Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Kitchen Elite: El Bulli

Compared to a table at master chef Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, getting a reservation at Nobu is just like snagging the corner booth at a White Castle. They only accommodated around 8,000 people per season, before packing up for the winter to develop a completely new menu of rarified culinary creations. Yet since the celebrated Catalan restaurant is schedule to permanently close its doors this coming Saturday, adventurous connoisseurs will have to settle for the vicarious meal developed in German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel’s documentary El Bulli—Cooking in Progress (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

There is no falling back on greatest hits at El Bulli. Adrià throws out the previous season’s set menu, thirty-some sequential small plate courses, starting entirely from scratch. The only guiding principle of El Bulli is originality, with a preference for ingredients employed in radically new contexts. Yet, Adrià and his staff do not carry on like crazies cooks let loose in the kitchen. Rather, they more closely resemble research scientists conducting closely controlled laboratory experiments.

Frankly, Cooking in Progress could use a bit of messiness. Save for one harsh verbal dressing down (that seems largely unwarranted), there is not much drama to found throughout the film. Instead, the audience quietly watches as they quietly refine each new course. While Gereon’s fly-on-the-wall observational style certainly leads to an appreciation of Adrià’s methodical approach, it can leave viewers rather cold.

In fact, it is rather difficult to glean a sense of Adrià’s personality and even harder for his trusted lieutenants, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatrach, beyond their master-apprentice relationships. Though they are definitely working under deadline as the new season approaches, Progress does not seek to exploit the ticking clock for dramatic effect. However, the unveiling of the new dishes delivers the hoped for pay-off. Even culinary laypersons will be impressed to see what the raw ingredients ultimately become. Indeed, cinematographer Josef Mayhofer nicely captures the elegance of both the striking coastal restaurant and its artfully rendered cuisine.

Progress is a cooking film in the purest sense. Hardcore Food Network viewers will probably be enthralled by it, but those lacking a serious culinary grounding, including seasoned doc watchers, might find it somewhat austere and slow. Yet, for the considerable target audience, Progress will be a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a celebrated restaurant, soon to be remembered in mythic terms. Eminently respectable, Progress opens this Wednesday (7/27) at Film Forum, with chefs and culinary science experts in attendance for several opening week evening screenings.