Food in Films: El Bulli

24 Dec

What would it be like to be a fly on the wall of the now-shuttered El Bulli, previously renowned as the World’s Greatest Restaurant? The trailer for the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, offers an enticing glimpse into this world of privilege.

As culinary maestro Ferran Adria explains, an avant-garde dining experience should be more than just about delicious food–he strives for a deep emotional response. The reaction he wants from patrons after eating one of his highly conceptualized works of food art? He wants them to think, “Killer!”

Unfortunately, attending a screening of Cooking in Progress was as far from “killer” as one gets.

There weren’t exactly chills running down my spine for much of the 108 minutes; I felt more as if I was watching a foreign film sans subtitles. And one that, to boot, started midway through a major plot development. Upon reflection, perhaps it was German director Gereon Wetzel’s aim to mirror the “bewilderment” that Adria endeavored to achieve when conceiving the 35 canvases that composed the typical four-hour dining experience at El Bulli. (Adria propounds, “the more bewilderment the better”;  otherwise eating one dish after another could quickly dull and exhaust the palate.)

Wetzel certainly succeeded in confounding. Initially, I struggled valiantly to understand manipulations of the likes of sweet potatoes (some juiced, some pressure cooked, and some baked) and vacuumized champignons. After half an hour, I pretty much resigned myself to letting the images and words wash over me.

The film, which is devoid of narration or context (except for a few temporal signposts),  is divided into three periods during the 2008-2009 season as glimpsed through Wetzel’s hand-held camera. The first six months take place in Barcelona where Adria’s minions dedicate their waking hours to research and development in their cooking lab replete with PacoJets and other fun chef toys. All the experiments are meticulously documented both in written reports and photographs, and backed up by computer (at least, when there are no technical issues that cause Adria to briefly lose his cool.) Adria emphasizes that at this stage, it is all “research”; that the creativity will come later in the restaurant.

In the second segment, we rejoin the chefs at the reopening of the restaurant when a team of young stagiaires from all over the world learn how to function within its disciplined ranks. Finally, the documentary wraps with June 16, opening day, and the service and operation of the restaurant as patrons make the trek for a once-in-a-lifetime dinner in Roses, Spain. The latter period (of most interest to me) was unfortunately very brief, and most disappointingly, only offered feedback from the patrons as mediated through the servers and chefs.

For me, the highlight of Cooking in Progress came rather belatedly (in the last five minutes), when we are treated to ravishing beauty shots of El Bulli’s dishes as realized. This procession of playful delights include a pumpkin meringue sandwich, a rose artichoke, cherry umeboshi, a gorgonzola globe, the poetically named vanishing ravioli (when dipped in water, the ravioli shell disintegrates, leaving behind only its pinenut praline filling), and the enchanting ice lake (which shatters as you consume it, and tastes of freeze-dried peppermint).  Had we seen these shots at the beginning of the film, it would have aided immensely in deciphering the preceding trials and tribulations of the thematically “water-inspired” dishes, and made the viewing experience far less of a tedious tease.

There are few moments of humor in this paean to El Bulli–the most notable exception being market clerks scoffing at the purchase of five grapes and two asparagus during the early stages of testing. (“Has the crisis affected you?” they ask the chefs smirkingly, who, just as matter-of-fact and straight-of-face, reply that they are parsimonious during the research stage of their creative process.)

It isn’t surprising that Adria is an exacting taskmaster: how else could a kitchen pull off such mind-blowing culinary feats? In one the most memorable scenes in the documentary, we watch him taste-testing dishes one after another in the restaurant kitchen and making masterful tweaks and adjustments. The chefs watch him anxiously for subtle cues that I’m sure only they can decode after years of working with him. What comes to mind is a stoic and stony-faced general who is decisive and incisive and keeps his cards close to his heart in order to win the campaign.

My criticism aside, if you are in the least bit curious about this avant-garde chef’s creative process, you’ll probably want to devote the energy to Cooking in Progress. For a much more entertaining and light-hearted account of a meal at El Bulli, check out the Amateur Gourmet’s 2009 comic book-style narrative (complete with word balloons and videos). I also recommend journalist Lisa Abend’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, an accessible and revealing presentation of the year in the life of the restaurant formerly known as El Bulli.

Next up in Food in Films, I’ll be reviewing Lutz Hachmeister’s Three Stars (2010), which profiles nine chefs on three continents who have earned a coveted three stars from the Michelin Guide.

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