Film review: El Bulli Cooking in Progress

Gereon Wetzel’s spare, surface-bound documentary observes the Age of Austerity in Ferran Adrià’s kitchen, finds Sophie Mayer.

Sophie Mayer
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Review | from our August 2012 issue

Molecular gastronomy sounds like science fiction, food as served aboard the Enterprise, but – as the British television-viewing public well knows – it’s a food trend exemplified by Heston Blumenthal, star of a number of cooking series, and his chief competitor Ferran Adrià, chef-patron of Catalan restaurant El Bulli.

Unlike Blumenthal, Adrià has not yet brought his vision to the viewing public, and on the basis of this German documentary is the austere avant garde to Blumenthal’s high-spirited joker. While many techniques on show here – sous-vides, foams, milk skins, emulsions – will be familiar to MasterChef fans, viewers looking for a how-to guide to preparing a minted ice lake or pumpkin meringue sandwich (two of the most recognisable and tempting dishes on the 2009 menu whose research and preparation is documented here) will be disappointed, as will those expecting an intimate portrait of the artist as man of taste.

Instead, director Gereon Wetzel employs classical observational techniques to compose a compelling if understructured portrait of the business of creativity in the medium of food. Viewers may get no closer to understanding Adrià’s intentions, or his taste buds, but the penultimate sequence, in which the chef sits alone in El Bulli’s busy kitchen, eating all 35 dishes created for that season’s menu (the last before the restaurant transforms into a culinary academy), inspires both wonder and melancholy.

The film’s sparing use of the chef – he barely features at all for the first 35 minutes – heightens the sense of his presence, and lightly constructs this scene as the apex of the sketchy drama. When Adrià is shown laughing at the end of his long meal, we breathe a sigh of relief.

That sense of involvement is in no small part due to the central personality of the film: not Adrià but his creative co-director Oriol Castro. Mediating gracefully between the demanding chef and El Bulli’s large team of kitchen staff, Castro is a sympathetic character whose puckish wit and extraordinary forbearance come into focus in conversation with his assistant and foil, the boyish enthusiast Eduard Xatruch, as they try to second-guess the mercurial Adrià. Yet this light characterisation is secondary to the attempts to capture two interconnected intangibles: the process of creativity, from intuition to realisation, and the affective impact of the food.

Adrià tells his staff in a workshop that the aim of El Bulli is not to provide taste but something resembling T.S. Eliot’s idea of ‘felt thought’, an emotional experience conveying an idea to the diner. Close-ups of mushroom gills and of deft fingers syringing liquids into tiny rice-paper envelopes combine with Stephan Diethelm’s low-key but effective score in an attempt to summon the experience of eating at El Bulli.

In her influential 2000 book The Skin of the Film, Laura U. Marks identified the ways in which experimental documentaries break with classical technique to find ways of conveying smell, taste and touch to viewers. Lacking these kind of haptic innovations, Wetzel’s documentary never really gets under Adrià’s skin – but the creation of the frozen, juiced, glossy surfaces of the food is fascinating.

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