It’s usual these days to watch documentaries that include a mixture of new footage, archive footage, interviews, animation and all sorts of tricks in order to document a particular event or tell a particular story. What makes Gereon Wetzel’s film El Bulli: Cooking In Progress unusual is that voiceover narration, interviews and many other devices are completely ignored in favour of a stripped back story-telling process, where the cameras simply follows a group of people at work over the course of a set period of time, with only the location occasionally divulged. The results have been edited down to 113 minutes which illustrate the development of a revised menu for the El Bulli restaurant, incorporating several new dishes, from an initial six months of preparation right through to the yearly opening night. (This is rather like the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, in which the cameras followed Zinedine Zidane around a football pitch during a Real Madrid match with no real context given at the beginning or end of the 90 minutes. Incidentally, that’s a beautiful film.)
El Bulli, near the town of Roses in Catalonia, Spain, was widely considered by fine dining aficionados to be the best restaurant in the world. Its popularity meant that it was incredibly difficult to book a table in advance, and hopeful foodies had to enter a ballot in order to sample the restaurant’s highly-stylized fayre: despite only over 2 million requests per year for a table, they were only able to serve around 80,000 diners. Yet despite the demand the restaurant’s high overheads meant that it actually operated at a loss, although naturally with associated cookery books etc. on sale a healthy profit was made by the business overall. The restaurant is currently in the middle of a hiatus, but is expected to re-open in some form in 2014.
El Bulli holds three Michelin stars, and head chef Ferran Adrià is spoken of reverentially by professional cooks around the world. If the father of ‘molecular gastronomy’ is Hervé This, then Adrià is one of its most widely-celebrated experimental masters of the modern age – if not the most widely-celebrated. This documentary follows the chef and his hardworking, talented team as they experiment with new ideas, try different cooking or preparation methods and mix and match the results for six painstaking months in preparation for the 2008/09 opening of the restaurant (it closes for half a year while they relocate to a kitchen/lab in Barcelona en masse and get creative with the tomato ketchup). Everything the team creates is tested and details are written down, catalogued and discussed at length: which oil goes best with water? Do those tangerines work well with ice? Can a less starchy juice be extracted from a sweet potato by vacuuming? There are a thousand and one questions to consider, but the attention to detail means that they all get addressed, one by one.
The camera hovers over the shoulder of the chefs during the period of experimentation, and Adrià in particular seems to be aware of it at first, although there are no Gordon Ramsay-esque hissy fits on display until one of the head chefs lets slip that his hard drive is kaput and only photocopies of the details of their experiments remain. After a while though, Adrià and co become used to the presence of the cameras and appear to forget that they are being filmed, but they are so deeply wrapped up in their individual tasks those hoping for a sudden descent into warts-and-all soap opera will be disappointed. Instead it becomes increasingly fascinating to see how they work: the level of concentration on display and the brief glimpses into the driven, focused natures of these chefs is eye-opening. You clearly don’t get to be the best restaurant in the world without taking your work very seriously indeed.
Adrià has achieved a lot within his field, but after years in the industry his head chef Oriol Castro appears to be the more creative mind at work. It’s interesting to see the working relationship that the two have; Castro brings Adrià dishes to try, Adrià makes suggestions, Castro goes away to his own team and adapts the recipe, and so on and so on. Adrià does not appear to be the most encouraging boss to work for, and has very high standards; it would have been interesting to find out a little more about what it is like to work for such a man, or in such an environment, but we are left to draw our own conclusions.
When Adrià discusses his philosophies with junior members of his staff it’s quite interesting, and actually he comes across as more light-hearted and personable during these sessions. He reveals that he considers excellent taste to be a bare minimum, and he appears to be constantly pushing the restaurant further, placing emphasis on new ideas, new textures and creativity. Unfortunately the lack of an interview here – while an interesting stylistic choice – means that you want to hear more from the man, rather than sitting through the increasing number of shots of Adrià sampling dishes and either giving his approval or asking for slight alterations.
Unfortunately there isn’t really much of a sense of how El Bulli relates to the rest of Catalonia, or the rest of Spain for that matter. One criticism of the country’s cuisine is that the majority of its restaurants have been conservative in their approach to cooking for a long, long time. What does Adrià think of this? What does he think of tradition? Who does he see as his contemporaries? There are many questions that he and his team could have been asked, and it wouldn’t necessarily have been detrimental to the overall intention to study these chefs at work while they create, experiment with and finely hone their dishes.
That said, given that the filmmaker’s main intention is to document this period of creativity in the lab and the kitchen, it should be pointed out that this has been achieved, even though a little more probing to uncover the humans underneath the chef’s whites would have been welcome. Watching their methods is itself oddly meditative, and just about enough to carry the film, although my attention did begin to wane near the end. However it would have been even more illuminating had it got to grips a little more with the concepts that Adrià mentions via an interview or two – and not necessarily with the head chef himself.
Unfortunately due to the film’s refusal to shift its focus or alter the way in which it documents this particular story, it ends up feeling more like an extended advert for the restaurant rather than either a character study of Adrià or an in-depth study of obsession or creativity. As the lavishly-photographed dishes are shown on screen one-by-one at the end, it begins to feel like an inconsiderate tease, designed to make you angry as you tuck into your own joyless microwaved slop in front of the TV screen. David Gelb’s film Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, by way of contrast, got to grips with its similar subject matter far more satisfactorily.
Directed by: Gereon Wetzel
Starring: Ferran Adrià, Oriol Castro
Running Time: 113 minutes