Review: “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” Takes You Into the Magic Factory

"El Bulli: Cooking in Progress" is an observational, intimate look at an iconic restaurant and its creator, chef, and visionary, owner Ferran Adrià. 

For the uninitiated, El Bulli is a restaurant located near the town of Roses, Spain, overlooking the Cala Montjo Bay, that’s won countless awards, including being named Restaurant Magazine's best restaurant in the world from 2006 to 2009. Open just six months a year, it specializes in “molecular gastronomy,” blending culinary and scientific wizardry to break new ground. At El Bulli, crystallized Parmesan, soy matches, and a game-meat cappuccino aren’t dishes from a sci-fi cuisine of the future--they’re signature menu items.

"El Bulli: Cooking in Progress" is the work of filmmaker Gereon Wetzel, a German-born director who says he doesn’t consider himself a “foodie.” In a recent interview with ABC News, Wetzel commented that it was the “process” behind El Bulli that fascinated him more than the end result. “How do they do it? What does it take to get to these ideas?”

Wetzel spends much of the film trying to figure this out. Most of the shooting that took place from 2008-2009 was not done in the restaurant’s kitchen, but in its lab. It's there that Adrià, along with his creative team of chefs Mateu Csanas, Orio Castro, Eugeni De Diego, and Eduard Xatruch, devises new dishes for the upcoming restaurant “season.”

To all but the most dedicated lovers of gastronomy, the pacing in the first half can seem sluggish, lingering too long on too many back-and-forth moments between Adrià and his staff (“At the moment what matters is if it’s magical!”). But once the film moves from the lab to the kitchen, the pace of the restaurant enlivens the film and pulls you into the action.

Those seeking insight into the mind of 49 year-old Adrià, will likely be disappointed, as Gereon doesn’t even try to shed light on the largely private and mysterious chef. But perhaps that’s the point. Sometimes a little mystery is more powerful than partial answers, and besides, El Bulli has become bigger than one man, clearly the creation of many.

This isn’t a documentary intended to capture important discovery. There’s no sweeping Hans Zimmer score to instruct the viewer that this may be The Most Important Restaurant of Our Time. The cinematography is simple, dominated by handheld camera work. There are no sit-down, talking head interviews to give Adrià or any of the restaurants’ chefs or admirers a podium from which to wax poetic.

Rather, the cooking, creation and mythology that surrounds El Bulli is theater enough. It’s a celebration of a restaurant that, in many ways, seems to have accomplished everything. In the end El Bulli: Cooking in Progress may not explain how the magic happens, but it gives you an unprecedented view of the show, one that ends on Friday, July 29th, when El Bulli closes its doors to begin the transformation into a culinary education center to open in 2014.

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress opens Wednesday, July 27, in limited release

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