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El Bulli - Cooking in Progress

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/01/11 09:56:13

"A chance to step inside Ferran AdriÓ's kitchen."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: "El Bulli: Cooking in Progress" has a strange start for a documentary about a famous chef and his equally famous restaurant: The kitchen is disassembled and packed away. This is not, however, a precursor to a jump back in time to tell us a story of failure; it's a fittingly unusual beginning to an examination of Ferran AdriÓ's unusual process.

Yes, AdriÓ's El Bulli restaurant did close in October of 2008, but that's a regular occurrence, as he and his staff retreat to their Barcelona test kitchen to begin development of the next year's menu. Though the words are never mentioned in the film, Adria is one of the main practitioners of molecular gastronomy (though he prefers the term "deconstructivist"), a form of cooking that embraces technology and scientific procedures. AdriÓ and his assistants will spend the next months painstakingly researching and quantifying the tastes and textures that come from preparing different foods in different ways, developing a menu theme that coalesces into the "Year of Water" when the restaurant re-opens in June of 2009.

There's an old joke among scientists that the scientific method is best defined as "make the grad students do all the work". The various assistants and sous-chefs we meet are likely a bit higher up the totem pole than that, but the principle holds: For much of the film, we are not watching Ferran AdriÓ, but his staff - Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, Eugeni de Diego et al. They're the ones who do the repetitive but crucial work of iterating through various combinations of ingredients, equipment, and parameters in order to discover the best ones to present to Ferran, and are often the ones who find a new dish, whether by happenstance (mistakenly using carbonated water when flat was originally called for) or trial and error. In some ways, though, this is more instructive - with AdriÓ off-site or just off-screen, we see pecking orders on the one hand and comradeship on the other. Some on the staff are relatively new, so there is talk of "what Ferran will think".

Ferran AdriÓ is not treated as a mysterious figure, though; he shows up soon enough, and watching him must be similar to watching an A-list director on a blockbuster film set: Although ultimately the final product will be the result of many people's contributions, he exudes authority, synthesizing all the various parts into a cohesive whole. He's a big-picture guy with the skills to tackle things at the micro-level as is necessary. Like many people in such a position, he is often intimidatingly blunt ("Did you try this? It's simply bad. Don't give me something that isn't good.") and a bit pretentious, but also possessed of genuine enthusiasm and delight upon discovering something new.

If that sounds rather vague, it is, but director Gereon Wetzel is not really looking to paint a picture of AdriÓ and company as individuals. This is an extremely process-oriented documentary; aside from a brief bit of explanatory text at the beginning and the occasional title to establish the passage of time or a different location, he and the other filmmakers do what they can to stay out of the way and give the appearance of simply documenting what is going on. Subjects rarely address the camera directly and incidental music is almost non-existent until the end of the movie, when the restaurant is on the verge of opening and a little more showmanship enters into the proceedings.

That technique is not without its perils - there's no safety net if Wetzel, cinematographer Josef Mayerhofer, and editor Anja Pohl slip just a little bit. Fortunately, all do extremely well in finding the moments that matter and presenting them in a way that is just right. For many in the target audience, this style will be rewarding - it is an empowering feeling for an audience to realize that they are not having their buttons pushed, but are instead being trusted. Naturally, that level of trust comes with a price - this is a movie made with the assumption that the audience has at least some knowledge of the topic at hand; the person being brought by their foodie date is not going to have molecular gastronomy explained to them, and won't even learn that an AdriÓ meal consists of dozens of tiny courses until quite late in the game.

It is, however, far from impenetrable; anybody who knows me will testify that discussion of good food is utterly wasted upon me, and I was able to follow along just fine. Indeed, Wetzel's fly-on-the-wall style is frequently engrossing. Trusting his subject to be interesting and his audience to keep up isn't as easy as it looks, and the filmmakers deliver a pictures that quietly aids both in doing so.

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