It’s no insult to any documentary about a restaurant, or a celebrity chef, to say that it’s a piece of food porn; the insult would be to say that it isn’t. Yet what sort of food porn, exactly, is “Constructing Albert”? The movie is a portrait of Albert Adrià, the Barcelona-based chef who worked, for years, alongside his older brother, Ferran Adrià, who was the mastermind of elBulli, the visionary hillside palace of Spanish gastronomy that was thought of as the number-one restaurant in the world. (It closed in 2011.) At elBulli, the Adriàs perfected a brand of culinary indulgence that was one part pleasure, one part postmodern sci-fi; they created flavors and textures of a surreal deconstruction (veal marrow with beat foam, anyone?) designed to revolutionize the very concept of what it meant to experience a piece of food on your tongue. There is low-end cuisine, and there is high-end cuisine. This was gastronomy shot like a foam rocket into the stratosphere.
Yet was it actually mouth-watering? Or was it so high-end that it rendered the very question vulgar? The closest I ever came to eating at elBulli was watching a 2011 documentary about it, and though I consider myself a card-carrying foodie, it was striking how much every dish in that movie provoked a sensation of intellectual curiosity rather than, you know, appetite. Perhaps it really was food that transcended all other food. But what it looked like, from the outside, was a kind of awe-inspiring culinary Ponzi scheme: a taste-sensation theme park manufactured for elites, one that hinged on the perception of being so lofty in its hedonism that it was downright unearthly.
The premise of “Constructing Albert” is that Albert Adrià, after toiling in the shadow of his brother, has gone off on his own by coming down to earth. Albert, an intense but unassuming guy who, with his goatee and beady-eyed beam, looks like a very classy accountant, knows that there can never be another elBulli. So he launches a series of restaurants in Barcelona — five in one year — that will nod to the earlier restaurant’s grand madness but will, at the same time, be lavishly accessible places to dine.
Tapas, Mexican, Japanese Peruvian: There’s nothing that Albert can’t, or won’t, try. But Albert, who comes off as rigidly competitive (with his brother, and with himself), hasn’t let go of the elBulli dream; he’s just trying to market it in a more bite-size way. And though he’s a fascinating figure, the film’s co-directors, Laura Collado and Jim Loomis, are so in thrall to their subject that they’ve forgotten to do the most basic work of making a documentary.
“Constructing Albert” is 82 minutes long, and it consists almost entirely of Albert building his restaurants, launching his restaurants, toasting the success of his restaurants, and putting the finishing touches on his dishes (we never see him design one from scratch, but we see him dribble a lot of mysterious sauces on a lot of delicate jellied egg-like things, always looking as serious as if he were handling nitroglycerin). We see him getting accolades, treating the people who work for him with consummate dignity and respect, and then moving onto the next how-can-I-top-myself? challenge. He wins Michelin stars, and global awards (in 2015, he is selected as the world’s best pastry chef — though we scarcely knew he was a pastry chef), and he’s surrounded by people who idolize and adore him.
Yet a viewer may be tempted to ask: Where’s the conflict in all this, the dramatic flavor? In a good documentary, the relationship between Albert and Ferran, the brother who looms over him, would be complex, layered, seasoned. As portrayed, it’s as friendly as it is perfunctory. We recognize that Albert Adrià is a man who keeps pushing himself, and probably experiences his own ambition as highly dramatic. Yet whatever personal stresses he may have, the film presents his celebrity-chef odyssey as a series of near-inevitable victories by a master of the kitchen, with each dish held up before us as if it were a jewel on velvet.
Hot gelatin carved into lighter-than-air sculpture; razor slices of fish flesh poised on a bird’s-nest garnish; a syrup cocktail of multiple infusions served in a glass as thin as it is long; seared shrimp laid on delicate disks of what looks like white flan; strawberries inserted with micro slices of what could be garlic, or coconut, or pecorino (who knows?); a bowl like a cracked dinosaur egg with two salsas of red and green that meet in the middle (you don’t dip chips in them — though if you did, the chips would surely be made of crystalized asparagus; you just drink them); a wafer so thin it inspires Albert to say he wants to create the lightest mille-feuille of all time.
And I haven’t even mentioned the something-or-other served in white smoke…
There are levels of cooking, says Albert, and the highest level “is not about cooking. It’s about changing the way we think. It’s about changing a paradigm.” That sounds great, but since we don’t get to sit down and experience the food ourselves, we wish that “Constructing Albert” gave us more information about the precise challenges of selling this kind of cuisine at this sort of restaurant. Albert keeps analyzing his establishments — Tickets, 41º — and after winning a Michelin star for 41º, he closes the place down. Why? It’s not specified. (But his brother says, “When you sell an Audi to buy a Ferrari, you don’t cry.”) The film is full of logistical problems that lead nowhere, as when Albert stands in the raw space of Niño Viejo, his tapas palace, and says it’s too big, the space is wrong, where is the service area going to be? One scene later, the place is open, it looks elegant and gorgeous, the customers are seated and happy, problem solved.
All of which made me wish I was watching an old Food Network episode of “Restaurant: Impossible,” where problems really were problems. What are the business stakes of Albert’s restaurants? We don’t get a clue. (Ferran looks nervous, as if he’s backing him, but we aren’t told.) The movie is 82 minutes of Albert nattering on about wanting to be better, but he talks about food only in the abstract. Getting ready to open Enigma, a place that looks like it’s trying to be elBulli 2, he says, “We understand why we are here, and what people expect of us. Something unique, creative, different, an experience. What we have sold and the brand we defend. When we stray from that, we are no longer us.” He spins this stuff out 24/7. But “Constructing Albert” remains an oddly unsatisfying movie about food that’s so tasteful you can barely imagine what it tastes like.