By Christopher Bell | The Playlist July 28, 2011 at 2:07AM
Television has always made a great home for food. Various cooking shows populate the airwaves, either becoming a staple of one's TV-diet or the one station you linger on during a desperate channel-surfing session. It also wouldn't be worthy of the tube if it weren't processed through the vomit of reality TV, with shows like "Hell's Kitchen" and "Ace of Cakes" morphing people into exestuated personalities and following their bouncy, sometimes-quirky-sometimes-emotional (whatever gets more ratings) adventures in the eats biz. Still, people watch them, and despite the redundant programming, nobody is exactly screaming for a more realistic study of cuisine and all that makes it happen. It's unfortunate, too, because there's something very fascinating about making what is generally supposed to be only for nourishment artful. Forget something tasting good; there are many eateries that consider food an art form, hoping to stimulate taste buds in different ways while also paying close attention to the presentation of each dish.
That, in a nut shell, perfectly describes El Bulli. Sitting quietly in the Spanish town of Roses and headed up by famous chef Ferran Adria, the avant-garde restaurant is so devoted to their art that they spend half of the year in Barcelona racking their brains and experimenting new menu items. It's quite a fascinating process, and documentarian Gereon Wetzel examines the team in "El Bulli: Cooking in Progress," an unpretentious and strangely absorbing cinema-verite flick that's a whole lot better than one would presume.
Instead of getting us acquainted with the establishment, the filmmaker parachutes right in the middle of its annual shut-down, catching the crew as they store away equipment and huddle for a brief pow-wow concerning the upcoming food roster. Wetzel isn't one for introductions, and not a single interview is shot, nor are we nursed along with title cards revealing anyone's name or occupation. Instead, the work and attitude speak for themselves -- the team travels to beautiful Barcelona, regulated to their kitchen and tasked with discovering dozens of unique meals. Despite the enticing beauty of the city, the only outings we see involve the gathering of ingredients at local stores. The camera is as equally focused on the chefs as they are with their creations, never once distracted.
Yes, it certainly sounds bone-dry, but there's a captivating purity to the film thanks to Wetzel's reluctance to employ any sort of trick or gimmick. The involved are definitely all-business, but that doesn't mean they're without passion for their craft, with the director showing them thinking on their feet and skillfully testing out bizarre concoctions (which include a ravioli where the pasta "disappears," and a cocktail consisting of only oil, water, and salt). Adria, who might as well be wearing a crown and wielding a scepter, gives the final word on what makes the cut or is sent back to the drawing board. There's occasionally some humor in his responses, but mostly things are tense as the impenetrable boss munches on the foods and keeps his interactions short. The filmmaker is very careful in not portraying him as a cartoon like most other well-known chefs in the media are; he instead captures his stern demeanor, often coming off as impatient (he rarely looks into the workers' eyes when speaking, when alone he's constantly darting his own eyes around the kitchen), allowing him to be mesmerizing in his own way.
Essentially, the movie is all about preparation; even when the return to Roses finally occurs, many plates are still being created, tweaked, and sent to the king for approval. Some swift editing ensures there's never a dull moment, but the secret to the flick's success is the heavy leaning towards the actual work that goes into coming up with each meal. The labor of love is both felt and admired, while the perfected final product (okay, the money shot) of every food is saved until the end in one last, satisfying hurrah.
'El Bulli' won't convince everyone, and truthfully, its lack of variety and nearly 2 hour running time will likely test the commitment of those who may not be so impressed with anything revolving around what some consider to be tiny portions of over-dressed food. That said, those in for the ride will be surprised at how immersing such a simply conceived film like this could be. By distancing himself from the subjects and veering away from easy documentary conventions, Wetzel centers the spotlight on dedicated teamwork and inventiveness, something much more human than your typical talking heads. With the restaurant reportedly closing at the end of this month, an additional weight and importance is given to piece. Kudos to the director for capturing the essence of the place rather than constructing sappy sentimentality. [B+]