Although Spanish molecular-gastronomy mecca El Bulli is slated to close for good on July 30, its work as an ingenious generator of avant-garde cuisine will live on in the gleaming observational docu “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” from German helmer Gereon Wetzel. Shot in 2008-09, and geared toward those who already know the reputation of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant, the pic doesn’t have the narrative drive or emotional appeal of a documentary like D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ “Kings of Pastry,” but still will serve as a tasty item for fests on its way to broadcast.
Located in a remote and beautiful spot overlooking the Cala Montjoi Bay, near the town of Roses, in the Catalonia region of Spain, the small restaurant (which serves a pricey 30-plus-course tasting menu) operates a limited season from July to December. It closes for the other six months so chef/owner Ferran Adria and his creative team can devise new dishes at a state-of-the-art test kitchen in Barcelona.
There, white-smock-clad head chefs Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casanas (each of whom has been with El Bulli for more than a decade) work like scientists, experimenting with recipe ideas and meticulously documenting, and tasting, the results. The burly Adria barrels in later, sampling their efforts between cell-phone conversations and issuing refinements, reminding them of the necessity of engaging the emotions as well as other senses.
As they explore the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking in order to find the best taste, texture, aroma and presentation, the men make use of cutting-edge preparation methods such as vacuumizers and liquid nitrogen, and elements as simple as ice cubes (albeit ice flavored with various hard-to-extract essences). Director Wetzel shows them performing the equally laborious task of documenting their work, although he doesn’t mention that this careful cataloguing provides material for the El Bulli-related books that help make up for the restaurant’s operating loss.
At the 50-minute mark, the action moves to the El Bulli kitchen as Adria and staff prepare for the new season opening. We witness the establishment of the work system, with expediters and station chefs assigned their places. Interestingly, the new dishes are only gradually woven into the menu, served first to two-person tables and continually refined until Adria gives a final stamp of approval. When these original creations finally appear, the black-clad waiters need to ask exactly how they should be consumed, so they can explain to the diners.
The immaculately crafted docu doesn’t reveal much about Adria the man, other than that he insists on quiet in his kitchen. Handheld camerawork, mostly in closeup, shows the clean-cut staff members regarding him with a mixture of awe and fear.
Pic concludes with gorgeously styled photos of the season’s menu, featuring such exotic new dishes as tea shrimp with caviar anemones, pumpkin meringue sandwiches with almond and summer truffle, and ice vinaigrette with tangerines and green olive.