The painstaking creative process of Ferran Adrià, celebrated practitioner of molecular gastronomy at the Catalan restaurant El Bulli, is treated with reverence by German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel. Adrià's eatery boasts three Michelin stars, the equivalent of five in movie-rating terms, while Wetzel's documentary earns a standard three because, for all the innovative dishes we watch being concocted, the movie needs another ingredient or two for flavor enhancement and full satisfaction. Required viewing for ultra-serious gourmands, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress won't tantalize every foodie; yet the overlap between that set and cinephiles is large enough to secure above-average arthouse receipts.
Wetzel and his crew spent a year (2008-9) chronicling the way Adrià devises his unique culinary product. Every winter, El Bulli, which sits above a picturesque cove on the Costa Brava, closes for six months so Adrià and his lieutenants can hole up in a Barcelona kitchen laboratory and experiment on dishes for the coming year's menu. "Dishes" is actually a misnomer. Patrons of El Bulli are served 28 to 35 courses consisting of miniature tapas made of seasonal ingredients. Many are gelatinous geometric tidbits pairing unusual flavors. All are made with the aide of comparatively high-tech gizmos and methods. We watch as sweet potatoes are rendered three different ways: pressurized, pulverized and fried; and a variety of mushrooms are vacuum sealed with different oils to discover which combination is the most appealing or, to use Adrià's favorite term, "magical." It's a collaborative process of trial and error. For months, these experiments are exhaustively recorded with still photography and in lists featuring descriptive text and evaluative commentary. Forget whisks and knives, the tools Adrià and his right hand chef Oriol Castro really can't do without are laptops and liquid nitrogen canisters. Their precision lab work constitutes the conceptual stage; and then the individual courses and overall menu are constructed and refined at the restaurant when it opens up in mid-June. A small army of young chefs from around the world are deployed to prepare the dishes in assembly-line fashion. Solely concerned with the creative process, Wetzel does not include patrons' reactions or any external commentary. Adrià's enterprise will strike many as bordering on a fetish. What redeems it for me is watching the impish Adrià's expression as he samples the dishes at various stages. He's a wide-eyed kid waiting to be surprised. Combined with this innocence and purity, he's deadly serious about the restaurant and a shrewd marketer. At this stage of his career, he doesn't do any of the cooking himself. He tastes, critiques, coaxes and encourages, and so there's no question who's the author of this cooking, executed with such aesthetic and military precision. Novelty is the primary goal however, and that's always a questionable or at least incomplete motive.
As for how appetizing the results are to the taste buds (as opposed to the eye), without having sampled any of the cuisine, you'd be hard-pressed to describe it as scrumptious in any ordinary sense. It's clearly meant for the most sophisticated palates—and wallets. Which brings me to the movie's major flaws. No mention is ever made of the economic dimensions of the experience. What does it cost, both in diner's Euros and according to any other measure? Wetzel has created a lovely visual record of Adrià's process, but it's uncritical in the extreme. The "real world" doesn't enter into the documentary at all. It's pure fantasy. It also lasts too long. You get the idea pretty quickly, and the rest seems fairly repetitive, if absorbing. The only payoff for the viewer is a photographic record of the year's water-and-oil-heavy menu. In short, a little of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress goes a long way—like, one suspects, a 35-course meal at El Bulli. You can't help but appreciate the food's visual beauty—and the physical, mental and emotional energy that went into creating it—but you don't come away feeling you have to taste any of Adrià's food before you die.
Distributor: Alive Mind
Director: Gereon Wetzel
Producer: Ingo Fliess
Genre: Documentary; Catalan-language, subtitled
Running time: 108 min.
Release date: July 27 NY