Of course these kinds of lists are wildly subjective, but before it served its final meal in July of last year, elBulli had been voted the world's best restaurant five times in the pages of the British magazine Restaurant. Located in Roses, Spain, on Catalonia's stunning Costa Brava, elBulli, under the direction of Ferran Adrià, was renowned for pushing the envelope of haute cuisine by combining the chef's imagination with the all of the edible science at his disposal to create something entirely unexpected.
But out of the 2 million reservations requests that the 50-seat elBulli fielded every year, only about 8,000 guests got to experience the three-hour repast of 30-plus courses (at about $350 per person), making director Gereon Wetzel's "elBulli: Cooking in Progress" a valuable if slightly sterile visual account of just what happened there. And those diners didn't even get the insider access that we're afforded through cinematographer Josef Mayerhofer's fly-on-the-wall images, a job made relatively easy through elBulli's gorgeous surroundings, intriguing staff, and exquisite food.
elBulli was actually open only about half the year, the other half devoted to time in the kitchen lab coming up with new dishes, and that's where "Cooking in Progress" opens. It's the end of a season, so the equipment gets packed up in Roses and moved to Barcelona. That's where Adrià's team, led by the patient, committed Oriol Castro, begins to brainstorm elBulli's next menu. And the possibilities really are endless; sweet potatoes give up their essence, mushrooms take a spin in the vacuumizer, a slick of hazelnut oil finds its way into a cocktail, and ice chips become the key to a successful vinaigrette.
"Taste comes later," says Adrià, notebook and utensils close at hand as he's presented dish after potential dish by nervously hovering chefs, suggesting that a foolproof technique is the current priority. We follow Adrià and other key members of his staff as they venture out into the marketplace into find ingredients, buying from one vendor five grapes ("Are you feeling the crisis?" she wonders) and arguing with the fishmonger over whether the seasonality of seafood qualifies as a trade secret. It's made very obvious that the vein of talent runs deep in the elBulli kitchen, with Adrià having the final say but Castro and co-head chef Eduard Xatruch spearheading the surprising creations.
Before long it's back to elBulli to open for the season, the kitchen now housing an army of young chefs accepted that year for an unpaid but coveted stage. And, on the off-chance you've read it, this also happens to be where "Cooking in Progress" merges with Lisa Abend's book "The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli." Both the film and the book cover 2009, the former able to provide faces to names and glossy food porn to finished dishes. We witness a little of the interns going through elBulli's exacting paces, as their mentors offer terse correction and private praise.
But, as Adrià points out, "Creativity and production are two different things," so the film mostly sticks to Adrià and his senior staff as they fine-tune the formulas that will ultimately lead to the menu. "Cooking in Progress" is shot in the style of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, meaning that there's no narration and, save for the odd graphic, essentially devoid of context. It's not always easy to tell what's occurring, and even the most diehard gastronome might find their thoughts wandering during an extended scene of someone mulling over an ingredient. This is the rare food documentary that will leave you more fascinated than hungry.
The frustrating thing, though, is that the intense and unblinking Adrià remains quite the cipher. He spends much of the film in the background on the phone, and though we get glimpses of both Adrià's fiery temper and clever wit, we don't learn what inspired the man to almost singlehandedly reinvent the 21st-century dining experience. (And no insight into Adrià's plan to reopen elBulli in 2014 as a sort of culinary think tank.) But once director Wetzel closes his film with alluring still-life photography by longtime Adrià collaborator Francesc Guillamet of dishes like bone marrow tartar with oysters and "vanishing ravioli," it's obvious that he too thinks like a chef, recognizing that the food is the real star.