Have you ever heard of the restaurant El Bulli, and do you know anything about its secluded location in Spain, its 35-course meals and jaw-dropping prices? Is the term "molecular gastronomy" familiar to you? If so, you will certainly be fascinated by the documentary 'El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,' an immersion into the research and experimentation undertaken by the restaurant's chefs. If not ... you might feel a little lost.
The conceit of this German documentary is to drop you right in the middle of the chefs' work, with the barest minimum of context, explanation or information. The only set-up consists of a little bit of text informing you that every 12 months, chef Ferran Adria closes El Bulli for six months to develop a new menu for his restaurant.
The first part of the film focuses on a few days during the six months of R&D (so to speak) in which the chefs perform in their "lab" location. They take copious notes and the scene does indeed look like a science lab, as they experiment and record what happens when mushrooms and sweet potatoes are cooked in numerous different ways. Adria is blunt with his sous chefs and has no qualms about expressing his disapproval.
In the second half of 'El Bulli,' the scene shifts back to the restaurant itself as the chefs and staff prepare to reopen. More experimentation takes place, this time focusing on specific arrangements and dishes rather than on "What happens when I do this to a carrot?" The chefs also train the kitchen and house staff. The restaurant reopens and we see the results from the kitchen point of view -- the camera peeks in the windows of the dining room, but no further.
The focus and storytelling method work on a certain level -- kitchen voyeurism, ideal for foodies. But this film from German documentary director Gereon Wetzel doesn't work as an experience a wider audience might enjoy. So many questions are left unanswered, so many potentially fascinating avenues are unexplored. Who goes to this restaurant? How much does it cost? Who are these chefs -- we barely learn their names. The question of whether some of the deconstructivist/molecular gastronomy experiments and dishes actually qualify as food is another one I would have enjoyed seeing explored.
'El Bulli: Cooking in Progress' is as single-minded in its intent as the chef it shows us ... but not nearly as creative or innovative. I enjoyed watching the chefs at work, both researching and preparing a meal with dozens of courses ... but afterwards I felt oddly unsatisfied and in need of something a little more filling.