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El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

I usually make it a point not to watch a movie on an empty stomach because invariably, if I do, a scrumptious meal will be featured onscreen. So it was in this spirit that I had a big dinner before watching El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, the documentary about the famous three-starred Michelin restaurant, which officially closed its doors at the end of July, and its 49-year-old chef/owner Ferran Adria.

The film ended up making me more envious than hungry. I have never eaten at El Bulli, you see, although I am not alone in being so deprived. (It won the World’s Best Restaurant title a record five times). Although the film’s German director, Gereon Wetzel, doesn’t play up the elitist trappings of the establishment, the fact is that about two million people applied annually for 8,000 places at the table. And since Adria, who operated El Bulli for a limited season annually from July to December, often stacked the invitee list with influential tastemakers, the odds against a ‘regular’ person landing a reservation were always astronomically small.

Wetzel, who shot his film in 2008-09, focuses first on the ways in which Ferran and his meticulous team prepare the upcoming season’s menu in a shiny test kitchen in Barcelona. By the time we get to the actual restaurant –which is located in a remote spot overlooking Cala Montjoi Bay, in Cadaques, in the Catalonian region of Spain– we are already well acquainted not only with the imperious Adria but also with his head chefs and, more to the point, many of the dishes that will be served up to those lucky or well-placed enough to have landed a reservation. (For some unexplained reason, we are never shown any of the patrons actually partaking of the meal).

For the uninitiated, El Bulli is not like other restaurants. It’s the mecca for molecular gastronomy, and if that designation has the ring of a scientific laboratory, this is entirely appropriate. When it comes to food prepation, Adria and his collaborators titrate, vacuumize, and freeze-dry. Liquid nitrogen is freely applied. The results of all these experiments with taste and texture are scrupulously catalogued. (The catalogues are often spun off into best-selling food books).

The menu itself is essentially a tasting menu, and it can run up to 48 courses in an evening lasting around three hours. Each and every dish is personally approved by Adria, who is not shy about delivering up his opinions. “Simply bad,” he is fond of saying. “Why would you give me something like this? Don’t give me anything that isn’t good!” But when he likes something, he is also not shy about rhapsodizing about the food’s “magical” qualities. Adria sees himself as a food genie –his mantra is“research with creativity.”

Wetzel, like most people in Adria’s orbit, seems a bit too much in awe of the man. That’s not surpring, since Adria is undeniably awesome, with the bearing of a diva and taste buds that, no doubt, are beyond the nuances of mere mortals. It would have been fascinating to learn more about him, but for that you will have to go to other sources (such as Colman Andrews’s book The Man Who Reinvented Food.)

For the record, Adria began work at El Bulli in 1983 while doing military service in Cartagena and, within a year, was placed in charge of the kitchen. He is in the process of founding a culinary foundation that will open in 2014, which is good news for suppliers of liquid nitrogen. But what of the food itself? The film offers up tantalizing tidbits along the way of what we can expect in the final menu, culminating in a gleaming, decadent, full-color slide show of the winning entries. The term “molecular” as applied to the fare at El Bulli should be taken literally: the portions are often so tiny as to be microscopic. But the point is not portions –not when you’re serving up tea shrimp with caviar anemones, pumpkin meringue sandwiches, bone marrow tartare with oysters, cockles with yuzu, green olives and fennel, rabbit brain in its own ragout, and ice vinaigrette with tangerines and green olives. All washed down with cotton candy pina colada with freeze-dried pineapple and spheres of rum.
Getting hungry yet?

—Peter Rainer

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress


El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
directed by Gereon Wetzel






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