El Bulli: Cooking in Progress: Film Review

El Bulli Poster Art - P 2011

El Bulli Poster Art - P 2011

A fascinating observational doc about the most famous restaurant in the world.

Director Gereon Wetzel observes a year in chef Ferran Adrià's extraordinary and revolutionary school of food preparation.

The following statement should be wildly controversial but is not: The El Bulli restaurant in Spain is the most famous restaurant in the world. Despite all the justly famous gourmet restaurants around the globe, few in the culinary world would dispute that designation. El Bulli, the three-star Michelin restaurant located outside Barcelona in the Catalan province of Girona, has been the subject of countless media stories, rave reviews and two million annual requests for reservations in the six months it’s open to serve a 30-course meal to a mere 50 diners.

All that’s wrong in that statement is the present tense. El Bulli’s Catalan chef, Ferran Adrià, will close the restaurant July 30 for at least two years with a promise to re-open in a new format that will still serve food.

In El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, German documentarian Gereon Wetzel is content to observe a year in the extraordinary and revolutionary school of food preparation founded by Adrià. The film will play various theatrical, museum and culinary venues throughout the country following its debut at the Film Forum in New York.

If you looking for interviews or commentary by food critics and diners or insights into the origin of what has been called molecular gastronomy, then the film will disappoint. Wetzel and cameraman Josef Mayerhofer simply camp out in Adrià’s lab and later kitchen to watch him assemble his next dining experience.

It’s more than worth it while the scene is the El Bulli “taller” or workshop in Barcelona, where Adrià and his top chefs retreat each year to madly experiment. When an hour of this fly-on-the-wall observations ends and the crew decamps once again for the picturesque seaside restaurant overlooking a small cove, the actual meal prep and service are strangely anti-climatic. Maybe a viewer, munching on stale popcorn, is just jealous of everyone on screen savoring the result of all the high-tech magic.

In the workshop, Adrià’s top chefs, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch, and their assistantschop, dice, freeze dry, puree, steam, vacuumize, spherize and generally deconstruct the produce, then reassemble the results so they are virtually unrecognizable. Meanwhile, Adrià lurks nearby, glued to his mobile phone and occasionally moving in to sample an experiment. He shakes his head: “It’s simply bad. Don’t give me anything that isn’t good.”

You hear phrases and questions you would hear in no other kitchen: “What does this look like?” “This looks like a fish.” “This resembles an egg.” “It’s a ravioli where the pasta disappears.”

And so it goes. Experiments are checked first for color and appearance; flavor and intensity will come later. Photos are taken and recipes and reactions carefully logged in computers. The filmmakers deliver loving close-ups of the plates and follow chefs to local markets to buy food in amounts as small as five grapes. The vendor is appalled.

A cocktail is tried with water and hazelnut oil, which pleases Adrià because of its silky feel. Mushrooms are turned into juice — “More mushrooms, less water,” the chef commands — sweet potatoes become a meringue.

Adrià’s cuisine is associated with foams, yet you overhear him remind an associate that the previous year “foam was forbidden” in dishes. The search for the startlingly new is never easy so traditions must be discarded as quickly as they are established.

Adrià blows up only once while on camera. A hard drive has crashed, wiping out recipes and notes. He hasn’t been told quickly enough. Curiously, even though those notes were printed out, he still furious: “I don’t want it on paper; I want it in the computer!”

When the team departs Barcelona for Ell Bulli for its June 16 opening, his top lieutenants quickly assemble a new staff and acquaint everyone with the dishes. Watching Adrià stand in the middle of the organized chaos that is his kitchen with its 40-plus chefs, calling out dishes needed in the exact number, one is reminded of a music conductor summoning sounds from various sections of his orchestra. Then, once the rhythms of prep, plating and service fall into a routine, he sits at a quiet table, sampling each dish and making voluminous notes. The menu will continue to evolve over the summer months ahead.

The movie lets its audience answer the most obvious questions the whole Ell Bulli experience raises: Is this a culinary freak show? Is this really where fine dining is headed? Adrià’s influence in restaurant kitchens all over the world is a given. But is the idea of disguising food so that what looks like a raisin is actually pumpkin while the pumpkin is actually a raisin really anything more than elaborate game of hide-and-seek with diners?

The great modern artists tore traditional art apart through cubism, surrealism and finally abstraction. So too does Adrià force everyone to rethink the whole notion of haute cuisine. This is beyond fusion, beyond world cuisine. It forces a new approach to flavor, intensity and satisfaction.

The film never quite pins the chef down about any of this but in his menu introduction to the staff or off-hand remarks to long-time colleagues you begin to understand the mindset. “The more bewilderment, the better,” he declares. He is not joking.

Opens: July 27 Film Forum, New York (Alive Mind Cinema)
Production companies: if…Productions
Director: Gereon Wetzel
Concept: Anna Ginesti Rosell, Gereon Wetzel
Producer: Ingo Fliess
Director of photography: Josef Mayerhofer
Music: Stephan Dietheim
Editor: Anja Pohl
No rating, 108 minutes