El Bulli: Cooking in Progress Dir. Gereon Wetzel

[if... Productions; 2011]

Styles: food doc
Others: I Like Killing Flies, La Mystere Picasso, Touch the Sound

There are now two great chefs in the world that I know about because of fascinating feature-length documentaries. One lives in the Village in New York, is massively overweight, makes up recipes as he goes along, and is only half-kidding when he tells customers to stick any food they don’t like up their asses. The other is an impeccable Spanish gentleman with a quiet but despotic demeanor, a restaurant with a militaristically obedient staff and a keen taste for the magic of innovative food. Like the Village oddball, the Spanish gentlemen also happens to make up recipes as he goes along, only he does it empirically and over the course of a year (his recipe-makin’ process resembles a highly codified science experiment, his kitchen a lab), before tweaking his best dishes as they go out to customers.

It’s apparent after watching both El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, about the Spanish gentlemen, and I Like Killing Flies, about the overweight crackpot, that the two chefs are one another’s cosmic (or filmic) yin and yang. Looked at superficially, Ferran Adria (El Bulli) and Kenny Shopsin (Shopsins) have approaches to creating food that couldn’t be more different. Looked at more precisely, they’re different sides of the same coin: idiosyncratic cowboy geniuses (one a sheriff, the other an outlaw) of the culinary arts, or maybe just the Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison of food. If they could somehow merge their restaurants, or at least the philosophies behind them, it seems likely that the gastronomic nirvana each chef seeks might be more attainable.

But this is a review of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, about the world-famous Spanish eatery, not I Like Killing Flies, a film that got in its licks at Sundance back in 2004. So before I go on about my amazing discovery that there exist two super-chef documentary subjects who are nutty in completely different ways, I’ll go ahead and recommend El Bulli.

Long for a documentary about a restaurant, Cooking in Progress divides its runtime into three sections, and the first — roughly 40 minutes — is devoted to simply watching Adria and his highest-ranking chefs search for new spins on old recipes, as if on the trail of the Holy Grail. We get to watch them take a sweet potato, cook it six different ways, photograph each part, and then take extensive notes on the results — and it’s not boring. If you want to know how watching someone cook a sweet potato can not be boring, you must see this doc. After the sweet potato, they repeat the process with even finer foods, the likes of which I have barely heard.

There could hardly be a more worthy subject for a food doc (or at least for the rare type of food doc that isn’t about shaming people away from McDonald’s) than El Bulli. Its credentials are beyond belief, at least for those of us who’ve made so many frozen pizzas we feel like we may never deserve a seat at a fancy place again. It’s tucked into some obscure hills overlooking a lovely lake in rural Spain, but it’s been voted the number one restaurant in the world (or at least in the top three) over and over again by the biggest fine-dining magazines; it has a two million-strong waiting list but seats only 8,000 people in a season; and its menu is conceptually rethought on a yearly basis, down to the tiniest aspects of the hors d’oeuvres. It’s a weird, ambitious restaurant that deserves a documentary to take it as seriously as it takes itself.

Part of that means recognizing that what El Bulli does seems absurd. Who has the money to shut down their restaurant every six months and redesign their menu? But the absurdity fades the more the filmmakers treat the cooking process with hushed respect. This movie has the same reverence for the chefs at El Bulli that Clouzot once had for a certain famous painter in his La Mystere Picasso. Cooking in Progress is a doc that unashamedly agrees with its eccentric subject that cooking is an art. It then goes the extra step of showing us the most rigorous artistic process we could imagine, by way of proof.

Okay. Good doc, check it out. But there’s a larger issue here. There’s a mystical connection, I’m not too humble to point out, between Ferran Adria and Kenny Shopsin. How can two men from opposite sides of an ocean, with no discernible surface similarities, wind up espousing (in essence) the same odd philosophy, in evil-twin documentaries that warmly embrace their eccentricities?

Are these new types of food docs? Ones that try to ask whether chefs have a right to be considered artists? Or whether food has a place among great artworks? Adria and Shopsin don’t see themselves as chefs so much as philosophers of the way that people eat and of the connection between food and the larger experience of life. Adria is far more guarded — throughout Cooking in Progress, he seems enamored with his lofty, world-class position, and he doesn’t deign to talk to the film crew — but the madness is in his method. The sheer amount of toil and precision we watch him expel in order to find new recipes tells us he cares about food on a deeper level than the rest of us. Shopsin, on the contrary, does nothing but speak to the camera, and he philosophizes outright.

I’d end with a quote by Adria if he had gone so far as to elucidate his philosophy, but (in the movie, at least) he seems content to let his restaurant’s fame do that for him. Instead, I’ll leave a quote by Shopsin, with the understanding that he is more or less speaking the words that his more polished kindred spirit would, if he weren’t so busy cooking. Keep in mind that all he’s really talking about is making soup for strangers.

All these issues about terrorism, race, education, school prayer… they’d be a lot easier if we had a meaning of life going for us. Not that that’s easy to achieve, but nobody seems to be looking. Am I, with my busy work, seeking to inject meaning into my life? The way that I choose to function is to pick an arbitrary stupid goal, become totally involved in it, and pursue it with vigor, and what happens to you with that vigor is Your Life. Understand that it’s stupid - but not stupid to pursue - because it’s the only way you can inject meaning into your life. Otherwise you’re left with this great — Why Bother?

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