Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
Review: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
You will never eat at elBulli, aka Chef Ferran Adria’s Temple of Molecular Gastronomy, aka The Finest Restaurant in the World (judged to be so five times by Restaurant magazine), aka Two Million Call for Reservations, but only Eight Thousand are Chosen. It closed for good in July of last year.
Prior to that, it closed for about six months of every year it operated so that its staff could retreat, monklike, from the world of making and serving and into the headier realms of speculation and investigation. Specifically, into a Barcelona kitchen/laboratory, the sort of place where men in white coats, armed with syringes, vacuums, and precision measurement equipment, subject a sweet potato to freeze-drying, juicing, dehyrdrating, roasting, chipping, pureeing, and fradgerbasking. Yes, I made that last one up. But only because they didn’t bother with turning the things into foam – they’ve done foam, and the elBulli lab team, says Adria, is always pursuing “the surprise emotion, the new texture…Taste doesn’t matter; it’s whether it opens a new path.” It’s the sort of place where it’s not at all surprising to hear someone order, “Prepare a new list of mushroom broths.” To see chefs hunched over their respective laptops, compiling a huge database of ingredients and preparations, all based on careful experimentation.
The lab is where the restaurant’s year begins, and so it is where the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress begins as well. Admirably, director Gereon Wetzel opts for straight immersion: roll camera, cue sound, and let the action unfold. We get next to no context, no voiceover, no talking heads, just nervous minds at work on topping their last triumph. Personalities and storylines emerge gradually – the film is about second-in-command Oriol Castro and his relationship with Adria as much as it is about Adria himself. We don’t even get much step-by-step continuity – the cutting back and forth between sweet potatoes and mushrooms and the dozens of preparatory techniques practiced on each works wonders to establish the intended feeling: that at El Bulli, science and technology are placed at the service of culinary magic. You get to see the machines at work, but damned if you’re going to figure out how it’s all done. Still, the immediacy is powerful; more than once, I forgot I was watching a movie and hungrily followed the camera into the scene.
On it goes through the development of the year’s menu and overall theme – water(!) An ice cube dropped onto a plate of sauced fish in Brazil inspires a dish of ice chips and mini tangerines with oil. One chef devises a cocktail in which oil is floated on water – “You’ve introduced fat in cocktails,” observes a bemused colleague. Meanwhile, Adria deals with secretive vendors, media appearances, crashed hard drives – “I don’t want paper; I want it on the computer!” – and the alarming parade of failures before a dish is refined into success. At one point, he grants, “We’re playing lottery here” – a heartbreaking admission when you consider the reams of research that have come before.
The result: 35 dishes in three hours, prepared and served with the same sort of precision that went into their development. If both menu and film sound a little dizzying, well, they’re supposed to. We’re a long way from comfort food and cooking shows. “Above all,” says Adria of one late-dinner item, “it bewilders.”
Reader rating: Three stars.