The acclaimed Catalan restaurant El Bulli, which permanently closes its doors as a dining establishment this weekend, is not a place for normal folk. Rated consistently as one of the best restaurants in the world, the high-end, hard to book hideaway of haute cuisine is well known to foodies for its exceptionally creative, truly experimental avant-garde dishes — half science, half art. And I guess in whole food and drink, too, but most us will never really know how any of it tastes, especially not now that it’s being turned into a “culinary research foundation.” Thanks to Gereon Wetzel’s documentary “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” however, we at least get to winess the science and art of head chef Ferran Adrià and his staff over the course of one year. But like the place and its menu, the film is not for normal folk.
If you want a more ‘comfort food’ sort of look at El Bulli, there’s an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” show that satisfies the appetite of Food Network-bred foodies. But if you’re still curious about Wetzel’s film and like context, Bourdain’s typically detailed and flavorful narration will be a good primer anyway. “El Bulli” only really explicitly tells us one thing: the restaurant would close about half the year, the off season being filled with in-depth experimentation in a Barcelona test kitchen. This initial segment sounds interesting, but given the strict observational nature of the film we aren’t let in on a whole lot. It’s like watching a painter mix colors on the palette and then only being allowed an out-of-focus glimpse at the canvas during the application. However, this is only a bad thing if you’re an impatient viewer.
Eventually we get to the actual restaurant, in the beautiful Costa Brava region of Spain (Salvador Dalí country, for those familiar with the area), but things are still fairly elusive. El Bulli opens to its reserved clientele, but the magic of the test kitchen is not immediately ready for the dining room just yet. And links between the two sections of the film are hard to come by because new menu items are added gradually over months. Where is the implementation of all that was gleaned from observing and playing with sweet potatoes back in the city? Maybe all those ideas have been scrapped. You’ll be wondering what’s going on over there and what is this over here, a lot, while you also attempt to figure out Adrià’s reactions after he samples different plates and cocktails.
Finally, just before the credits, we’re treated to the porn we came for: gorgeous photos of the items in succession with precise captions. It’s been like a puzzle this whole time and at last we get to see the big picture. With nearly every money shot comes recollection of something seen earlier, only incomprehensibly. Maybe you’ll want to re-watch later with the context of completion, or perhaps you’re fine with the slow-burn experience as it was. Either way, just as Adrià says of his food, “It’s not just about ‘Mmm, tastes good.'” It’s about a feeling. Some will tolerate the pacing and appreciate the culminated pay off enough for it to work, while others will feel complete boredom until the climax. Either way the release is like being let out of a pressure cooker even though it’s been more like a slow cooker most of the way. What a perfectly appropriate trick played on our senses.
Much like DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s latest, “The Kings of Pastry,” this doc will likely disappoint a lot of people who watch stuff like “Top Chef” and other culinary reality series who think they’re food experts. “El Bulli” is more about an artistic process than a filling experience, but it’s still a treat for those with a proper taste for it.
“El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” is now playing in NYC.
Recommended If You Like: “Kings of Pastry”; “Sweetgrass”; “Waste Land”