Title: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
Director: Gereon Wetzel
For the first six months of the year, renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria closes his tiny restaurant elBulli, overlooking Catalonia’s Costa Brava Bay, and works with his culinary team to prepare for the next season. (Or did — the amazing restaurant has now shuttered permanently, set to re-open in 2014 as only a culinary center and institute.) “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” a rather elegantly simplistic and hands-off exploration of food as avant-garde art, spotlights this unusual process, and cooks up all sorts of elemental yearnings in the tastebuds of viewers.
Adria is one of the undisputed masters of haute cuisine (one of is his dishes, known as Kellogg’s paella, consists of Rice Krispies, shrimp heads and vanilla-flavored mashed potatoes), even as he courts controversy by adding all sorts of emulsifiers, colorants and gelling agents to his creations. Indeed, as “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” shows, Adria’s aims are as often about look and feel as they are about flavor. His mad-scientist mash-up creations are about balancing tastes, aesthetics and originality — hence the jelly-filled yuzu, and his cohorts’ painstaking work on a dozen different strains of mushroom juice. It’s this outsized reputation that allowed him for so long to operate elBulli at a loss, working the shortened schedule and taking just over 8,000 reservations against almost two million requests; money was made elsewhere, through books and lectures by Adria.
German director Gereon Wetzel’s film is very reminiscent of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ recent “Kings of Pastry,” a documentary which examined the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France quadrennial competition. Whereas that movie eschewed a probative style in favor of simply, wordlessly allowing its subjects to engage in their tradecraft, it eventually came across as uninquisitive and boring. Wetzel’s “El Bulli,” on the other hand, has all sorts of lively interplay from Adria and more than three dozen chefs, as they work together and try to figure out a menu that delights the imagination as much as the stomach.
While there are a couple moments of barbed humor (“Are you feeling the crisis?” chides a market lady when one of the chefs asks to buy five large white grapes, as part of a shopping trip for the group’s beta testing), the movie is mostly an immersive experience. Wetzel doesn’t press Adria in direct interview segments, but instead lets viewers observe him at work. The film solicits an audience’s attention through the careful, respectful presentation of its subjects’ work, and in the process a viewer’s impressed sense of engagement (and hunger) crests, like a rising souffle. NOTE: For more information, visit www.ElBulliMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon