November 24, 2011
Over the course of a year, a camera crew followed Spanish chef Ferran Adria — aka The Man Who Launched a Thousand Foams — as he and his kitchen staff developed and honed the new menu for the 2009 season, resulting in the film "El Bulli: Cooking in Progress," which opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Siskel Film Center.
Located on a tranquil, breezy portion of the Catalonia region of coastal Spain, El Bulli — or rather, elBulli (as the resto's marketers would have it) — has long been Adria's playground, open for just a few months each year. The off-season is when Adria and company devise their latest avant-garde creations, but last summer, the famed chef announced that he was closing the restaurant for good. That means director Gereon Wetzel got in just under the gun with this patience-testing, if ultimately engrossing, documentary that is as much about the mild frictions behind the scenes at El Bulli as it is the food. Tribune film writer Nina Metz and restaurant critic Phil Vettel weigh in.
Nina Metz: OK, cards on the table: Last night I ate Wheat Thins and some peanuts for dinner. My food cred may be nonexistent, but I am fully on board with edible pleasures of all kinds. Especially those built on the kind of creative spirit that drives Adria, as well as our local food-science masters Grant Achatz (a former pupil of Adria's) and Homaro Cantu (chef/owner of Moto). I keep meaning to make it out to Alinea or Next or Moto — really, I do — but girl's on a budget … and my experience with experimental food hubs has, alas, remained vicarious.
I am, however, an avid — avid — watcher of "Top Chef" (the current season, as of this writing, includes two competitors from Moto) and various other shows in which someone is likely to break out a tank of liquid nitrogen in the name of food preparation. That no doubt colored my expectations going into this doc, which gives a firm "no, thanks" to the temptation of reality show theatrics in favor of a sober-minded, fly-on-the-wall approach.
Plenty of excellent documentaries have gone this route, (1993's) "The War Room" and (Frederick Wiseman's) "High School" among them. But would it have killed Wetzel to include a talking head or two? Or a least a few blips of text to expand upon what we're seeing during the six months of research and development when Adria decamps with his staff to Barcelona?
The film's first half takes place in a sterile test kitchen. It is a strangely antiseptic place, and the footage is downright methodical and dull until some quietly neurotic personality quirks show through. But it's never made clear how or why anyone in this kitchen has devised the various concepts they are experimenting with during the off-season — something I suspect most people, foodies and cinephiles alike, would be curious about. Or maybe my brain is too addled to sit through the more process-oriented portions of the film. Phil, what did you make of those test kitchen segments? Has my palate been ruined from all those slickly edited episodes of "Top Chef"?
Phil Vettel: An interesting comparison. "Top Chef" is all slick editing and largely manufactured drama; "El Bulli" is drama-free and pretty much emotion-free as well. Do the staffers at El Bulli really go through the day as poker-faced automatons, or is this all that Ferran Adria would allow the filmmakers to show?
As fascinating as the test kitchen scenes were, it would have been nice to have some inkling as to what the chefs were going for. The film lets us see the process, but absent of any context, we can't begin to understand it.
Indeed, what I found most interesting about this film were the omissions. Apart from a quick shot of three eager people waiting outside, El Bulli's customers have no place in this film. No shots of other chefs explaining their admiration for Adria, or at least explaining his importance. Not even a smidgen of exposition explaining who the heck this guy is.
The impression I get from this film is that Adria is a man who needs no external validation from anyone or anything, and perhaps that's the filmmaker's intent. Makes you wonder how he managed to get his cameras inside El Bulli's walls in the first place.
N.M.: The film does capture his demanding, occasionally bratty side. And it certainly affirms his cult of personality. Ravioli with disappearing pasta! Oil-slicked cocktails! Ice chunks as essential ingredients! Genius, all of it! But you're right: Who is this guy? And what motivated him to start monkeying around with recipes in the first place?
Half the time in Barcelona he's on his cellphone, and he could be raising money from backers or booking a trip to Greece, who knows? He swoops in, does a few tastings and then he's out, phone glued to his ear. (I did find it amusingly gross that he licked every finger on his hand during one tasting.)
And then there's this: Adria shows up every day in his chef whites, and yet we never see him cook.
So let's assume that at this stage in his career, Adria no longer does the manual labor of cooking — or, for that matter, conceiving all those brash new ideas. (The ingenuity, at least on film, seems to come from his small staff of head chefs; Adrian then approves, rejects and refines their ideas.)
Look, I get it. This is the age of celebrity chefs, many of whom rarely work in the kitchens of their restaurants. (Tom Colicchio, I'm looking at you!) But it raises the question: Does this man even enjoy cooking? Is he still considered a chef in the traditional sense of the word? Maybe "conceptual food artist" is more accurate? Actually, I see him more as a culinary equivalent of a film director, gathering and shaping the creative output of others.
"El Bulli" gains some needed momentum once the restaurant is up and running. Actual dishes are composed (as opposed to all the disparate ideas floating around during the first half) and there are suddenly stakes. The kitchen takes on the appearance of an assembly line. Adria is camped out quietly off to the side, ignoring the gaping patrons who are apparently allowed to tour the kitchen. (Again, it would be nice to have some of this explained.) Sitting alone at a table in the kitchen, he carefully tastes the menu, making notes as if he were a filmmaker screening his work for flaws.
I will say this: The kitchen at El Bulli looks enormous, with lots of natural light. Kind of goes against that cliche about restaurant kitchens being cramped. It's what a Hollywood version of a restaurant kitchen would look like.
P.V.: Nina, when you make that one-of-these-days trip to Alinea and get a gander at Achatz's kitchen, you'll be reminded of the setup at El Bulli — plenty of light (not so natural, but bright), acres of space and preternaturally quiet. So that aspect of the film looked very natural to me, as did Adria's lack of hands-on cooking; top chefs gripe all the time that the demands of being a famous chef leave them with little time to cook.
Other parts are less convincing. I guess I can accept the absolute lack of camaraderie between Adria and his minions, but seeing his two top lieutenants tasting nibbles and intoning "Ferran will decide" again and again seemed almost staged. I mean, those two have been working for Adria for more than 10 years each, and they've got no private names for the guy, like, I don't know, "el queso grande" or, better, "El Bully"?
I agree that this movie is unwatchable by anyone who doesn't have at least some grasp of the fine-dining world, but it's likely fascinating to people who do. The meticulous record-keeping, the surgical cleanliness, the military precision of the whole operation — every aspect makes perfect sense, but taken together it's a mind-boggling whole. Did the team really hit the market for calf throat? Did that chef really order five grapes because that's all he needed?
I loved the cooking highlights, but this documentary is hobbled by all the shots of packing, unpacking and record-keeping. No doubt it's true to how El Bulli operates, but it's about as exciting as it would be to watch Adria do his taxes.
At one point, Adria lectures his troops about the importance of keeping the customers off-balance. "The more bewilderment, the better," he says. "Otherwise, you'd fall asleep." It's a lesson this film could learn.