El Bulli – Cooking in Progress
A documentary by Gereon Wetzel, playing as part of MIFF 2011.
There has been much discussion about Ferran Adria and whether he is the architect of “molecular gastronomy”, the worlds best chef or rumour of what will become of him and his famed restaurant El Bulli, post it’s closure this year (2011).
This documentary doesn’t set out to answer any of those questions and in fact it provides very little information on any of those topics. This is a film made across a 12mth period (08-09), it shows the El Bulli team of head and sous chef’s packing up the restaurant at the end of the season (a season runs from June to October) and heading to their “think tank” kitchen in Barcelona to “invent” the next season’s menu, and this is where the film begins.
It’s a documentary without any narration, interviews and very little in the way of background information, it leaves most of the obvious things left unsaid and really just lets the creative process unfold until it becomes a full-fledged menu being served to guests in a restaurant. I found the lack of detail or even an interview with some of the key people a bit disappointing. Whilst you are able to glean from the interactions the chefs have with each other what motivates them, a bit of one on one time with Adria might have been nice.
That being said there are many striking features of this documentary, particularly for people currently working in the industry. The most obvious being re-inventing a 30 course menu every year, who does that? Some restaurants never, to customer chagrin or delight, ever change their menu. I also enjoyed seeing the chef’s develop the new menu as if they were designing an IT program. Seeing them at computers writing up detailed notes, graphs that described the different notes/tastes and documenting everything, reminded me very much of my work as an IT Business Analyst, it was very architectural, each course linked and nodding to the next in terms of flavour and theme. The El Bulli sommelier weighs in on flavour notes that assisted the chefs during menu development. Even in art you find that when you look at the classic paintings of the renaissance or those periods after, the use of the colour red is always used to draw the viewer’s eye through the narrative of the painting. The “School of Athens” by Raphael is a perfect example.
I draw the parallel because this occurs with Adria and his team and in the instance of the menu described in this film. Being the year of water they themed the 30 course menu around that theme. All 30 courses on the menu used seasonal produce that link to water in some way, for example the water and oil aperitif, the ravioli that disappeared once dunked in water and my favourite the clementine and vinaigrette salad with ice chips.
But before you think I or the film has gone all high-brow it’s ok it doesn’t and I won’t ever again make parallels between food and art, not for a while anyway. Adria himself comes across as likeable though obviously commands respect and has the ultimate final say in the menu. He appears to be driven by a desire to dazzle his guests and provide the most incredible and memorable dining experience. He also spends an enormous amount of time on the phone, whilst his team of chef’s go about experimenting and hoping that they’ve discovered flavours and textures that will impress Adria. One of my favourite scenes of the film was the first day of service after the new menu has been honed. Adria is at a table next to the kitchen that has been beautifully set, I swear the napkin was so perfectly folded and pillowy, and Adria is served each of the courses as they are going out to the guests. His Head and Sous chefs give him nervous glances, so desperately hoping to please him, and he gives them feedback about flavours and seasoning etc. There is one quiet moment where he sits and watches the very large team of chefs working and a look passes across his face, that to me was so pleasing to see, he looked so incredibly content and proud.
I was also pretty awestruck by the level of detail put into making the exterior of the restaurant look perfect, rocks placed one by one by hand, the gravel road raked one direction and then the other. The other thing that struck me as incredible was the opening sequence that shows service. The El Bulli kitchen is like none I’ve seen or worked in, it looks almost like a kitchen you’d find in a very grand home, no steel and there is, can you believe it, a window and not just a little one an entire wall is glass. A long table is set and the many chefs work busily plating up, there are no grills, pots on the boil etc. I would have liked to see a bit more detail about the effort that goes into mise en place and then plating at the pass.
The final sequences are visually incredible, a photographer documents all of the dishes that appeared in that season’s menu and they are photographed so beautifully that the magic of each dish is so visually obvious. All that’s left is to taste.
I enjoyed this film and would love to see more like them, after seeing the care and attention to detail put into the food at El Bulli I am more than disappointed it’s closed and I may well never eat a meal there. Is this the kind of food I aspire to create myself, probably not but I so appreciate the fact that it exists.