Nestled in a picturesque spot along a bay on Catalonia’s Costa Brava in Spain, the three-star Michelin restaurant El Bulli is home to Ferran Adrià, considered by many colleagues and foodies to be the world’s most innovative chef. He’s a culinary avant-gardist who’s strongly associated with molecular gastronomy, an emerging field that fuses cooking with the rigors of scientific experimentation, bringing tools into play like liquid nitrogen, thermal immersion circulators, and syringes. Those lucky enough to eat at El Bulli are treated to a three-hour, 30-plus-course tasting menu that Adrià and his staff fill with bold presentation and unexpected, “magical” flavor combinations. It isn’t just a sensory adventure, it’s a glimpse into the future of cooking, as the techniques and creations refined at El Bulli find their way into the wider world, much like the work of influential fashion designers.
Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking In Progress follows Adrià for one year: Half of this is spent at the restaurant, the other half in a laboratory in Barcelona, where he and his men—they’re all men—develop the flavors that will eventually go into the next season’s menu. Wetzel provides the bare minimum of context, with just a few expository titles used when absolutely necessary. The rest of the time, Wetzel’s camera observes long scenes of tinkering with different concepts and meticulously documenting each one on computers and billboard printouts in the lab. Later, the film moves to the restaurant, which is run with the cold-blooded efficiency of a Special Forces unit. (One cook explains, reasonably, that losing two or three minutes here and there in a 30-course meal would throw things off dramatically.)
There’s nothing particularly distinctive or engaging about Wetzel’s fly-on-the-wall style, which feels like second-hand Frederick Wiseman. But for hardcore foodies, El Bulli offers a clear, unvarnished look at the master at work. The restaurant section proves more engaging than the footage at the Barcelona laboratory, mostly because it’s the payoff to prep work that’s difficult to decipher. But the process in both arenas defies the preconceived notion of cooking as an exuberant, spontaneous, sensual activity. No doubt there’s passion in Adrià’s hushed kitchen, too, but it’s channeled into an exacting vision that looks a lot like art.