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A film for foodies: Culinary creativity at elBulli

For a foodie, the new film about Spain’s renowned elBullirestaurant is a bit like an Angelina Jolie movie for a teenageboy.

That boy’s never going on a date with Angelina. And sorry, dearfoodie, but you’re never gonna eat at elBulli.

Well, at least food lovers can now salivate via celluloid. “ElBulli: Cooking in Progress,” a meticulous exploration of how thisfamously avant-garde eatery comes up with its insanely inventivecreations, may not be for everyone. But for those passionate aboutthe artistry and indeed the science of cooking, it’s dangerouslyclose to porn.

And for some, perhaps close to tragedy, too. Co-owner and chefFerran Adria announced earlier this year that on July 30 he willclose his restaurant, a winner of three Michelin stars andcountless other honors. Citing financial struggles and a need toregroup after years of exhausting work, he said elBulli wouldbecome a think tank and research facility.

German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel had no inkling of this when heshot his film, training his cameras on elBulli’s creative team for10 hours-plus per day, a week at a time, over 15 months in 2008 and2009.

But the news, which came during editing, didn’t change his goal,which was to show the laborious, indeed painful, process ofcreating art — in this case, edible art, dishes for anever-changing menu of 30 to 50 courses that can take three, four,maybe five hours to eat, for 50 lucky diners a night. Just a fewnames give you a sense of their unique nature: A gorgonzola tree. Aparmesan crystal. A coconut sponge. Iced peppermint. “Vacuumized”mushrooms.

Or vanishing ravioli — with a pasta envelope, coated inmaltodextrin, that literally disappears in front of your eyes.

“What fascinated me was the process,” Wetzel said in aninterview this week from his home in Munich. “How do they do it?What does it take to get to these ideas?”

And so the 38-year-old director, who by the way professes not tobe a foodie, spent most of his shooting time not at the restaurant,which is on the coast a few hours from Barcelona and is open onlysix months a year, but in its lab in the city. There, a few topchefs spend the other six months creating the next season’smenu.

The work Wetzel displays is more than painstaking. Adria’s maindeputies, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch, labor and philosophizeover the consistency of a mushroom. What happens when you”vacuumize” it? (A machine is used.)

And what can we do with a sweet potato that’s never been done?What can we extract from it? All this is shown with no narrationwhatsoever.

“This is very hard work, and I wanted people to see that,” saysWetzel. And so he didn’t shy away from the difficult moments,including one where chef Adria berates his team for having lostsome data on a bad hard drive. The team protests that they stillhave lists on paper. “I don’t want it on paper, I want it on thecomputer!” Adria retorts. “This is a disaster.” At another point,he rejects a dish curtly: “Don’t give me anything that’s notgood.”

There are also some unintentionally very funny moments, likewhen the two chefs go to the local market and ask for five singlegrapes for their testing — and three beans. “You get away witheverything,” remarks the merchant.

At another market visit later on, they ask the merchant not todiscard the tongue of a fish. Anything might be fodder for a newcreation, after all. Wetzel notes how Adria’s team also works withthe cartilage of a calf shoulder — something others would surelythrow away. “For them, the way they work, this cartilage has valueequal to caviar,” he says.

After the film has spent a good hour showing painstaking labwork — Rachael Ray’s cooking show, this is not — the action shiftsto the coast, and opening day of the new season. We see an army ofnew workers, some of them interns, who have come from all cornersof the world to work with these Spanish masters.

And as the staff revs up for the incoming crowd, Adria and hislieutenants are still refining, experimenting, tasting. Adria sitsdown for a rehearsal of new dishes. The tension is almostunbearable as he tastes one, then says nothing for manyseconds.

We also see the birth of a new, typically elBulli dish: A silkycocktail of hazelnut oil, water and two crystals of salt. Testingsuch a cocktail at one table, a server comes back in a panic: Fizzywater has mistakenly been used, instead of still water. The chefsconsult. Maybe they should keep it fizzy? Maybe that will make iteven more interesting!

During three years of overall work on the film, there was onething Wetzel and his team never did: Taste the famous food theywere documenting.

But once shooting was complete, they finally got a table.

“To spend five hours doing nothing but thinking and talkingabout food — it was an experience,” he says. And a relief, too.

“After all that time and work, I was just so glad that it wasreally, really good,” he says.

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