Foodies, foodists and the people who love them have been treated to a grand buffet of reality television shows. But never has there been such a meticulous, well-appointed, and in-depth documentary depiction of the highest form of 21st century cooking as El Bulli: Cooking in Progress. This film and its subject soar way above Top Chef, Iron Chef, Random Chef… This is the haute cuisine of nonfiction filmmaking about food.
El Bulli, about a restaurant many consider the best in the world, has an incredibly austere, observational (and yet reverential) feel to it. German director Gereon Wetzel never asks questions and never intrudes as master chef Ferran Adrià and his team develop a new menu with the fervor of scientists in the Manhattan Project.
There are so many moments of intense contemplation, of quiet stares across the room, of Adrià rolling a new taste around on his tongue while others look on, that it verges on parody. But, it’s not. Wetzel’s depiction of Adrià’s molecular gastronomy process approaches what it would be like to shoot Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
Indeed, Wetzel says that the film was “made from the point of view of curious and inquisitive people — not gourmets. What was interesting to us was the process, just like the process of other creative people, like composers, painters, etc.”
I should note that some of Wetzel’s quotes included here were sent to me in German and then translated by my mother, who is also German, and her friend, Cecilie. So apologies if they were not done with professional precision. Incidentally, my mother was appalled at the molecular gastronome’s use of plastic bags during cooking.
Doc Soup: How did you come about making this film?
Gereon Wetzel: What intrigued me was the fact that this chef would close his restaurant for six months to come up with new ideas. The cooks seclude themselves, like in a cloister, forfeiting half a year’s business, to express their creativity. We found that odd and fascinating. Creative processes had already interested me in our previous films. Moreover, El Bulli is not just Ferran Adrià but an entire team. Ferran is the director — he holds the reins and attends to the big picture. In teams like this, the human and social processes are equally interesting. You can see this in the relationship between [chefs] Oriol and Ferran, which is in many ways very special.
Doc Soup: Did the chefs ever use you as a taster? Please describe your experiences of eating the food.
Wetzel: [Wetzel and his team did not get to taste the food, but eventually ate a meal at El Bulli...] Eating at the restaurant was a grand experience — very relaxed, very funny. We were also relieved. After all, we had been dealing with the subject matter for three years without knowing exactly what made this food magical. That evening we fully realized, perhaps for the first time, how fabulous Ferran and his team’s work is.
So, if you like to see a rabbit’s brain cooked with delicate precision or want to get an appreciation for how ice cubes can be used in an entrée, this is the documentary for you. El Bulli begins a limited theatrical run at New York City’s Film Forum Wednesday (July 27, 2011), coinciding with the actual closing of Adrià’s El Bulli this week.
Wetzel says he did not know during shooting that Adrià was planning to close the restaurant, so it’s quite a coup that he stumbled onto this. I have to admit, until I saw El Bulli, I wasn’t too concerned that I had missed out on one of the 30-something course meals that Adrià concocted there, but the film makes one feel like something truly special was happening there.