Men in long white coats conduct experiment after experiment in a fluorescent-lit room of burners, beakers, and scales. Every result is painstakingly recorded; every finding is photo-documented. Must be a film on scientific research, right?
Yes and no. Director Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is a fly on the wall documentary following the 2008-2009 season of elBulli (the restaurant’s official name), a Michelin three-star venue named best in the world by Restaurant Magazine a record-breaking five times. It served its last meal on July 30, 2011 and is slated to reopen as a “culinary creativity centre.”
Half of the year, elBulli was a research studio operating out of the elTaller studio in Barcelona. The other six months, elBulli’s Costa Brava restaurant served 40-course tasting menus, one serving a night. The experience for a diner was akin to a theatre piece, the gastronomical equivalent of a tea ceremony; the way you and the food were served was just as paramount as the ingredients or even how they tasted. Defying tradition and physics, the science fiction-like food played with perception (one of the dishes had floating ice particles that diners expected to be gelatin) and weird combinations (instructions on one dish: “less parmesan, more coffee”).
Some think elBulli was pretentious and soulless, some that it was genius. Anthony Bourdain’s “Decoding Ferran Adrià” championed the history and heart behind chef Ferran Adrià’s food and popularized a conversion to the latter way of thinking. The clinical Cooking in Progress unintentionally tips the balance back to the former. We’ve come to expect a high amount of foodgasmic, colourful, fast-paced visuals when it comes to food on screen. This doc runs counter to all that: like many of the dishes, the film’s music, pace, and palette is zen-like – too zen-like. Many foodies will find this elBulli world cold; many non-foodies, boring.
It doesn’t help that Adrià comes off so curmudgeonly. For an innovator he’s quite the Luddite. (He believes “one can’t find anything on the internet”). He doesn’t enjoy the experiments, yells at his staff. And unlike the Gordon Ramseys of the world, even his scolding – during which he unemotionally says at one point “I could kill you” – is passionless. He’s like a distant dad on visitation weekend: always on his way out, taking calls in the middle of you showing him your latest projects, his rare approvals accompanied with a high five.
His lab staff does everything: the planning, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and even some yardwork and waitering. It’s only halfway through the film that we find out that this small year-round team are actually head chefs, many with over a decade of experience at elBulli. At the restaurant, one of these head chefs, Oriol Castro, unleashes his own dictatorial side when he finally has staff reporting to him. He runs the kitchen as a surgically clean, systematic, and quiet operation. It’s a far cry from the shouting through sheets of steam that one sees in most professional kitchens.
While developing the dishes, Adrià had this to say: “At the moment the taste doesn’t matter to us … What matters is whether something is magical and whether it opens up a new path.” And, later on: “Going to eat in an avant garde restaurant gives you something like a creative emotion. It’s not just about ‘mm, that tastes good.’ You feel something … For us the emotional element has always been more important.”
The problem is, we’re never treated to that emotional experience. Castro serves Adrià the meals about three courses before guests. It’s the only time we actually see the famed dishes eaten, and Adrià’s task is not to be moved to magic but rather to criticize. Thus, the only response associated with the food here becomes criticism. Not getting a chance to sit down to a typical meal during the film is like watching a documentary on how cars are made when you’ve never been in a car yourself: fascinating, but without emotional context.
If you’re looking for the magic of the elBulli experience so frequently lauded by foodies, look elsewhere. If you’re a fan looking for a tribute to the cult of Ferran, you’ll not find it here. If you want some insider’s tips on how to create these culinary masterpieces, the only lead you’ll get is that it involves owning a pressure cooker. Other interesting angles about elBulli are hinted at but passed over, including the restaurant’s interaction with its local community. (At a grocery store, an annoyed shopkeeper tells Castro to “be glad we let you get away with everything here”).
This isn’t a documentary interested in elBulli. Or even food. Ferran’s food is just the case study in Wetzel’s film, which is a film about the source of innovation. In his instructions to staff, Adrià does espouse some interesting thoughts on creativity. His food is based on philosophy: science, research, and hard work is the path to creativity. “Creativity and production are two diff things,” he says. And: “If anyone thinks he knows something, he knows nothing, just like us. You will see the work that it takes day after day after day after day to be creative.”
In Spanish, Catalan and French with English subtitles, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress premieres in Quebec at a free screening on Aug. 5 at 9pm at Place de la Paix (St-Laurent between Ste-Catherine and René-Levesque), followed by a theatrical run at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc).