Say El Bulli and those in the culinary know may conjure up images of “molecular gastronomy,” impossible reservations and a foodie paradise. Situated in an idyllic cove along Catalan, Spain’s Costa Brava region, El Bulli boasts three Michelin stars and was named top restaurant in the world by “S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants” from 2007 – 2009.
Its head chef, Ferran Adrià, is the tour de force behind El Bulli which the New York Times called “the most influential restaurant in the world.” A brilliant innovator and sometimes eccentric chef, Adrià and his staff regularly did the unthinkable by closing down El Bulli half the year, sequestering themselves in a Barcelona lab to create the next season’s 30-course menu. Not that many people had the chance to experience the menu: El Bulli accommodated only about 50 for dinner per night, despite 2 million annual reservation requests.
The creative process that went into El Bulli’s annual reinvention gets the spotlight in director Gereon Wetzel’s marvelous doc, “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress.” The verite-style film observes the annual quest to remain at the forefront of culinary invention, in which Adrià and his team seek to outdo their previous menu with the help of high-tech equipment, bizarre N2O cartridges, cameras, chopping blocks and knives that help them create mushroom juice, sweet-potato meringue, freeze-dried peppermint or foamed beetroot.
iW spoke with director Gereon Wetzel last week about what drives El Bulli and the fascination it has created among foodies as well as himself. “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” will screen at New York’s Film Forum July 27 – August 9; Kino Lorber will roll out the doc in select cities throughout the summer and fall.
indieWIRE: Did you decide early on to use a cinema-verite style?
Gereon Wetzel: No. not especially. We did for this project because it’s in general my style and what I like in doc filmmaking — fly-on-the-wall style — uncontrolled cinema style. I really enjoyed to be in the background and observe what was happening. The whole story that I chose to shoot was the process and the process can be shown best when you don’t ask people which stage they’re in at the moment, but just observe.
iW: Were there any films that had an influence in your approach?
GW: Definitely filmmakers in the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s: D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles, for example – these great filmmakers who were inventing the style. I actually think it’s more of an idea than a method or style. These people for the first time were independent with their cameras and sound machines so that they could move. I could be there and observe because we were in the lab all the time, observing with the camera over their shoulders, and when we saw something interesting we shot it.
iW: So there weren’t certain days that you were scheduled to be in the lab, you were always there?
GW: Yes. We took about 12 trips from Germany of one or two weeks each time. When we were there, we were really following the whole day because people get used to the camera.
iW: Obviously Ferran Adrià isn’t media-shy and has done many on-camera interviews. How did you two come together and decide on this documentary?
GW: For me, I was interested that they close the restaurant for half a year and I thought to myself, “What the hell are they doing for half a year? There must be something interesting going on; a process in developing new dishes.” Like a painter you observe while making a picture, it seemed interesting to follow a whole year-long cycle of developing the menus. The menus and dishes are protagonists and they develop in this way and that way and do or don’t have a premiere in the restaurant. It seemed like a good concept.
We talked to Ferran — my wife and I, who is from Barcelona and always work together in co-direction and in preparation — and wrote emails to [him]. He was quite convinced about the project because nobody had done it before in this way: To follow them for the whole year with a focus on the creative process. There are quite a lot of films about El Bulli, but it’s more challenging to have the patience to follow it for one year. We had to wait for about two years because there are so many things going on at El Bulli and [we had to wait for] the right moment. So in 2008 we met again and decided to shoot from 2008 to 2009. He was very convinced and gave us access to everything.
iW: Were there any rules set ahead of time?
GW: No, we could do whatever we wanted to do but we still had a very fixed focus. There were no interviews about his private life because we weren’t interested in that. We concentrated on the work and there were no secrets between us. It is very important for a documentary filmmaker to have permission to shoot everything that you want and to not have restrictions.
iW: I could feel there was a lot going on in the lab in Barcelona and at El Bulli itself and the tension is palpable. Were there any conflicts between the two creative processes in such close quarters?
GW: Well, they had to be patient with us because the rooms were small and we had a big camera and three people in there. We were not disturbing the process but we were disturbing some kind of movement, but they never let us feel that. They are used to working between many people in narrow rooms. They didn’t pay much attention, which was very important for us because we didn’t want to be the focus of it all; we just wanted to be in the back and observe. Our method is one that I can really recommend while making a film in order to not cause tension.
iW: Not to give anything away, but there was a particular moment with Ferran and one of his deputies that was almost uncomfortable to watch. Were there any times that they asked you to turn the camera off?
GW: This was kind of a magic, magic moment in filmmaking. We were there for such a long time and were a part of the process. Ferran is not shy and he wanted to show the difficulties. When we were editing, we knew that moment you refer to and that it had nothing directly to do with creative process but with a computer. It was important, however, to the dramaturgy of the film to have this moment where everybody is filled with ideas and everyone is pissed off and then Ferran explodes. It was important to show how hard it is to be creative. Ideas don’t fall from the sky; you have to work very, very hard and there’s a lot of pressure to invent something.
iW: It’s so surprising that they work for six months and they create this amazing menu and then return to the lab and start from scratch. Their worst enemy is almost themselves, because they’ve created so much culinary art and have to break it down and start anew.
GW: It has a lot to do with filmmaking too. I found many things to be similar in this method of working with my own work — trying to plan something that doesn’t work and experiencing accidents in different methods of editing and shooting. Teamwork is very important in both. Lots of ideas are generated in doc filmmaking as well. Everyone is a part of our menu/our film, you can compare the two.
iW: When filming at El Bulli itself, I noticed that there were only minimal moments where you saw customers. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
GW: Yes it was a conscious, and a very simple decision. We could have arranged something with the customers, some were going there every year and we could have filmed the table but I didn’t want to do it.
GW: I think it would be almost pornographic, hearing people go “mmm” and “aahh.” You can’t replicate the feeling of eating there on film.
iW: You got a little bit around that, though, because you had the waiters coming into the kitchen and saying how the customers were reacting.
GW: Yes, that was very important to me to point out, that they are reacting to what the customers say. The story with the oil water, for example, and when [the waiter] asks if they put it in a cantaloupe or not and [Ferran] replies, “Yes, we serve it like this,” but it was too wild for the customers so they changed it and put a little here and there. They really respond to what people say and that’s important to the process of the dishes and the whole story of the film.
It’s hard to have a very nice location, nice people, a lot of things going on that are interesting. But ultimately, the filmmaker has to decide what the point is and not try to do the whole story, which is very complicated. You could make a doc about the history, a doc about one evening or the logistics of El Bulli for example. But our point was to concentrate on the creative process with the dishes and the people and for sure, the dynamic of the people.
iW: I read that at the end of your production you were able to have the dining experience at El Bulli. As maybe an amateur food critic, how was it?
GW: It was fantastic, it’s an experience, really, it doesn’t have so much to do with your typical candlelit dinner with your wife. It’s wild. It forces you – it’s a challenge in a very positive way. So I was there with the whole production crew and I said in the middle of the meal that I was so happy that it was so good. Because — shit, what would we have done if it were bad after doing a doc for three years?
iW: I also heard that the food is emotional or it creates emotion in the way that it’s presented and delivered.
GW: Yes, we talked for five hours about only food. It’s about a three-hour meal, but we took five.
iW: Was there one thing in particular you enjoyed the most?
GW: In the beginning, you’re more open than in the end of menu. In the beginning, you start with snacks and there are three, four, five things at the same time on the table. It’s like a festival, you are eating very fast. I think it’s really hard to say what dish you remember the most. It’s like a symphony, in that at the end [of the meal] you don’t say, “I thought that part was the best.”