4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

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.”

Image

Reader rating: Three stars.

More like this:

Comments
1

Anthony Bourdain devoted a whole hour of his "No Reservations" show to El Bulli... will have to wait to see if this plays in my neck of the woods or find it on DVD.

Jan. 11, 2012

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Set 'em Up Joe — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close