Does taste matter? Not if you’re Ferran Adria, the avant-garde Spanish chef and former owner of El Bulli, the world’s most famous restaurant until it closed last July.
Or at least taste didn’t matter much during the early stages of research and development, when Mr. Adria and his top tier of cooks shuttered their beachside temple to molecular gastronomy and repaired for six months, as they did each year, to a test kitchen-cum-laboratory in Barcelona.
In Gereon Wetzel’s observational documentary, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which had its local premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival last week, we watch Mr. Adria and his mad team of culinary scientists sweating for weeks over the dissection of a simple sweet potato. They deconstruct the vegetable, distill its essence and build it back into unrecognizable foams, powders and meringues. Then they painstakingly catalogue each experiment in a computerized database that will serve as a reference for the restaurant’s extravagant 35-course tasting menu to be developed later that year.
“Taste does not matter,” the poker-faced star chef explains while pondering the aromatic properties of yuzu and fennel. “At the moment, what matters is whether something is magical, whether it opens up a new path.”
Taste doesn’t matter in a three-Michelin-star restaurant? Mr. Adria is being sincere; this film is by no means a satire (although some will undoubtedly mistake it for such). But his puzzling statement does beg the question: Where does that crazy path lead?
After viewing some of the more challenging food-for-thought fare being dished out at VIFF this year, the pomp and pageantry of a restaurant like El Bulli becomes a whole lot harder to digest.
Is it progress to want to eat a delectable species into extinction? Sushi: The Global Catch follows the explosion of raw fish from its humble beginnings as Japanese street food to an unsustainable international staple. Unfortunately, Mark Hall’s somewhat discombobulated feature-length documentary whets the appetite for bluefin tuna as much it admonishes us for endangering the prized “Porsche of the ocean,” the population of which has fallen by 90 per cent since the 1970s. It’s wrong to crave a dwindling species. Agreed. But does he have to make these fatty beasts being auctioned off at market look so deliciously tempting?
There is no such ambiguity in Taste the Waste, Valentin Thurn’s startling documentary about edible garbage. Did you know that in the European Union, 90 million tons of perfectly good food is thrown out each year? Much of the spoilage comes from supermarkets that pander to picky consumers by tossing out boxes of slightly wilted lettuce and crate loads of yogurt long before its best-before date.
For better or for worse, there wasn’t much waste to be found in the El Bulli test kitchen. In one of the documentary’s strangest segments, Mr. Adria’s creative underlings visit a produce market and ask the vendor for five grapes. Not clusters, just berries, and only five. Five “big ones,” they specify.
“That’s ridiculous,” the fruit monger retorts. “Yes, I know it’s ridiculous,” one of the sous-chefs laughs. “We’re like little kids. For testing, we don’t need a kilo.”
True enough. But where did all this precision, scientific trickery and never-ending quest to shock the senses lead El Bulli? There were only so many Gorgonzola globes, coconut sponges and vanishing ravioli dishes to be invented for a 35-course menu that had to be completely new and utterly bewildering year after year.
Mr. Adria found himself caught in a gastronomic trap. In the untold epilogue to the documentary, he closed his exclusive restaurant (which will soon be turned into non-profit culinary think-tank), opened a casual tapas bar, published a cookbook extolling the unfussy virtues of family meals, and aligned himself with the G9, a group of ethically minded chefs from around the world that last month issued An Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow.
The starry-eyed manifesto, which spells out “nourishing” duties to help socially engaged chefs be more responsible inside and outside the kitchen, has been widely ridiculed by prominent food writers as outrageously hypocritical. But perhaps these humbling steps back can be seen as a promising sign of progress. Even better, the food Mr. Adria’s new direction inspires might actually taste good.
El Bulli: Cooking in Progress plays at VIFF Oct. 12 and 14; Sushi: The Global Catch screens Oct. 8, 10 and 14; Taste the Waste screens Oct. 9 and 11 (viff.org).
More VIFF 2011 films about food
Red Dawn (Portugal), Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Joao Rui Guerra da Mata
The slaughter and preparation of livestock for sale receives a gritty close-up in this documentary short (screening with Palacios de Pena) about Macau’s Red Market.
To Make a Farm (Canada), Steve Suderman
Environmental idealists put their convictions to work in this optimistic look at the trials and tribulations of small-scale organic farming.
The Ailing Queen (Canada), Pascal Sanchez
In the Hautes-Laurentides region of Quebec, Anicet Desrocher makes divine artisanal honey and raises healthy queen bees for fellow beekeepers struck by the worldwide bee-colony collapse.