Tonight in Seattle:  

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

{El Bulli: Cooking in Progress opens in Seattle on Friday, December 2nd, and is screening at the Landmark Varsity Theater}

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is a documentary that follows the modern day equivalent of Willy Wonka through a year long cycle of their world famous restaurant. It's shot in a way that some people some people may dislike, possibly intensely. Absent are the talking heads viewers have been accustomed to, narrating what they're doing (or did) and why. Instead, El Bulli provides a fly on the wall perspective -- where no one speaks to or even acknowledges the camera. But for those patient enough to immerse themselves in it, what emerges is a beautiful meditation on food, art, and the creative process. The last in a way that I believe will be familiar to those schooled in any research like endeavor, scientific or artistic. Meaning - it's not just a film for foodies.

Actually for many of them, the process of El Bulli may seem like a foreign discipline. When I started realizing it was about more than preparing unusual food is when I got seriously hooked. It's definitely not one of those simple "listen to folks talk about how great a chef/musician/actor/whatever is" creations. As such not everyone will love it, but for the right amount of patience it can be a very rewarding experience.
 
For those not familiar, El Bulli is a restaurant of legendary reputation. Home of head chef Ferran Adrià, it's a Mecca of the molecular gastronomy movement. Otherwise known as one of those places that serves foam. A meal at this establishment is not a quick thing you do before a film or the theater. Outside of Barcelona, the beautiful environment on the bluffs overlooking the sea complement the meal...which is roughly 35 courses and three hours long. I won't attempt to retread all the fancy tech Adrià and his compatriots have established to do what they do to food. There are enough articles to be read on that topic on one's own. And the movie thankfully doesn't fetishize the tech. Instead, by providing a purely show vs tell observational perspective, it if anything fetishizes the creative process. Which is something I can get behind.
 
El Bulli opens on a dark screen upon which we watch a man enjoying a lollipop. For all we know there may be gum in the center. What is apparent is this sucker glows in the dark. The style of the film is established as the viewer eavesdrops on the conversation surrounding the evaluation of the fluorescent lolly. That'll just be one inquiry into the unusual made by the core crew of El Bulli's kitchen. It's also just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the magical things we'll see.
 
Each year El Bulli shuts down for six months, wherein the creative principals retreat and tinker like mad scientists with the audience observing things every step of the painstaking way. There are moments where it's honestly a bit boring as the experiments continue and continue. Eventually though, the brain matches the cadence of the film. At which point clarity emerges as you realize their greatness comes from repetition and experimentation. The runtime of the film spans one full season. Meaning they retreat to develop techniques, return to the restaurant to build those into recipe, then complete tweaking them throughout the serving portion of the year. Culminating with a photo shoot of the new dishes. The film encourages a lot of extracurricular reading. I spent most of the film wondering what the hell does a dejuicer or vacuumizing do. A set of personal research I'm still behind on.
 
Watching the different personalities and roles is enjoyable. The goal of Adrià varies by each stage of the processes. In the beginning the focus is on invention "Now we don't worry what it tastes like. This is research. We are looking for something magical.". Then as the dining season approaches the tact shifts toward using that magic to make something people want to eat. While ensuring the staff is up to the task of serving a 35 course meal on schedule "Creativity and production are two different things".  The film isn't just about Adrià - in fact an equal amount of screen time is given to his creative co-workers. The fact that there's not just one voice in such a creative process isn't surprising, and it's interesting to watch the dynamics at work over the year.
 
Ultimately this film was a fascinating ride. First because watching greatness in invention and engineering a solution is always impressive. As I believe chef Oriol Castro says most accurately, "You never know from where ideas will come." It's fantastic to see a treatment of creative process that does due justice to inevitable false starts. But ultimately the most amazing moments for me of the film where the last five minutes. As each of the courses is shown as a still photograph. At which point the viewer sees the realization of El Bulli's process come to life in beautiful relief.
 

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