For serious foodies, a visit to El Bulli in Catalonia is the ultimate gastronomic pilgrimage, and for most of us, Gereon Wetzler’s documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is as close as we will ever get to experiencing the legendary restaurant.
El Bulli receives millions of reservation requests each year, but serves only 8,000 customers during the six months it is open. If you don’t have a reservation booked already for this year, your chances of ever dining at El Bulli are zero: on July 31, the restaurant will close its doors forever.
Why all the fuss? Food writers return from their visits to the restaurant on the Catalan coast with rapturous reports of a cuisine that transcends the boundaries of the imagination. In the culinary press, Chef-owner Ferran Adria has been elevated to the pantheon of culinary demigods. The price of a meal—an average of $350—is no deterrent to the globe-trotting clientele.
Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know any of this from watching Wetzler’s documentary. It can’t be easy to make a boring documentary about one of the most fascinating restaurants on earth, but the makers of El Bulli have found a recipe for tedium.
El Bulli is only open to the public for six months a year; for the other half of the year, Adria and his culinary team work at their laboratory in Barcelona, developing new recipes and techniques for the coming season. The movie follows the same division: the first part focused on the lab, and the second on opening night at the restaurant as it starts a new season.
The filmmakers follow the kitchen crew through the routines of their research and experimentation. There is at first something a bit comical about the earnestness of the chefs, as they slice and dice and weigh mushrooms and sweet potatoes and document their investigations with the precision of scientists, but much of what they do is routine.
The scenes in the laboratory are overdone, but the more serious problem is the ingredients that are missing: there are no interviews, no questions asked, and no narration to provide structure or context. Ferran Adria is clearly the genius behind El Bulli, but he gets very little time on camera. We learn very little about where he came from, how he developed his culinary skills, or his philosophy of cooking. We eat first with our eyes, but the potential for spectacular food photography is largely unexploited, except for a quick montage of still photos at the end. And we never get a sense of how these odd, inventive courses come together into a coherent dining experience. We see a few quick shots of the dining room, but we never hear from diners describing the experience of a 35-course dinner.
Too bad—but still, for serious foodies, this documentary is the closest we will get to experiencing one of the world’s most remarkable restaurants.
El Bulli screens on Sunday, June 12 at 12:15 p.m. as part of the Duluth International Sound Unseen Film Festival.
Image courtesy if… Productions