On Deconstruction

Ferran Adrià could never be accused of being too straightforward. The celebrated Spanish chef made his name with dishes that were part science experiment, part conceptual art. Familiar dishes made utterly strange by a cocktail of tricksy humor and laboratory technique.

As Silviya Svejenova and colleagues put it, “Adrià’s artistry is in the contrasts (hot–cold, soft–crunchy, solid–liquid, sweet–savory), the concepts (e.g., foams), the techniques (e.g., spherification), and the creative methods (e.g., deconstruction).”

Deconstruction, in this case, means taking a dish and altering its physical properties (texture, appearance, temperature) until it becomes something utterly different. The aim is often to make food that looks alien until the moment you taste it, but then triggers a memory of something entirely familiar. Or you are presented with a total man-bites-dog inversion of the expected that somehow works. A vegetable course comes as a series of glossy gelatin blocks which reveal themselves to the tongue (but not to the eye) as distinct and familiar vegetables. “Kellogg’s paella,” a famous high-concept composition, involves saffron-fried puffed rice, served with a seafood broth to turn the Spanish dish into an imitation of American breakfast.* 

The use of humor and disguise in cooking is far from new. Liber Cure Cocorum, a medieval English cookbook, gives instructions for lacquered pork meatballs disguised as apples. Epulario, or The Italian Banquet describes a pie containing live birds that fly out when the crust is broken. Adrià’s signature is the marriage of this playful attitude with serious interest in science and new ideas. He once called his work “stovetop philosophy”; the legendary restaurant el Bulli that he operated until 2011 “was a sort of gastronomic-philosophical media lab.” Inside, everything from memories to raspberries were broken down—deconstructed almost to the molecular level—and then reformed and remixed with cunning, wit, and a helpful chemist.

The heyday of deconstruction in philosophy wasn’t so different, despite the grandiose claims of its cultured despisers and self-appointed champions. It was about taking ideas out of their normal contexts, pulling and pushing them until they no longer fit in their original place and could be used in new ways. And like the cooking, it was accompanied by a love of humor, surprise, and scientific jargon.

 When it comes to menswear, the term deconstruction can suggest a few different things. Sometimes it’s a synonym for unstructured: soft jackets, unfused shirt collars, and free-flowing dresses come to mind. But these strategies for casual ease have been around for generations. For the humor, irony, and inversion of culinary deconstruction you have to go from tailoring to streetwear and high fashion. Think ugly sneakers for beautiful people, ultra-rare but mass-produced box logo sweaters, and shockingly expensive clothes imitating commonplace uniforms (perhaps imagine a cobrand between a Parisian fashion house and a German logistics firm). To find comparable scientific prowess, on the other hand, nothing comes close to the specialist world of techwear.

The avant garde needs its workaday partners. Simple, nutritious food. Smart industrial design. Practical clothes. But these things in turn need people who push at their limits. What the ultimate limits are depends on your art. An architect must resist gravity. A chef is constrained by their imagination but also the health codes. (The true peak of avant garde cookery might be something delicious but fatal, a taste that must only be imagined, or else enjoyed but once.) For fashion, the immutable object is the human body, be it corseted or cosseted, built into a bold silhouette or lovingly draped. In that context, deconstruction is really just another word for dress up: playing with contexts, appearances and expectations in an effort to shock and delight.

 

* NB. not to be confused with this truly challenging recipe for chicken, rice and All-Bran® cereal.

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