El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Beside the village of Cala Monjoi on the Costa Brava, at the end of a notoriously dangerous road, lies El Bulli, the world's most famous avant garde restaurant. Here, guests who have waited months for a reservation stay for an average of three hours and consume an average of 35 dishes each. Each of these dishes, small though it may be, is painstakingly created, designed to provide the perfect combination of flavours, textures and 'magic'. Each year some 200 new dishes are added to the menu. This documentary looks at what goes on behind the scenes.

We begin at the end, when the restaurant is closing down after another busy season. What follows is six months of research, experimentation, assessment, design and redesign as the next season's menu is prepared. It's a challenging place to begin because this is the slowest part of the process and the early stages of the film struggle a bit with pacing, never really managing to grip. The general viewer may find this part of the film tedious, but should bear with it. Culinary enthusiasts will find it interesting; although, frustratingly, we never follow any one recipe all the way through, nobody watching this closely will come away without fresh ideas for their own kitchen. It's also intriguing as a portrait of a creative process in action. Everything is tested, tasted. Sometimes accidents lead to great discoveries. Notes are taken continually; there's a row over how much should be on paper, how much on the computer. Giant charts line the walls. This is a long way from Delia's Kitchen.

As we move beyond the research stages, the film picks up. There are visits to Barcelona traders to talk about ingredients. A greengrocer, shaking her head as the chefs buy five grapes, asks if they're feeling the economic pinch. Culinary ideas start to turn into actual recipes. Although there are never any introductions, we gradually get to know the individual chefs better. At the head of it all is Ferran AdriĆ , widely considered the world's greatest - and certainly its most eccentric. He's an exacting master but every now and again his obvious pride in his fraught underlings becomes visible, as does their personal devotion to him. When it comes to serving customers, everything must work like clockwork - they can't afford to lose more than two minutes per dish - so the team requires military discipline. Observing the chaos as new recruits undergo training makes this still clearer. The kitchen is full of hazards - hot things, sharp things, liquid nitrogen - so it's also vital to keep things running smoothly in order to keep everybody safe.

It's difficult to understand how anybody could put themselves through this for eight or more hours a day over a six month period. There's only really one answer: love. And so although the film is very sparse and straightforward, almost bereft of sentiment, the passion these people have for their work is present in every moment. It goes beyond reputation or customer service - it is a passion for art. At the very end, parts of the new menu are exhibited, and the pleasure they inspire is more than meat joy. This may only give you a taste of the creative experience involved, but it will - in the best ways - leave you wanting more.

Reviewed on: 27 Jul 2012
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A look into the creative and culinary processes behind one of the world's most famous restaurants.
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Director: Gereon Wetzel

Starring: Ferran Adrià, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, Eugeni de Diego, Aitor Lozano

Year: 2011

Runtime: 108 minutes

Festivals:

SSFF 2011
BIFF 2012

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