The doors of restaurant El Bulli are only open to the public for six months of the year; the rest of the time, a team of experts is creating a new avant-garde 30-course menu. Looking on from the sidelines, we watch experiments with structure, sound, color and – finally – flavor. Owner Ferran Adrià is always on hand, tasting everything created in this flavor lab.
El Bulli in Spain is arguably the best restaurant in the world. Only when it closes, it passes this honor on to Nomad in Copenhagen. Closes? Yes, each year El Bulli closes for a couple of months so that the chefs can retreat to their lab and construct new – well, how shall I put it – ‘cuisine’.
German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel followed the chefs in their lab and in the restaurant. In the film El Bulli – Cooking in progress, he perfectly aligns the creation of the new cuisine with the narrative of the film itself. And despite the lack of smell and taste in cinema, he manages to get across some of the sensations that food at El Bulli is all about.
In the beginning of the film we witness how staff pack up the kitchen utensils and furnishings of El Bulli and drive them to Barcelona. Here they set up a labkitchen and start experimenting. Initially we see familiar ingredients: sweet potatoes and mushrooms of various kinds. But when the first step is to create sweet potato juice, it starts becoming less familiar. What can you do with sweet potato juice? You can fry it! With a little oil, with lots of oil or without any oil. Just see what works best. The chefs buy five grapes: why buy a kilo if you need only five for an experiment? And no, no asparagus, they still have three beans. They try various mushroom broths, without any idea where it will take them. Nor do we as viewers have any idea where this film is taking us. Who are these chefs? What are their names, their roles and positions?
We get lost: we have no idea where this is going. But neither do the chefs. They keep trying new things, without knowing whether they will ever use them. And they taste, taste, and taste again.
«Despite the lack of smell and taste in cinema, he manages to get across some of the food sensation»
Because of the lack of context, information, and seemingly narrative, the film is a genuine test of the viewer’s patience. Wetzel observes it all, adds a little music and a few intermezzo shots. Strategically placed texts reveal a love for the picture. Filming cooking experiments is not easy, especially when those involved barely communicate audibly and restrict themselves to looks and small facial gestures. In the beginning of the film, Wetzel seems to struggle to find a balance between filming ingredients and processes on the one hand and faces on the other. Of course it is difficult when you are there with your camera. When the chefs hardly know what is going on and what will happen next, how can you as a filmmaker anticipate anything? Slowly though, the various
Dishes begin to surface and it becomes clearer to us what this is all about. The hierarchy becomes evident and the menu gets constructed. We witness how Oriol, Eduard and Mateu, who all spent well over ten years at El Bulli, rediscover food and the art of creating menus as if for the first time. And Ferran, owner of El Bulli, supervises it all, approving, disapproving more often, like a God reigning over his empire. Wetzel turned the lack of dialogue onto a strength: the looks and gestures not only disclose a rare intimacy and understanding between the chefs, they also give us the possibility to genuinely observe what is going on between them. It is again the image that counts. We look at their faces and see what they mean. Often the looks are a source of laughter as well. Amazingly, the development of the dishes continues once the restaurant has opened. Paying customers serve as guinea pigs. They visit the kitchen, where Ferran sits at the side, looking at, tasting and commenting on every plate the chefs put in front of him. And again, those looks.
The parallel between the creative culinary process and the development of the narrative is clear. Like film is for the experienced viewer who does not need instant satisfaction, so the creation and construction of the menu is not a matter of instant satisfaction, nor is spending an evening at El Bulli (eating is too vulgar a word for it). But beyond that there are more parallels with other creative processes, with art in general if you will. Every element in the various dishes is carefully chosen, different techniques are tried. One could continuously ask: why this ingredient, why this process, why these combinations, why this dishware? The dishes as well as the menu on a whole are completely constructed, like the film is, starting with basic ingredients, transforming them, putting them together, editing dishes and menu as scenes and movie, adding spices like sound, music and text.
Nothing is a matter of course and the curiosity for new sensations is never-ending. A scene near the end of the film illustrates this never-ending curiosity for new sensations perfectly: one of the ‘dishes’ this season is a cocktail of water with nut oil on top. By mistake, the head chefs serve sparkling water instead of non-sparkling. Ferran does not get angry at this mistake; on the contrary, he immediately tries this combination: who knows, it might work ever better! El Bulli presents a feast for the eyes and the senses, but it doesn’t give itself easily. Nor does this film. However, those willing to accept the ‘experiment’ will be paid in the end. For El Bulli this means an almost erotic sensation of first seeing the creation, examining the colors, form and texture, then putting it in your mouth, feeling it, smelling and tasting it. At the end of an evening at El Bulli you may feel you have eaten. But that is not the point.