The recently closed El Bulli restaurant in Barcelona was widely considered to be one of the finest restaurants in the world, earning 3 Michelin stars and topping Restaurant Magazine’s yearly poll five times throughout its lifetime. But the renowned restaurant and its equally lauded chef, Ferran Adrià, have an unusual method of menu design: each year, El Bulli would close for 6 months so that Adrià and his head chefs could design and test an entirely new menu.
This documentary follows Adrià through that process and the results prove fascinating, with the strangest dishes imaginable being concocted. The film opens, for example, with Adrià eating a glow in your mouth, fish-flavoured lollipop. On top of this, each dish is beautifully shot in close-up while its being tested in a way that allows the viewer to follow several designs over the course of a year.
Of course, there’s more going on than just showcasing fancy food. Director Gereon Wetzel manages to tease out some broader conclusions about both the nature of cooking and the importance of creativity. Adrià lives by a code that insists on the importance of gaining a reaction to a dish; whether his Rabbit Brain recipe tastes good or bad is not the prime concern, the fundamental point is that his patrons experience bewilderment.
Any problems the documentary has are actually a result of Wetzel’s preference for the fly-on-the-wall approach. On the one hand, this method gives us a real sense that these cooks – or, it could be argued, artists – are completely single-minded in dedication to their craft. But at the same time it can feel slightly cold, particularly in the later stages, because there are no personal interviews with key players, not even Adrià himself. The exception is one brief scene where two of the head chefs sit outside the restaurant, drinking beer and watching the moon. This moment is a sobering reminder of how a documentary always needs a human side.
Nevertheless, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress’ exploration of cooking as an artistic process is informative enough to ensure that when Adrià reopens El Bulli, as he promises to do in 2014, there will be even more people waiting at the door.