El Bulli: Cooking in Progress Review
Prior to the closing of its doors in July of last year El Bulli was a tiny restaurant situated in the Costa Brava region of Spain. Established in 1961, and opened to the public in 1964, it would go on to earn itself three Michelin stars before the century was out and gain a reputation as one of the finest eateries in the world. In recent years El Bulli has become firmly associated with its head chef, Ferran Adrià, and his very particular approach to food. The common label is ‘molecular gastronomy’, although it’s one Adrià is keen to distance himself from; he prefers the terms ‘deconstructivist’ or ‘avant-garde’. In essence he is forever attempting to redefine what food can be – through unlikely methods, contrasts and combinations. Consequently dining at El Bulli was as much about the experience – an average of 35 unique dishes over the space of three hours – as it was the meal. Moreover, that uniqueness also meant that the restaurant was required to shut for six months out of every year so that Adrià and his team had time to prep a whole new menu for the upcoming season.
This process of designing and perfecting the latest recipes would take place away from El Bulli. Once a particular season was over Adrià would relocate to his Barcelona headquarters – time and again referred to as ‘the lab’ – and it is here where Cooking in Progress spends much of its duration. Filmmaker Gereon Wetzel was granted full access to the media-shy Adrià and his team of chefs as they set about their creative process, and yet opted to maintain his distance. The approach is firmly fly-on-the-wall, more concerned with eavesdropping on the minutest of details than it is with getting to know the characters involved. As viewers we are simply invited to sit in as a new menu slowly comes to fruition. Mostly in ‘the lab’, but also during the first few weeks after re-opening. At this point Adrià liked to use some of his customers as guinea pigs, gauging their reactions as he sought full satisfaction. Only once this has been achieved would these strange little recipes become set in stone.
Cooking in Progress proves itself to be a fascinating documentary primarily because of its ‘eye-opener’ status. Wetzel has stated in interviews that it was the six-month closing period which prompted his interest and who could blame him? After all, this would hardly seem to be the usual practice for one of the world’s most highly regarded restaurants. (Reportedly El Bulli itself operated at a loss for the last decade of its existence despite selling out its limited capacity each year; any profit was instead derived from spin-offs such as Adrià’s range of books.) Combined with the bizarre foodstuffs that are the end result of this lengthy process, it soon becomes clear that all Wetzel needs to do is show the viewer. Indeed, with the exception of Stephan Diethelm’s percussive score, there is nothing about the film which could be described as stylised. This is a simple, sober documentary that trusts its footage entirely – no voice-over, no interviewees, and a just a single solitary intertitle during the opening moments to lend some initial context.
Yet whilst Cooking in Progress could never be described as dull, it does risk coming across as a little cold. For all the intrigue we are ultimately dealing with a laboratory environment complete with wall charts, laptops, ring binders and what seems to be a huge amount of paperwork. Certainly Adrià’s methods are always of interest –every (in)conceivable way of preparing a sweet potato – but such a process has little room for fun and, consequently, the same accusation could be levelled at the film itself. With that said, we do have Adrià to make up for this lack and, more importantly, his passion, which is immediately apparent. A flash or two of temper notwithstanding, he clearly isn’t the angry chef as typified by Gordon Ramsay’s television, but rather a very serious one. He demands the best and, judging by the images played over the closing credits, he also achieves the best. If that results in a humourless film then so be it; there’s plenty to fascinate elsewhere.
El Bulli – Cooking in Progress has been given a UK DVD release courtesy of Artificial Eye. This is a fairly standard affair with only a trailer as its sole extra, though the presentation is more than sufficient. Framed at a ratio of 1.78:1 the film looks much as you would expect from a modestly budgeted documentary captured on digital cameras. The image is crisp and clean – and any faults or limitations are likely to be in the original source – but this kind of footage is rarely going to shine on any home video format. As for the soundtrack we find DD5.1 and DD2.0 options, both of which cope ably with the live sound and Diethelm’s score. Indeed, it’s the latter which justifies the more expansive option. Do be aware, however, that the English subtitles (Adrià and team speak mostly in Catalan)are burnt into the image and cannot be removed.