Over time, we acquire our favorite trattorias, diners, and guaranteed crowd-pleasers, but come mealtime, we search for a spot that will fulfill a need. On a Monday that could equal the comfort of a warm meatball sub; on a Thursday it could amount to pure atmosphere, a flee from fluorescent lights to candlelit ambiance.
El Bulli, Ferran Adrià's globally worshipped restaurant located nearly two hours outside of Barcelona, both complies with and transcends the term "restaurant" by aiming not to comfort or seduce, but to bewilder. And in an environment where creativity is valued equally, if not greater, than flavor, it's hard to return to the chicken-on-checkered-tablecloth restaurant. But perhaps that's precisely what makes El Bulli extraordinary.
In Gereon Wetzel's new documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, we follow Adrià and his staff as they enter El Bulli's six-month hiatus between seasons. They devote this uninterrupted chunk to developing new recipes for the upcoming year, a luxury unbeknownst to just about everyone else. During recipe development, Adrià's head chefs, led by 12-year veteran Oriol Castro, process and prod their ingredients with no mercy. How can one reinvent a sweet potato? In order to find out, they manipulate and maneuver the potato with such sidekicks as a pressure cooker, a juicer, and a frying pan. Castro and crew keep copious notes, complete with photos, documenting the intensive testing process.
Adrià's reactions are one of the film's highlights, whether it's his ambiguous blank stare at his staff's revelations, his strong preference for the digital upkeep of the log notes, or his finger-licking approval during recipe development. He's remarkably unvocal for a man of such renown, yet as the film progresses, we learn to read the variances in his silent stares. It's clear in his loaded suggestions, visible between his furrowed brows, that he knows the path to flavorful bewilderment.
But Adrià's most excited when he's back in the restaurant kitchen, surrounded by the buzzing energy of a full house. Here, he transforms into an orchestra conductor, ensuring his staff moves like clockwork to maintain the precise flow required by 35 courses served in a maximum of three hours. Some of his most profound moments are those seemingly tripped upon, whether it's the naming of a dish three paces from its inevitable fate, or his reveling in the brilliance of an unintentional switch to sparkling water in a cocktail. And he's fueled throughout the evening by tastes—albeit mostly inexpressive ones—of each course.
The end credits, preempted by photos of strikingly beautiful deconstructed dishes, reminded me that food's moment is now. Despite El Bulli's preeminent closing at the end of this month for two years—it will then turn into a teaching school—Adrià has ignited an unparalleled rigor for the modern-day restaurant in both patrons and chefs alike. Reflections of his initiative can be seen in his US devotees such as Wylie Dufresne (wd50 in NYC), José Andrés (The Bazaar in LA), and Grant Achatz (Alinea in Chicago).
After the screening, Andrews revealed that Adrià hates his inaccurate association with the term "molecular gastronomy;" when asked to describe his food, Adrià says, "I call it El Bulli." And Halberg stressed Adrià's philosophy that at El Bulli, there's no aims for better or for worse; the end goal is bewilderment, which Adrià achieves second to none.