*** El Bulli (2011)
The final entry in the list of Seven Deadly Sins has staged a stunning reversal of status in the recent years. “Gluttony” (from the Latin: gula) defines the over-indulgence and over-consumption of anything to the point of waste. In the Christian religions, it is considered a sin because of the excessive desire for food or its withholding from the needy… and from that definition, pretty much everyone I know, including myself, is guilty as charged. For roughly a decade, the most famous contemporary restaurant in the world has been El Bulli, chef Ferran Adria’s avant-garde gastronomic bastion of food porn situated in a beautiful villa in northeastern Spain… and if a better example of hardcore gluttony exists, I’m not aware of it.
An evening at El Bulli typically consists of 35 small plates sampled over at least three hours and many thousands of foodie/gluttons have made the culinary pilgrimage to this Spanish Mecca of restaurants over the years. The setting is elegant, the service perfect and chef Ferran Adria presides over the kitchen like an imposing orchestra conductor. The dishes served at El Bulli are combinations of art and science designed to thrill as many senses as possible and Adria, along with his three head chefs, take common items like sweet potatoes, mushrooms and cherries and manipulate them beyond recognition. Exotic ingredients such as rabbit brain, calf shoulder cartilage, tuna fish marrow and some of the enhancements of molecular gastronomy, such as xanthan gum, are subjected to a wide array of science lab techniques. Some things are flash frozen in liquid nitrogen, vacuum sealed, turned into powders, have their juices extracted or are made into jellies. On a typical night, a staff of 60 to 70 serve 50 guests.
The documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress starts at the end of the restaurant’s 2008 season, when it closes for 6 months and the head chefs move to their Barcelona test kitchen/science lab to work up next year’s menu. Whether starting the film at the end of the season makes for a great documentary is questionable, but as the film progresses and moves back to the restaurant the following year, I’m not sure the creative process could have been explained and documented any other way. The first 40 minutes finds the camera following the chefs in their off season as they develop new techniques and ideas for the coming year. The documentary is voyeuristic and the camera looks over the shoulders of the chefs as they work through detailed steps, many of them detached from any idea of what the final product will be. They tinker like scientists, annoying vendors at the local farmer’s market as they try to buy five grapes and three beans. There’s no narrative, very little history or context, and rarely does Adria comment on what he and his team do. The R&D phase completed, the film follows the crew back to El Bulli, where they prepare to open for the season the following June.
I’m particularly fond of documentaries about bizarre sub-cultures and El Bulli offers a glimpse into the very pinnacle of culinary creativity, a world we’d never get to see otherwise. While the film received mixed/tepid reviews (I’m guessing partly because of the odd (but necessary) structure of it), I quite enjoyed it.
…and now that we’re all gluttons, I think we should probably consider replacing this particular Cardinal Sin with a different/more relevant one, say… Thou shalt not talk on your cell phone whilst at a fucking checkout counter. You know… something along those lines.