Barcelona Food Labs, Kobe Steak, and the MVP Race

March, 24, 2009
3/24/09
12:23
PM ET

The other day, I linked to a video about the kind of ham that Jose Calderon raises on his farm back in Spain. If you keep watching, though, you'll see that it is actually not really a video about ham, but instead about the extraordinarily nontraditional Barcelona-area restaurant El Bulli, which serves things like egg yolks wrapped, and torched, in caramel.

Chef Ferran Adria is, more than anything, an inventor whose most important work happens in a food lab, where he and his team are legendary for coming up with entirely new ideas about what best thrills human taste buds. The most discriminating experts tend to love what he serves, even if they can't identify it at the moment it is placed before them.

But a lot of people, I assure you, don't want to go to El Bulli. When some people spend money on a night out, they are not looking for adventure. They are looking for an old idea, beautfully produced. Not an invention.

And here, believe it or not, we enter the debate between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. (Bear with me, I'll explain.)

To watch Kobe Bryant play basketball is to love Kobe Bryant for his professionalism. List, essentially, any basketball skill. Floater, fadeaway, crossover, leaner. Dunk, oop, pivot, post. Threes, twos, and ones. These are the things young players the world over ought to be mastering, like musicians learning scales. These are the tools of Kobe Bryant's trade, and oh does he use them well. 

Perhaps the most familiar of meals is steak. There are those who know they're looking for a great steak before they even know which restaurant they'll be going to. Similarly, there are those who have been tirelessly seeking someone to fill the void left by Michael Jordan. Both groups are seeking the best expression of a craving born ages ago. And when it comes to steak, or basketball players in the mode of Michael Jordan, you can search the world over and do no better than Kobe.

Then you watch LeBron James with those same eyes, and you're shocked. Umm ... where's his post-up game? What's with that spotty outside shot that he loves so much? Where's the mid-range game? Why so much standing still and dribbling? Kobe Bryant has every piece of his game working to perfection, and you're telling me he's not as good as this guy who hasn't even mastered skills you can see in a good high school game?

This is like a steak fan pulling up a chair at El Bulli. Not only is this not what I was looking for, I can hear them thinking, but I'm not even sure what the hell this is, and I can already see some things I don't like about it.

But turn off that part of your brain for a second. Close your eyes. Imagine that what I'm saying just might be true: Everything you thought you knew about what a great basketball player can do, or what a great meal tastes like ... those are generally true. They are usually true. But there were always going to be surprises. And maybe this is one of exceptions.

If there always had been super agile and quick 270-pounders, (or indeed, yolks wrapped in caramel) perhaps it would be conventional wisdom that such things can succeed mightily.

But right now, it's new. It's not what you know. But does it work? Is it possible that this dish -- even with its obvious flaws -- is better than steak?

Could LeBron James be so good at scoring at the rim, finding open teammates, scoring in crunch time, and overpowering opponents at both ends of the floor that his noticeable shortcomings simply don't matter? Can El Bulli's kitchen create a food you've never had before that'll make you forget you ever wanted comfort food?

I suspect that to many people out there, the answer is "who cares, I'm never picking an MVP who can't even shoot consistently." But if you like the best things in life -- meals, or basketball players -- I think you have to be open to the idea that once in a great while people prove the old models of judging these things to be just a little bit flawed.

(Post-script: I suppose this ought not to be ironic and surprising, but it is! Kobe Bryant's teammate Pau Gasol meeting with chef Ferran Adria. )

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