July 26, 2011


by Vadim Rizov

El Bulli (coconut sponge!)

Despite its title, El Bulli: Cooking In Progress isn't so much a food documentary as a depiction of a refined industrial process. For foodie types, Ferran Adrià's three-Michelin-stars establishment is one of the most important homes of molecular gastronomy (or, as he defines it when imagining nervous diners' reactions, all that stuff using liquid nitrogen). For Adrià, semi-industrial hardware and unnatural-sounding additives are as essential as olive oil and fresh produce, tools rather than novelties. The food that comes out is not just highly visual—crackable, frail desserts, unusual foams, unnatural bulbous curves—but meant to taste like nothing you've experienced, with familiar ingredients prodded into new forms. Some people think it's pretentious gimmickry, but Adrià swears his only goal is to surprise and delight.

El Bulli The theatrical release of Gereon Wetzel's stone-faced portrait of the titular Spanish restaurant's 2008-09 year is timed to coincide with the establishment closing its doors on Friday before converting into a culinary think-tank that launches in 2014—by which point the pesky diners will presumably be eliminated, leaving the creators to tinker in peace. In solidarity with its driven subjects, El Bulli sports precisely zero shots of customers to instead emphasize the cooks and wait staff. Coming up with an all-new, 30-plus-course tasting menu every year is no simple feat, so for six months Ferran Adrià and his core crew retreat from their Catalonian location to a lab in Barcelona. The film devotes equal time to experimentation and opening night, but it has no interest in life outside the kitchen.

El Bulli (vanishing ravioli!) El Bulli eliminates economic concerns from the equation entirely. You won't learn the price of a dinner (an average of 250 Euros), nor that the restaurant operates at a loss (more money comes in from licensed products and books). Adrià spends at least as much time doing paperwork and coordinating with others on the phone as tasting what his team comes up with. The appeal of shows like Iron Chef America or Top Chef lies partially in a benign form of luxuriance: shots of sober judges painstakingly evaluating the acidity and balance of tiny portions allow viewers to both ogle delicious looking dishes and vicariously take part in the good life through less envy-inducing ways than Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ever did. When the chefs go shopping, they request four grapes. Is the economic crisis hitting you, the grocer asks. No, they just need four grapes; any more would be a distraction.

The testing process eliminates excess or spontaneous creativity. In Barcelona, Adrià functions as an administrator, leaving his staff to systematically subject ingredients to various reactions. A sweet potato will be sealed in a vacuum bag, fried and boiled, with no knowledge of what the outcome might be. Items are tackled one at a time, the results appraised, the best of them given to Adrià for approval, the results scrawled down in binders. Paper results are tacked to the walls, then transferred to a hard drive, with documentation trumping sense-memory; first comes the raw science, later the synthesis.

El Bulli

Lunches seem limited to simple fish-centric bases, taken communally in the kitchen. That brief respite and a shot of the exhausted staff after the opening are the sole moments of respite. The rest of the time, everyone's on the move. The importance of every ingredient is underlined by a title card—a wall whose tiles individually light up to form the title—and reaches a peak with this particular year's obsession with the textural contrast of the world's most elaborate, miniature ice cubes. The plates are grimly tasted, tweaked and revamped by Adrià, during which he never cracks a smile; instead, he complains a sandwich which is getting raves is too big to comfortably put in his mouth. ("Molecular" could refer to portions, too.) A waiter accidentally uses sparkling water instead of flat for a cocktail meant to highlight the taste of oil, and Adrià instantly adopts the innovation: as with any experiment, accidents can be as rewarding as calculated aims.

El Bulli (ice vinaigrette with tangerines and green olives!) The film strips away personality; the only indication that it's about food rather than, say, synthetic polymers, is that the results end up in people's mouths. Bulli is not traditional Food Network porn; it's mostly a document of an esoteric business in action, with Adrià acting more as a curator than a traditional chef. "Progress" here means not just "in action," but "moving forward." Moving towards what, exactly, is another question, one the film has no interest in answering. Instead, like its subjects, it methodically tracks every relevant step of menu creation and restaurant operation. Foodies will probably swoon, but El Bulli prioritizes procedure over pleasure, demystifying strange-looking dishes back down to their constituent parts just like their patient testers.

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Posted by ahillis at July 26, 2011 12:53 PM