El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (Kino Lorber, NR)

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film el-bulli_smYou’re probably thinking either “Cool; how can I learn more?” or “Isn’t that a little precious for something that will be traveling through your digestive system?”

 

film el-bulli_lg

El Bulli was a three-star restaurant in Roses, Spain, a town on the Balearic coast near the French border. It specialized in a tasting menu (30-plus items, prepared by 40-plus chefs), delivered in a single sitting to about 50 guests per night. It was something special even within the refined world of gourmet restaurants, in other words. Many considered it the world’s best restaurant, with it reportedly receiving over 2 million reservation requests annually (for about 8,000 places), giving El Bulli an acceptance rate an order of magnitude lower than that of an Ivy League university.

Watching El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, you get some idea of how this restaurant stayed on top of its game. Of course all the staff were consummate professionals, and of course head chef Ferran Adrià was constantly demanding more of himself and everyone who works for him, but there was one additional factor at work: For six months out of every year, the restaurant closed down and Adrià and key staff members spent the time on sabbatical developing new dishes.

At this point, you’re probably thinking either “Cool; how can I learn more?” or “Isn’t that a little precious for something that will be traveling through your digestive system?” El Bulli, directed by Gereon Wetzel, caters to the first type of viewer and makes no attempt to draw in the second. Like the restaurant’s star chef, Wetzel assumes there is a market for his product and is not concerned with the fact that most potential customers will not be a part of that market.

A slide show at the end of the film highlights the beauty of some of Adrià’s creations—it’s almost like being at an art museum, or a show at a very expensive jeweler, with even the casual viewer able to appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into this food. Sustaining that interest for 108 minutes is a different story. Wetzel takes a “fly on the wall” approach to the chefs at work, primarily during their development sabbatical, so what you see is a lot of guys in white chef’s coats patiently trying all kinds of things with all kinds of ingredients you may never have heard of (and which the film makes no efforts to explain), with results that are not immediately obvious. They work like technicians in a lab, performing experiments and recording the results (both in notebooks and with cameras), bringing their new creations to Adrià for his opinion, and accepting his decisions without question.

Adrià is the closest thing this documentary has to a character—the other kitchen workers, several of whom are master chefs, seem almost interchangeable—and he’s so intent on his work that we don’t see much of even his personality. That’s in keeping with the film’s austere tone, but it will be off-putting to anyone not already interested in the subject matter. Wetzel provides only the briefest background explanations about the restaurant itself, and there’s really no forward movement other than the progress of the calendar year; potential sources of dramatic conflict, such as reports that the restaurant was a consistent money loser, are kept strictly off-stage (El Bulli closed in 2011, although various statements have been made about it reopening in the future as a culinary school, restaurant, or something else).

El Bulli will appeal to two types of people: those with a deep and highly specific interest in the art of cooking, and those interested in extreme craftsmanship as practiced in any line of work. I consider myself a member of the latter category and I enjoyed El Bulli for that reason, but it’s definitely not for the casual moviegoer, nor even the casual foodie. | Sarah Boslaugh

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