For roughly a decade, the most famous contemporary restaurant in the world has been El Bulli, chef Ferran Adria's avant garde gastronomic bastion, situated in a beautiful villa in northeastern Spain. (Adria announced the restaurant will close in 2012.) Gereon Wetzel's documentary will mostly be of interest to those who have heard of it and tried to imagine a "meal" there — if that's what you want to call dining at El Bulli.
An evening at El Bulli typically consists of 35 small plates sampled over at least three hours (costing roughly $250 per person before wine), but six hours isn't unheard for people who have made the culinary pilgrimage. The setting is elegant and the service precise. Adria presides over the evening like an imposing orchestra conductor. His dishes are combinations of art and science designed to thrill as many senses as possible. In the film, his chefs take common items like sweet potatoes, mushrooms and cherries and manipulate them beyond recognition. Exotic ingredients such as rabbit brain, calf shoulder cartilage, tuna fish marrow and some of the enhancements of molecular gastronomy, such as xanthan gum, are subjected to a wide array of science lab techniques. Some things are flash frozen using liquid nitrogen, others are vacuum sealed, cooked and their juices extracted and made into jellies. Other ingredients are turned into powders. His team of chefs then comprise one- and two-bite food poems of startling color and shape, like a haiku of fennel, tangerine and eucalyptus. Adria stands at a sort of lectern, calling out the short titles to the dishes — "Needle tree," "Razor shells," "Peking" — and a small army of chefs in impeccably clean white coats prepare them. On a typical night, a staff of 60 to 70 serves 50 guests.
The goal of Adria's intricate techniques is to please the eyes and palate, but most importantly to make each dish "magical," to create dramatic and bewildering sensory thrills involving texture, temperature and transformation (i.e. the ice vinaigrettes and vanishing ravioli in the documentary). Whether he achieves this one cannot tell from the film, although, when his chefs present items that don't taste "good," he doesn't suffer that lightly. A slideshow at the end of the documentary features a mind-blowing sequence of food porn: "bone marrow tartare with oysters," "coconut sponge," "Parmesan crystal," "pumpkin meringue sandwich with almonds and summer truffle," "minted ice lake," etc., and many of the items are so deconstructed it wouldn't be easy to match titles and pictures.
The camera follows the chefs in their offseason as they work in a test kitchen in Barcelona to develop new techniques and ideas for the coming season of service (mid-June to December). The documentary is voyeuristic, and the camera looks over the shoulders of the chefs as they work through detailed steps, many of them detached from any idea of what the final product will be. They tinker like engineers and annoy vendors at local farmers markets as they try to buy five grapes and three beans — not a kilo or a bunch, just five grapes and three beans. There is no narrative, very little history or context, and rarely does Adria comment on what he does. (It's in Spanish with English subtitles.)
After 40 minutes of research and development, the film follows the crew back to El Bulli, where they prepare to open for the season. These scenes offer the most insight into Adria's approach as new employees are trained and the season's dishes revealed. It's like a fashion runway as new items are primped for Adria's approval and finally presented to diners. Tickets $7 general admission, $6 students/seniors, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello
El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
7:30 p.m. Friday to Thursday
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net