Monday, December 5, 2011

1MB On Film: Movie Review: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

Official movie synopsis:  For six months of the year, renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adrià closes his restaurant El Bulli — repeatedly voted the world's best — and works with his culinary team to prepare the menu for the next season. An elegant, detailed study of food as avant-garde art, EL BULLI: COOKING IN PROGRESS is a rare inside look at some of the world's most innovative and exciting cooking; as Adrià himself puts it, "the more bewilderment, the better!"

Ceci n'est pas un pomme ("this is not an apple") - says a famous painting of an apple by surrealist artist René Magritte.  It was part of a fantastic collection that challenged perceptions of reality, images, words and meaning (it wasn't an apple, it was a painting of can look but cannot taste - but wait, what is our definition of apple anyway?). 

The same could be said of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, a documentary whose ostensible purpose was to provide a rare look at the work (food as avant-garde art) of founding father of molecular gastronomy, Chef Ferran Adrià, for the world renowned three-Michelin-starred restaurant perched in a remote seaside villa outside Barcelona.  It purports to be about the extraordinary food and creative process, but of course/alas, it cannot provide a fulfilling re-creation / satisfying simulation of it.  Unlike the ingenious subject of its study (Ferran Adrià), the "this is not a food porn" movie was, to most people in the audience at our screening, frustratingly underwhelming - and not for the expected reason that the movie was showing us fantastic food that is unattainable to most.

For years El Bulli mesmerized media and food lovers alike with its 30-course meals full of spectacular surprises, with dishes the culinary world had never seen, and fielded two million reservations requests per year, until it closed its doors this past summer.  I wanted to see the movie to torture myself with a glimpse of live vicariously through it, the infamous (€250 / ~$350 per person) El Bulli dinner, with the inventive, provocative and artistic creations of Chef Adrià, that I probably could have never afforded and now will definitely never get to experience.

Film buff and aspiring director 'Curses' and I made the trek to Long Beach, for the only screening of the movie in the Greater LA area, without any set expectations except to perhaps broaden our horizons with visions of edible art and some insight into the creative mind behind it. 

We were not looking for a superficial string of glamour shots, dumb-it-down-for-the-audience-commentary, nor drivelling sentimentality, but maybe just a simple sense of discovery, and bit of inspiration - which we only got in a few scenes of the nearly 2 hour movie. 

Director Gereon Wetzel, a former archaelogist, did seem to treat the film as a scientific expedition - but with nearly all meticulous documentation, and little sense of adventure. The film assumes viewers already know all there is to know about El Bulli, and spends a good two-thirds of it passively observing what's happening in the studio kitchen 'fly-on-the-wall' style - not so much the fascinating bits of actual cooking - but shots of charts, chefs recording tested dishes on laptops, discussions about soft-copy vs hardcopy documentation, kitchen gadgets being put to work - which just felt...sterile.  We never get to really know the people behind the food.  To us the cinematography also fell short - it just didn't feel inspired, and you could not feel passion for the subject come through on screen.  It dry-ages through footage of months of testing and menu creation at the 'taller' (cooking lab), only showing specific parts of dishes, and not til the last few moments are full dishes revealed via close-ups of Ferran's tastings, then in a slideshow with names of dishes finally in place. 

No question, it is important to show this aspect - the painstakingly detailed hard work, and that it's not all liquid-nitrogen smoke and alginate-shaped, foie gras-dusted wizardry.  However, it would have been great to balance this look at process, with examples of the food for context.  Since film lacks the ability to engage smell or taste - when the subject matter is food, it would have been helpful to overcompensate with visuals and descriptions, to trigger thoughts of the sensory experience since it cannot provide the experience itself.

Until the very end, only specific bits of dishes are shown - without engaging the audience to make them feel like they are on a journey to solve the mystery together, to guess what unique creation it is the team is working towards.  We didn't need narrative nor a cheesy/gimmicky format - but as it was, the film technique (distinguished from its subject) felt a little like the Emperor's Hipster New Clothes (only smart people can see/get its 'art' in not having style? the king is naked, and not ironically).  Even at its conclusion, when they show Chef Adrià tasting the food - there is no explanation of what it is, how it was made, nor how it tastes, which only adds to the frustration.  We just see him scribbling notes, but we are not really let in on his thoughts.  It just felt like a waste, with this unprecedented access, not to use it to really create a film that is more revelatory.

That said, there were a few bright moments - when Chef Adrià and head chefs are holding an eye-opening teaching session with apprentices, and explain the concept of a 'disappearing ravioli', and how to make that happen (with treated rice paper that melts away once dipped into water!).  When Chef Adrià impressively directs a battalion of kitchen staff to churn out 30-courses with grace and synchronized precision (every minute counts when you have 30 courses!).  When a waiter frantically asks chefs who are busy plating, what he should say the dish is, and what's in it (because you can't tell just by looking at it). When chef Eduard Xatruch shares his panic at accidentally serving to a guest, sparkling water instead of flat for his water+hazelnut oil cocktail, which relies on two smooth textures working together - and expresses relief that the guest ended up liking it (with avant-garde comes risk - a common thread from concept to reception!).

The closing slideshow of each dish (with labels, at last!) was a visual feast, but again the appreciation would have been much greater if we had insight into what each involved, and if images of completed dishes served as payoff to a journey through which we truly saw the process for at least a few key creations (more than just the ravioli) - so we can get that 'aha!' moment when it all comes together in the final execution.   

In the end, I'm glad we got to see the movie - but I don't feel like it did the genius of Chef Ferran Adrià and the legacy of El Bulli justice (as compared to media/other bloggers' appreciations of epic meals there, at least).  It's like, Ceci n'est pas un film sur Ferran Adrià.  Would I recommend the movie to others?  Perhaps to those intimately familiar with molecular gastronomy (who can actually tell what they are doing without explanation), or those who are into 'process' and/or literally view each second inside Ferran's kitchen as a treat - even if it's mostly shots of prep, feet, laptops and people eating with minimal feedback.

If you've actually been to El Bulli and have a different perspective on this film, let me know...would love to hear other opinions...


El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
1MB Rating: 1 bite (out of 5)

Likelihood of 2nd Helping?: 10%
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