Documentary “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” Food for Thought

by Rosie Carbo /
Rosie Carbo's picture
Feb 08, 2012 / 0 comments

Are you a foodie or a foodist?   Are you a food lover or a gourmet cook?  You may want to ask yourself these questions before watching the new documentary “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” next month.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will show the film one more time before it moves on to Fort Worth, its final Texas stop.  Although the film has been touring the nation’s select museum theaters, the DVD will be released on March 27. 

But be aware that this is not a cinematic biography of Spain’s Catalan chef, Ferran Adria.  It is a voyeuristic look into the deconstruction, reinvention and reintroduction of food as an extraordinary, edible art form.

Proclaimed the world’s greatest chef in 1999 by French chef Joel Robuchon of L’Atelier, Adria has taught his staff how to turn cauliflower into couscous, foie gras into eye candy, and make caviar out of olive oil.  And we see in the film, his staff, led by Chef Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch, rise to the challenge.


Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Ferran Adrià


In fact, if there’s anything lacking in the film, it is anecdotal tidbits about the “Salvador Dali of the kitchen,” which make him irresistibly fascinating.  Inquiring minds want to know how Adria evolved into a food alchemist.   

Repeatedly voted the world’s best restaurant, El Bulli earned three Michelin stars, one in 1976 when it was still a French restaurant.   Adria joined El Bulli’s staff in 1983 and was head chef by 1984. But it wasn’t until several years later that Adria began to shine and was dubbed “the father of molecular gastronomy.”

El Bulli had earned two more prestigious Michelin stars in 1990 and 1997with him at the helm.   It’s no wonder when he announced the restaurant’s closing at Madrid’s Gastrofestival, foodies and financiers began jockeying for nearly impossible to get reservations.

The movie focuses on preparations for a final 30-course menu by Adria’s 40-member team of innovative chefs.  Closing the restaurant for six months at a time to prepare the seasonal menu was more than a tradition; it was a sabbatical invented by the food wizard.

But allowing cameras in to document painstaking, behind-the-scenes preparations was a coup d’ tat for Gereon Wetzel, a German director and filmmaker who lived in Spain before attending film school in Munich.

The movie opened to a standing-room-only audience Friday at the MFAH.  Not even a sigh could be heard from the audience as the film began.  Free of a narrator and script, movie-goers had to read English subtitles to understand.

In his early years, Adria worked in France.  So in addition to being fluent in French, for the benefit of the sommelier brought for the pairings, he and his team of young chefs spoke only Spanish and Adria’s native Catalan. 

Based in Rosas, two hours northeast of Barcelona, El Bulli occupies a bucolic setting on the bay of Cala Montjoi in Catalonia.  This is where the cosmic cuisine was first presented to no more than 50 guests at a single-seating.

Now, viewers are treated to an insiders’ sampling of such culinary artistic creations as liquefied ravioli, high-tech variations on ancient Spanish olive oil, include olive oil caviar and pine cone mousse.

During much of the 108-minute film, chefs Castro and Xatruch play the dynamic duo in charge of putting a new spin on tried and true recipes.  To be fair, lesser-known young chefs also dish on the menu. 


The El Bulli staff at work

 The El Bulli staff at work


This is slow-cooked, coddled a la carte food.   The film is equally slow moving to the point that the only real audio action comes from the buzz of a gourmet’s electric processor, or the sizzling in a skillet. 

Since Adria must taste all the regenerated creations, such as aerated sauces that become edible foam, there’s no real drama.  The protagonists are myriad avant-garde creations that emerge only with Adria’s stamp of approval.

There are also a couple of humorous takes that break the audience’s silence.  One is when Castro and Xatruch go to a local open market and ask for three grapes.  The banter between the two leads to considering the purchase of three beans, too.  The crowd laughs hysterically, perhaps because it feels like a respite from watching stoic chefs brainstorm recipes.

“What intrigued us was the fact that this chef would close his restaurant for six month to come up with new ideas,” Wetzel said in a previous interview about why he made the film.  “The cooks seclude themselves, like in a cloister, forfeiting half a year’s business, to express their creativity.”

In the end, the need for creativity drove Adria to become the astronaut of culinary exploration.  He has said that cooking is a language, and though the characteristics of a product may be modified, the goal is to preserve their original flavor.

That is evident as Adria finally sits down to sample some 30 dishes as the restaurant’s reopening looms. “Don’t give me anything that isn’t good,” he remarks, after tasting a dish that is not to his liking.  Adria admits all products have the same gastronomic value, but “the more bewilderment, the better.”

When the fortunate few are finally seated to the unparalleled array of food art and equally unique cocktails, they can smugly say they were among the mere 8,000 of the 2 million who snagged a dinner reservation at El Bulli before it closed.

The restaurant will be converted to a culinary academy and open in 2014.  Adria told a New York Times critic that he loves his freedom, and he would prefer to run a culinary institution for innovative cuisine than continue running a restaurant. 

Closer to the opening date, viewers see the arrival of more chefs, interns and an army of staffers.  Adria doesn’t bark orders, but does admonish “we must function like clockwork.”  The film is short on details and dialogue, but viewers get the big picture. 

Alive Mind Cinema, a distribution arm of Kino Lorber Independent Film Distributing Company, distributes films worldwide to discerning movie-goers.  The venue for the film’s final Texas stop is the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.  To check if the film has yet to reach your local museum, go to:


Rosie Carbo is the Lifestyles Editor for Wandering Educators




Photos courtesy and copyright Alive Mind Cinema