No narration, no breakaway interviews, just a world-class chef developing and perfecting a brand new avant-garde menu in his private food laboratory. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is more Paul Ehrlich than Paul Beard, but you'll still find yourself drooling.
Throughout the film, the viewer is treated to an intimate look at the creative process of Chef Ferran Adria from the internationally-renowned Barcelona restaurant, El Bulli. Each year, the restaurant shuts down for six months, during which time Chef Adria and his team pore over a pantry-full of exotic ingredients to create an incredible and unique menu for the restaurant's reopening.
"Going to eat in an avant-garde restaurant gives you something like a creative emotion," Chef Adria told a room full of young line chefs. "It's not just about 'mmm, it tastes good." You feel something. You think, 'killer!' regardless of whether it tastes better or worse."
"For us, the emotional element has always been more important," he continued. "But for that you sometimes need a certain technology."
You can see the gears turning as they inspect each new potential ingredient, evaluating its color, texture, intensity, balance and taste. At one point, they're talking about cardamom and bergamot, and how those two aromas can be paired well with yuzu—an East Asian citrus fruit—because the herbs happen to smell slightly like muskrat when heated to a certain temperature, which apparently tastes fantastic with the yuzu fruit. WHO DOES THAT?! WHO HAS THE TIME?!?!
They constantly document their work with the rigorousness of seasoned lab researchers. Every preparation alternative, from frying to blanching to sweating, is recorded as they home in on a favored flavor. And the photos—so many photos. Because presentation is just as important as taste, the team is carefully to maintain a visual record of their various preparations should they, say, need a sweet potato of a certain shape and texture somewhere down the line.
But for the copious notes, the creative process requires an equal amount of pondering, naval gazing, and daydreaming to devise a menu of this caliber. You can see that in many of the dishes they showcase in the second half of the documentary. Many of them bear little resemblance to anything you'd find in the average American diet—a strange and seemingly delicious mix of mad science and age-old culinary mastery.
Most fascinating is the collaborative process between the chefs. To watch as they bounce ideas, suggestions, and critiques of one another's cooking off of each other is entertaining, but witnessing them coordinate and cooperate over a period of half a year to create this incredible finished result—a meal served on silver platters—is truly amazing.
Of course, one look at the grueling process of cooking and serving the two hundred or so dishes they come up with during the off season—35 different dishes a night, with a menu that changes every week for the six month—it's little wonder they only stay open for half the year. [Netflix, iTunes]