'Constructing Albert': Film Review | Palm Springs 2018

Constructing Albert Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Palm Springs International Film Festival
Satiating, but not quite scrumptious.

Award-winning chef Albert Adria is the subject of Laura Collado and Jim Loomis’ fascinating haute cuisine documentary.

If ever a restaurant fundamentally shifted the course of contemporary culinary tradition, it would have to be the three-Michelin-starred El Bulli, the Spanish eatery now enshrined in gastronomic history following its 2011 closure. While head chef Ferran Adria has been justifiably credited with spearheading El Bulli’s widely admired innovations in fine dining, behind the scenes his younger brother Albert was forging an award-winning career as the restaurant’s lead pastry chef while contributing to development of the restaurant’s wildly creative menus.

After Ferran announced El Bulli’s closing, Albert decided to move ahead with an audacious plan to independently establish five new restaurants in Barcelona within the space of a year. Recognizing that Albert was acknowledged within the industry as one of the world’s top underrated chefs, filmmakers Laura Collado and Jim Loomis spent four years shadowing him as he implemented his ambitious agenda. Constructing Albert represents both an insightful documentation of that process as well as a fascinating window on the challenges of meeting often rarefied expectations within haute cuisine circles; it will satisfy the appetites of both the curious and food-focused alike.

The filmmakers catch up with Albert in 2013 as he begins scouting locations and making plans to renovate locations around Barcelona. Bodega 1900, a vermouth bar serving small plates, and Pakta, offering Peruvian-Japanese cuisine with Spanish influences, come together relatively quickly. With recipes all conceived by Albert, they’re up and running within months as he continues to plan the more complex openings.

The launch of contemporary Mexican bistro Hoja Santa gets held up by design complications after Albert cedes operations to Mexico City chef Paco Mendez, who finds himself in a bit over his head. Albert, meanwhile, puts much of his attention into 41°, a project closer in spirit to El Bulli, with a molecular gastronomy emphasis that requires a significant investment of his time and culinary talents, along with its sister location, Tickets, a haute-cuisine tapas restaurant. His commitment pays off when each receives a Michelin star, validating the risks Albert continues advocating. “I want to work by instinct,” he says, refusing to look back at his El Bulli career.

Within just a year of establishing 41°, Albert announces its closure in 2014, anticipating the launch of his high-concept dining experience Enigma the following year. Defining a viable business model and finalizing the space’s modernist design prove as puzzling as the restaurant’s name, however. Before long, planning extends into a second year with no opening date in sight, putting both Albert’s investment in the project and his personal reputation at stake.

Throughout the process of designing the new restaurants, Ferran serves as a valuable business adviser and culinary consultant, evaluating many of Albert’s new dishes and offering refinements. Looking back on their shared careers, he observes: “We created a revolution. We did it together. But we can’t create another El Bulli.”

However, juggling multiple locations that require his frequent attention, as well as heading up the kitchen at 41° and then Enigma, means that Albert’s time and resources are thinly distributed. Whether by choice or in acquiescence to the chef's preferences, there are few scenes that reveal Albert’s personal and family life beyond the restaurants, reinforcing the impression that he devotes most of his time to his culinary passions. 

After shooting hundreds of hours of footage, the filmmakers had to confront a significant challenge in the editing room, which they resolve with mixed effectiveness. Similar to 2011’s El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, Collado and Loomis rely on a verite style, eschewing narrator voiceovers, sit-down interviews or food-critic commentary, which results in limited editorial options. Despite considerable access behind the scenes, the various restaurants are sometimes insufficiently individualized, occasionally leading to confusion about where specific scenes are set.

Although Albert headed up the “taller,” or experimental culinary workshop, at El Bulli, which was famed for its innovations in molecular gastronomy that transform fruits, vegetables and meats into miniaturized artworks, there’s not much emphasis on the actual techniques involved in creating his new menus. The plates are mostly presented onscreen already carefully arranged and complete, rather than depicted in the hectic process of preparation.

There’s enough drama and jeopardy on the business side of Albert’s endeavors to keep an audience focused, however, and he proves to be a thoughtful and engaging personality who’s thoroughly immersed in the exotic world of international haute cuisine.

Production companies: Trueday Films, Alexandra Film
: Juno Films
Directors: Laura Collado, Jim Loomis
Producer-screenwriter: Laura Collado
Executive producers: Laura Collado, Marianne Ostrat
Director of photography, editor: Jim Loomis
Music: Arian Levin
: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Sales: Wide House

85 minutes