December 15, 2011
The Bull in the Culinary Lab
The world’s most famous resto, El Bulli, and its molecular mad-scientist are frozen on film in an obsessive new doc. out now
By Felicia Feaster
Liquid “olives” that burst on the palate, and foamed beetroot are just par for the course when Ferran Adrìa is in his culinary lab
In the realm of foodie passion, you don’t get more feverishly deep into dining than Ferran Adrìa, the Catalan proprietor of the world-renowned restaurant El Bulli, located on a remote slice of the Spanish coast. As El Bulli’s cult chef, Adria inspired an entire movement of molecular gastronomy groupies with his deconstructed dishes. A collective gasp was heard round the foodie universe, when Adrìa announced he would close his restaurant for good in 2011 to focus on culinary research. Foodie high priests, gourmands, journalists and celebs clamored for invites to the extravagant last suppers, which were meticulously documented in everything from New York magazine to Vanity Fair. The bull may have left the china shop, but a new documentary preserves Adria’s legacy of food as outlandish science experiment (think: his signature spherical, liquid olives) in German director Gereon Wetzel’s documentary, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress.
The Michelin 3-star El Bulli is introduced in the documentary as a mysterious, even foreboding grey, bunker-like space, with small windows offering glimpses of the frenzy unfolding within. All is still outside, but inside is a bustling chaos of men and women in chef whites hunched over meticulous plates of peacock-colorful food. In many ways, what Wetzel is documenting is a relic cased in amber. The money-hemorrhaging avant-garde restaurant—35 courses were served and 42 chefs were on staff—shuttered this year with plans to reopen in 2014 as a creativity center devoted to further invention in the realm of food.
In this fascinating documentary, the staff at the famed El Bulli perform the annual business of shutting down the restaurant and trucking all of their freeze-drying, vacuumizing, laboratory-worthy equipment to Barcelona. Each year the entire restaurant and staff go on hiatus for an incredible six months to perfect new recipes. The documentary is the record of that process, which is so slow and meticulous that it often seems filmed in real time. Like the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman, Weizel hails from the quiet, observational, immersion school of documentary filmmaking. There are no interviews or voice-over narration. Just cooking and more cooking. Time passes slowly as the rhythms of this world unfold at their own tempo. You will either surrender to the glacial progress, or flee screaming from the theater.
Viewers are given a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of the process of culinary innovation as Adrìa’s chef-acolytes toil in laboratory-like test kitchens to create cutting-edge new recipes, techniques and ingredients. The team labors to concoct new jellies, essences and distillations and ways to render marrow, rabbit’s brains, sweet potato juice, oil and mushroom essence, and cartilage of calf’s shoulder into something of complete and sensorial deliciousness. In place of rattling copper pots and knife-chopping, there are hunched, studious men in white recording their discoveries in notebooks and cataloguing them in photographs. The depths of their experimentation are often comical. They resemble nothing so much as children making mud pies and grass soups--- alive to possibility, imagination and the craziest combinations. They taste each other’s potions with the expectation of delight. At one point Adrìa’s head chef and assistant arrive at a bustling market armed with a shopping list. Among the ingredients on the list: “five grapes.” The market vendor naturally gives them grief.
At a certain point in the process, the maestro himself ducks in to chart his chefs’ progress. A sample of this and a thimble of that is offered, as the chefs hang expectantly on Adrìa’s reaction. Like a churlish toddler disappointed with his dinner, Adrìa sniffs at something unpleasant then savors something more appealing. He barks at an assistant, “don’t give me anything that isn’t good!” The assistant scurries back to the drawing board. Disgust and quizzical expressions soon give way to infectious glee for the dramatic, otherworldly concoctions they have created, where raspberries float on broth and foods are encapsulated in a space capsule of jelly-like substance.
Nothing is too offbeat and the crux of Adrìa’s work is soon apparent. It is the aim of any artist: to render the known new again, to turn a familiar world of tastes and sensations topsy-turvy and utterly delight the palate in the process.
In the film’s climax the final dishes that the team has just spent months perfecting and tasting are photographed in close-up. They look like something you’d eyeball under a microscope or discover living in a galaxy far, far away. All of that work suddenly seems worth it and you long to taste those fantastical creations.
El Bulli: Cooking in Progress opens Dec. 16 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.