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November 29, 2011

An undiminished appetite

Ever have a particular craving for mandarin and ice cubes drenched in oils? How about some rabbit brain and sea anemones? Both of these avant-garde dishes topped the menu at El Bulli’s final summer-long season.

Any film that documents such an unconventional dining experience should have an equally unconventional beginning, and this is precisely what El Bulli: Cooking In Progress gives us. The two-hour documentary introduces the restaurant by showing its head chef, Ferran Adrià, sucking on a glow-in-the-dark lollipop in almost total darkness. We see a frantic look of concentration in his eyes as he taste tests this bizarre delicacy, made from fluorescent protein from a fish, as a possible candidate for El Bulli’s next menu lineup. The next scene picks up momentum, as we see the hustle-bustle of El Bulli’s cooks rush about the Catalonian restaurant in late December of 2010. Images of the idyllic Spanish countryside are juxtaposed with the chaotic din of men and women dressed in white rushing to seal up blenders, compressors, and silverware. The lights switch off, the doors close, and for the next six months, El Bulli sits in a state of total inactivity.

So what becomes of El Bulli in the half year that follows? The chefs haven’t stopped cooking, they’ve just changed location, and something magnificent is brewing. The documentary takes us through several exploratory scenes where we witness first-hand the complex creation process that precedes the perfection of each new dish. Rows of cookbooks, a seemingly infinite arsenal of cooking machinery, and frequent trips to the market to make bizarre requests like “five green grapes” or a “fish tongue” characterize this creation period. We are introduced to three main chefs, Ferran Adrià, Oriol Castro, and Eduard Xatruch, each having more than a decade of experience in the cooking world, and witness their step-by-step process of creating 40 new dishes that defy any conventional cooking tradition. From the conceptualization to production of each dish, the documentary covers all: we witness meticulous taste tests, a few quarrels between these demi-gods of cuisine, and those intense moments of euphoria when a new dish hits their taste buds just right and earns its spot on El Bulli’s final menu.

Each season is loosely characterized by a specific theme: this summer, it was water. “When diners are asked what they ate at El Bulli,” Adrià jokes in an interview within the film, “I want them to say water.” This year the menu was rife with watery meals: from “Minted Ice Lake,” a block of ice floating in a bowl of water inside more ice, to dishes featuring liquid nitrogen and others including ice cubes, water was transformed into a delicacy through unconventional cooking practices. The documentary includes several close-up shots of El Bulli’s watery treats, making the viewer seriously reconsider the culinary value of simple H20. Dishes featuring flowers and honey as ingredients also get major screen time within the film.

Then there are dramatic scenes of El Bulli’s last season, which lasted hardly a month from June 16 to July 30 2011, as a new league of aspiring cooks are brought in to help Adrià & co. handle the load. Despite six months of near-daily preparation, many of the dishes are still improvised, and new dishes continue to be conceived (largely through accident) even after the season begins. A new style of welcoming beverage was created after a waiter accidentally poured sparkling water into an oily concoction rather than regular water after grabbing the wrong glass.

This last supper contained 50 different menu items ranging from “Vanishing Ravioli” to “Parmesan Crystal” to “Bone Marrow Tartar.” The average cost (without wine) to dine at El Bulli was about $350 per person; all 8,000 reservations for the final 2011 season sold out within a day of the end of the 2010 season, with over two million people vying for the incredibly limited space. Despite high demand, El Bulli faced a great deal of debt, operating at a loss since the turn of the millennium. The restaurant’s closure in 2011 signified the end of a dynasty as its days of serving haute cuisine were over; in 2014, it will reopen as something of a chefs-only food lab where the limits of food will once again be tested, but not available to the public.

Gastro-wizard Adrià gets much of the spotlight at the end of the film as he drops his statue-like guard and passionately delves into the emotionalism of cooking. He shares his precious wisdom with his chefs-in-training and the viewer alike as he urges the group to create dishes that shock and astound their patrons, heralding avant-guard cuisine that generates a simultaneously delightful and bizzare sensory experience.

The documentary ends with brilliant close-ups of each item offered on the 2011 menu. Despite any preconceived notions about the oddity of consuming pine tree branches draped in honey or a black sesame sponge cake, the closing scene had my mouth watering. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is something of a last look at one of the world’s most dazzling and inventive restaurants ever established – seeing this film is a must for foodies everywhere.

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