant as a shorthand for Spanishness was an egregious miscalculation, insensitive to the language of art, but more important, to the tragedy depicted.

I think all of these examples suggest that, as we’re moving beyond the mere novelty of pairing sound or visuals with a meal, the focus needs to shift to what is being communicated by the resulting amalgamation; it’s not enough to simply put things side by side, to project a painting or dance in the aisles next to a diner. The languages of art and food are very different, and in many cases artists and chefs seem to be talking past each other. I think the key is to look beyond the end product of a meal or a performance or a composition to examine the processes and considerations and motivations that produced it. Despite the pervasive trend for chefs to develop dishes that visually evoke famous artworks, we should be thinking not about how a plate of food looks like a painting, but about how the work of a chef is like the work of an artist. This is where fruitful interdisciplinary conversations can occur.

At Ultraviolet, as well as in El Somni, which prominently features a 3D animation of Michelangelo’s iconic David (at one point depicted in flagrante delicto, and later shown shattering to pieces), a famous artwork is reproduced to serve as a cipher for art. I understand this impetus; for much of my career in the video game industry, I’ve observed a desire for games to be taken more seriously, to aspire to the artistic credibility and cultural respectability of film, and sometimes that means invoking the conventions of cinema in cut scenes, casting, and marketing. But in fact, in gastronomy as well as in games, these ciphers are unnecessary.

I lived in Shanghai for six years, from 2004 to 2010, and during this time, Paul Pairet was my favorite chef. When I first conceived my food opera project, back in 2006, I had his innovative cooking at his first Shanghai restaurant, Jade on 36, in mind. The food was spectacular, iconoclastic, playful, but with a serious rigor, and wildly inventive: candied foie gras on a stick, ice cream disguised in a lemon rind, sardine mousse served in tin cans. It dawned on me that the experience I was enjoying was exactly the reason I went to new music concerts, to have my preconceptions shaken, to fully engage my senses to interrogate and evaluate new stimuli, not relying on conventions of naming or presentation or other culturally learned tropes. That was when I made the leap, realizing that the kind of music system I was then designing for Ubisoft (as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar) could be equally applied to the unpredictable, real-time input of the dining room, highlighting and harmonizing with the music inherent in the meal, responding to its intrinsic rhythms. Ultraviolet opened much later (in May 2012, about a week after my first food opera at Harvard), but by recognizing a parallel creative process, one that, like music, unfolds over time, I already saw the tremendous potential of pairing music with food in a way that builds on the language of each.

Having completed my two-year appointment in Valencia, I returned to Berklee’s Boston campus this fall, and I now teach music programming in the Electronic Production and Design department. One of the perks of being back in the Boston area is being able to attend Harvard’s fantastic Science and Cooking Lecture Series, which has been host to a parade of luminaries from the culinary world over the past six years. A few weeks ago I got to meet up with Andoni Luis Aduriz once again, while he and one of his chefs, Ramón Perisé, were in town to present a fascinating talk on science and emotion as part of the series.

The next day, I organized a Berklee tour for the two of them, showing them some of the fun musical gadgets we have in the EPD department before visiting the new studio facilities in Berklee’s brand new building at 160 Massachusetts Avenue. As part of the tour, my boss, EPD Department Chair Michael Bierylo, demoed a Moog System 55 synthesizer. My take on the recent resurgence of interest in modular synths is that, in comparison to the vast array of sounds available as plug-ins in today’s digital audio workstations, the constraints of an analog modular rig help focus creativity. While this may have been the first time he’d seen a Moog synth, Andoni immediately recognized this concept, the notion of freedom within limitations, as being just as true of his work in the kitchen. Identifying these kinds of correspondences is what makes working at the intersection of different practices so fascinating and why I have been incorporating these ideas into my classes, to teach students about creativity and innovation by drawing parallels to other disciplines.

The last stop on our Berklee tour was the cafeteria in our new building. The previous cafeteria (a former hotel swimming pool, I’m told) had a longstanding tradition of being converted every evening into a performance venue for student ensembles, so when designing the new cafeteria, the priorities were inverted: instead of a cafeteria that also serves as concert hall, we built a concert hall that doubles as a cafeteria. Seeing Andoni and Ramón in that space, I recognized it as a perfect embodiment of the ideals of interdisciplinary collaboration. By accommodating the concerns of two different creative practices, the potential of each is expanded, and a welcoming space emerges, awaiting unforeseeable new expressions.

Andoni and Ramón at the Berklee Cafeteria

Andoni and Ramón visiting the Berklee Cafeteria.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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