First We Record the Idea
“The problem is the intensity, but the color is pretty.” Ferran Adrià bends over a table, his brow slightly furrowed. The head chef at El Bulli, in Roses, on the Costa Brava, he’s not inclined to yell or fume, on camera, anyway. Instead, he
Such low affect makes Adrià unusual amid today’s celebrity chefs, those excitable and loudly egoistic luminaries who host TV programs on the Food Network or the Travel Channel. That’s not to say that he’s undemanding or easy to work for. It does mean that as a screen personality, he maintains something of a mystery, and so puts on another sort of show.
Specifically, in El Bulli: Cooking in Process, Adrià hovers and nods, sits and tastes, or—most often—walks through the frame, head bent and phone to his ear. The film is less a narrative than a series of moments, framed and documented, sometimes startlingly lovely. As it tracks the “progress” of cooking for Adrià, it doesn’t invite you to share in a life or even much emotional experience. Rather, it presents the process as the chefs imagine it—steps that lead to an end.
El Bulli, Adrià‘s Michelin three-star restaurant seats just 50 extremely high-paying customers and is open for business from April to September (only at night). During the other six months of the year, Adrià‘s team of head chefs—featuring Oriol Castro, another understated, utterly dedicated mastermind—absconds to a laboratory in Barcelona, where they conjure new dishes. Or rather, they deconstruct, they invent, and they design.
Gereon Wetzel’s documentary follows this process, from the packing of plates and laptops and food-rearranging machines for transport to the city in 2008, to the reopening of the restaurant for the next six-month season. (El Bulli is closing for good on 30 July, just as the film opens in New York.) The movie opens on a black screen, punctuated by flashes—more like smudges—of greenish light. “What protein is this?” one voice begins. “Fish,” comes the answer. “From Japan?” “They’re fluorescent fish.” It’s a bit of visual abstraction that introduces the film’s method as well as the chefs’. Food may be the material, but the focus is art.
Or science. Insistent and particular, Castro guides a small team of inventors who put food through all manner of processes—cutting, steaming, blanching, and blending, of course, as well as de-juicing, drying, thermo-mixing, and vacuumizing. In the painfully precise universe of molecular gastronomy, vegetables and meats and eggs and fruits are transformed into chips, juices, pastes, ices, foams, cheeses, and gelled. “Let’s be radical with the flavor,” Adrià instructs as the lab tests begin. And so Castro and his assistants initiate the experiments—with soy sauce and water.
It appears that “radical” is a relative concept, a matter of delicate transitions rather than extreme differences, a function of details. “Research and creativity,” encourages Adrià. The judgments are swift, however, and, compared to the multiple refinements that structure any one design, can sound rather absolute. On tasting one dish, Adrià queries his chef: “Did you try this? It’s simply bad. Don’t give me anything that isn’t good.”
In order to avoid such assessments, the chefs work for long hours apart from Adrià (or at least, he’s not managing each minute, though he does walk through the backgrounds of shots, in his white coat or in civilian clothes, and always on the phone). Castro and his team record every step of every process, taking photos, jotting notes, then transcribing notes. As this recording is recorded by the film—meticulous compositions courtesy of cinematographer Josef Mayerhofer—Castro stands over plates and clicks, then loads his images and descriptions of each development onto his laptop, prints out illustrated pages in order that these might be annotated and set on a chart on the wall, changed and refined and uploaded again.
The recording of the cooking’s “progress” is crucial in some dimension of this universe. The one scene when Adrià shows any small bit of upset comes when he hears that a written record of an experiment has not been put on the hard drive yet. As Castro protests, vaguely and barely, Adrià presses, “Everything is your responsibility.” Castro explains that in fact, he has “a copy of everything.” Adrià repeats: “I don’t want it on paper, but on the computer.”
The moment passes without apparent repercussions. The film shows how the men interact, one watching the other, waiting for the briefest and subtlest of expressions. As Adrià drops his gaze or swishes a sample in his mouth, Castro studies him, silently. When, during one sequence back at El Bulli, Adrià directs the two versions of a dish—olive oil with tangerines and almonds with ice—Castro loses track, commenting to an assistant that he’s unsure which pieces was to go with which. The resulting dish, ice vinaigrette with tangerines and green olive, seems not to be the original idea, but when he tastes it, Adrià nods and might even smile. The ice and tangerine, he says quietly, are “totally brilliant.”
In the restaurant, as diners chat and clink glasses and silverware, the camera remains undistracted. As they remain at a distance, glimpsed in long shots and framed by doorways, Adrià sits at his own table, each dish laid before him. His mouth works, his eyes dart, and he nods, again and again. The film ends not with eating but with a quiet marimba soundtrack and still shots of dishes, named simply: “tea shrimp with caviar anemones,” “blossom with its nectar,” “cockles with yuzu, green olive, and fennel.” Art. Or science.