Doc of the Day: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 11, 2012

Watch as the chefs of one of the world’s most famous restaurants concoct new dishes for their upcoming season.

Poster courtesy of Movie Insider.

Dir. Gereon Wetzel, 2011, 113 min

Until its closure last year, El Bulli restaurant in Roses, Spain, was considered one of if not the best in the world. Specializing in creative presentation and molecular gastronomy, the Michelin 3-Star establishment was highly exclusive, with a staff extremely dedicated to advancing their craft. The chefs closed  the restaurant for half the year so that they could come up with and perfect new culinary concoctions to serve. This resulted in El Bulli taking a financial hit every year, eventually forcing its closure. It will reopen in 2014 as a “creativity center.”

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress follows head chef Ferran Adria and his staff during one of their half-years of closure for menu experimentation. During this time, they look more like scientists than chefs, as they experiment with various chemicals and odd parts of food, trying to discover new and interesting tastes. The answer may come from a fruit rind or a fish’s tongue. They mix and match techniques and foodstuffs, making pasta out of sweet potatoes or vacuum-drying mushrooms. They make minute, precise adjustments in pursuit of the perfect flavor. Watching them work is mesmerizing.

Molecular gastronomy is a fascinating field. Its practitioners perform amazing alchemy in devising new dishes. Looking at them, you are torn between a strong desire to eat them, an apprehension at destroying something so beautiful, and a slight fear of just what the heck it is that you behold. Adria describes what he does as an art, and although my initial reaction was to roll my eyes, he makes a compelling case. He wants not just to make good food, but to make things that cause you to think about what you eat and you eat it. I can’t and probably never will be able to try his stuff, so for all I know he could be on to something.

El Bulli makes an excellent companion piece to the recently released Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Both films are about how dedication and perseverance factors into achieving greatness within the world of cooking. Both docs gleefully eye-sex the food on display, zooming in close to capture every delectable detail, making the audience’s mouths water. And both portray cooking as a zen-like experience. The calm effortlessness with which a chef can sense and assess the qualities of a meal is awe-inspiring. It’s nirvana through the taste buds.

Of course, the atmosphere at El Bulli gets considerably less zen come open season. As the menu entails serving guests over thirty micro-meals in about an hour, the kitchen is a flurry activity from the time the doors open. Adria and the staff have to train the seasonal employees in an intense, boot-camp-like course. These interns come from well-regarded schools and restaurants the world over, but none of them are prepared for the ringer El Bulli puts them through. Maintaining the highest standard of service demands high pressure on the workers.

While El Bulli is mostly able to keep up the interest and excitement, it sometimes loses momentum. Paradoxically, this happens more often the second half, devoted to the chaotic serving conditions, than in the peaceful experimentation phase of the first half. The movie is, frankly, at least twenty minutes longer than it needs to be. While the first half is full of discovery and weird science, the second is more about petty interpersonal conflict than actual cooking. Too many scenes reiterate common problems experienced by the chefs. It drags more the longer it goes on.

Despite the drop-off of energy in the second half, El Bulli is still worth checking out. I’m sort of wary of anyone who calls themselves a “foodie,” but if you think of yourself as one, there’s no way you won’t love this movie. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the superior film, and if you live in an area where it’s showing then you should definitely seek it out, but this is still good. It’s all about the joy of creation, and it’ll broaden your culinary horizons.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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