“El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” highlights a movement, but leaves all but foodies in the cold

When one restaurant, El Bulli, stands above all others with its adventurous and experimental food, and becomes world renowned, why not document its story?

“El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” is a pure documentary in a sense; that’s no praise.  While most documentaries are edited to create a story structure and reveal memorable characters, this film avoids that.

The opening shot seizes our attention: the chief chef, Ferran Adrià, is in the dark sucking on a piece of glow-in-the-dark fish on a stick.  That’s cool.  Sadly, it’s also the just about the best part of this documentary.  The film-maker, Gereon Wetzel, omits any sense of artistic direction, or style or purpose.  Maybe you should call it observational movie-making?  He seems to have left the cameras on-location and merely edited the project for time and comprehensibility.  Maybe this is one of those films where a critic outside of the film’s target audience, oughtn’t write about it?

Yep. Cooking in progress (Courtesy: creative commons/flickr)

In a conversation with a different documentary film-maker, Morgan Spurlock, he mentioned someone that Werner Herzog said, “every cut is a lie.”  Well, none of the cuts used here are made in the interests of a story.  It ignores elementary rules of storytelling, which every working film-maker knows and uses to win an audience.

This opens at the Film Society of Mpls/St. Paul on Sept. 23.  The film-making should not be the focus.  It should be Spanish molecular gastronomy, which can transform a diner’s experience, and lift their dining standards.

After Mr. Adrià, the trio of co-executive chefs, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casanas, are emphasized, but we only get shallow gists of any of them, who they are or why they do their work.

Divided roughly in two, the film shows the testing and experimentation process and then how the chef foursome, and the restaurant team make the successful experiments work for diners.  Their serving process must abide by military precision; their diners consume 30 courses within three hours.

Another obstacle for you: their work is not just technical, but highly technical.  Too much so for those who aren’t either intensely curious, or foodies, or cooks themselves.

The chefs’ challenges might lose most other viewers.  It’s a shame because in a “60-Minutes” segment, from April 2010, one of Adrià’s protégés, José Andrés, who, according to renowned food critics, Ruth Reichl, is the pioneer in America of Molecular gastronomy, shows how exciting molecular gastronomy is!

If food excites you, but on a more common level, I urge you to watch a different, equally esoteric, but amusing story: PBS’ documentary, “Kings of Pastry,” about ambitious, competitive French pastry chefs.  It’s a superior example of a culinary documentary.  It’s exciting: it delivers drama, suspense and personal stories.

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