For voracious followers of global haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy, Gereon Wetzel's observational restaurant documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress arrives with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
El Bulli is, or make that was, a 50-seat, three-Michelin-star restaurant on a secluded bay on Catalonia's Costa Brava. Its renowned, avant-garde tasting menu was prepared by a 40-chef kitchen led (since 1987) by star chef Ferran Adrià, served in 30-plus dishes over three hours, and only available six months of the year.
In recent years, it received two million annual requests for only 8,000 spots. The average cost of a meal: €250 ($345).
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the restaurant closed for good last week. If your life's ambition was to snag a reservation, take your taste buds on an adventure and snap a photo as you're escorted past the kitchen, sorry: Watching El Bulli is as close as you're going to get.
Then again, if you're that kind of foodie, you probably know the restaurant was a money-loser for the past decade, kept afloat by sales of high-end books on the development, philosophy and artful presentation of its experimental nosh.
El Bulli barely registers a pulse stronger than a book's. There is no narration, there are no interviews and forget about any apron-ripping drama, as presented nightly on the Food Network. What food enthusiasts will lap up - while meat-and-tater fans may fall sleep - is Wetzel's fly-on-the-wall peek into what happens during the six months El Bulli is closed.
Master chefs Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casanas set up their high-tech gear in Barcelona to "invent" the next season's menu, based on the flow of seasonal ingredients and guided by the ideas and palate of frequent visitor Adrià. The kitchen feels more like a laboratory, with white-clad scientists conducting experiments, rating and cataloguing their results. (Adrià's only minor freak-out comes when he discovers the findings haven't been logged in the computer.)
In Barcelona, and later in the El Bulli kitchen, where the dishes are finalized, gradually integrated into the menu and served to guests, we witness the shape-shifting properties of sweet potato and various mushrooms; a hollow globe fashioned from gorgonzola; veal shoulder cartilage made yummy, and the perfect way to build a minted ice lake (and no, it's not by pouring Schnapps on a skating rink).
While Wetzel's stylistic approach and the sparse score definitely suit the serious, all-work vibe of El Bulli, the quiet intensity grows tiresome - though the arrival of the restaurant's young chef contingent livens things up a little.
In the end, El Bulli remains a very clinical exposition of the art and science behind cutting-edge culinary achievement.
El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
- Directed by Gereon Wetzel
- Classification: PG
El Bulli opens Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and the Mayfair in Ottawa.
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