The cinema-verite approach to documentary making has its pitfalls -- particularly if the subject is as close-mouthed as Ferran Adria, the focus of Gereon Wetzel's El Bulli - Cooking in Progress, opening in limited release Wednesday (7/27/11).
Adria is acclaimed worldwide as one of the most imaginative and inventive chefs on the planet, an innovator in molecular gastronomy. His soon-to-be-defunct restaurant, El Bulli, which closes on July 30, has been proclaimed the best in the world. Which means it's also one of the toughest reservations to land.
The 50-seat facility, a few hours outside Barcelona, is only open 160 nights a year. Meanwhile, the hype about the place supposedly produces two million reservation requests a year. Even if you happened to walk up without a reservation and saw empty tables, they wouldn't seat you because, as one of Adria's underlings explains, it would set a bad precedent.
Adria is one of the founders of the approach known as molecular gastronomy, which tries to transform conventional foods into something else -- as essences, foams, surprisingly frozen dishes (using liquid nitrogen) or unexpected meringues. The idea is to surprise the diner by showing him one thing while making him taste something else.
El Bulli is famed for Adria's outlandishly imaginative concoctions -- and for his refusal to repeat himself. So, each year, he is open for six months, then closes down for six months. He spends that half of the year in his laboratory in Barcelona, conducting experiments on various foods to see what kinds of changes he could put them through as prelude to creating a new dish for his next season's menu.
So his cohort -- principally, master chefs Oriol Castro and Edouard Xatruch and their lab techs -- deconstruct sweet potatoes, mushrooms and other food stuffs, using everything from vacuumizers to dryers to juicers, flash-freezing to roasting, to see what they can do to manipulate the flavor and texture of the vegetables.
By the time they close up the lab and head back to El Bulli in this film, they've come up with an idea for a ravioli that dissolves in water (made of a kind of paper rendered from potato starch and rice flour); a cocktail comprised of water, hazelnut oil and salt; and a dish made up of mini-tangerine sections and olives sitting in a sheen of olive oil, with small ice cubes thrown in.
Unfortunately, Adria doesn't really talk about or explain what he's doing, except in the broadest kind of terms, even when he's working with his staff. Neither, for that matter, do Xatruch or Castro, who get more screen time than Adria. When Adria is on camera, he most often is tasting something one of his lieutenants is putting in front of him and saying something like, "Less parmesan -- more coffee." Indeed, during the lab section, it's all Castro and staff; Adria is a distracted presence who pops in to taste the latest, then answers his cell phone and walks distractedly away.
Castro and Xatruch rarely pause to talk about what they're doing or what they're doing it with, after the initial sweet-potato experiments. Their give-and-take with Adria is mostly in the form of shorthand that comes from having worked together for years. Maybe I've watched too much Food Network, but when I'm watching a chef at work, I'm always appreciative of a few nuts-and-bolts comments about what's going on. There's very little such help here; you're left to guess at the ingredients, the techniques, the outcome.
Adria's most expansive moments come when he talks to his staff -- minimally -- about his philosophy. Ultimately, he says, he wants his diners to be bewildered by the food. Given what an evening at El Bulli must cost -- according to a 2002 piece in London's The Guardian website, it was roughly $250 per person -- bewilderment is not the sensation that I'd be looking for. Sure, he says he wants to surprise, so the patron blurts out a compliment like, "Killer!" after eating something unexpected. But, again, that doesn't quite square with attempt to induce bewilderment.
The food itself looks fascinating or surreal -- little dribs and drabs, shards and fragments, arranged on a plate just so, seemingly barely enough for a mouthful. Again, the El Bulli experience is meant to be unique: no menu but, instead, a procession of 25-30 small bites of things like broiled rabbit brains, the tangerine-olive-ice cube plate and so on. The dessert, called the Ice Lake, is essentially a bowl made of ice, over which a thin crust of ice sits. Frozen peppermint is sprinkled on the crust, which is then broken and eaten.
Which makes me think that, perhaps, it's just as well that Adria doesn't talk too much in El Bulli - Cooking in Progress. Or else we'd be venturing perilously close to "Emperor's New Clothes" territory.
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