Ferran Adrià put caviar anemones and pumpkin meringue sandwiches on the menu at El Bulli, which was voted ‘world’s best restaurant’ five times. So what made it special and why won’t you get to eat there?
El Bulli, the Spanish molecular-gastronomy mecca — arguably the most famous restaurant in the world (unarguably one of the most unusual) — will close this weekend (July 31, 2011).
The 32nd Durban International Film Festival will mark this with the festival’s second screening of German director Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli — Cooking in Progress. The quiet, controlled documentary — think the opposite of anything you’ve ever seen on TV with Gordon Ramsay — essentially follows a year in the life of Ferran Adrià, his team of chefs and his famed three-Michelin-starred Cala Montjoi Bay restaurant, five time winner of Restaurant magazine’s “World’s Best Restaurant,” located near the town of Roses in Spain’s Catalonia region.
El Bulli has been called “the most influential restaurant in the world” (The New York Times) and Adrià, its creator, a brilliant innovator, the father of molecular gastronomy, or sometimes “a crazy chef.”
El Bulli — Cooking in Progress has its US theatre premiere on July 27 at the New York Film Forum. A collection of culinary luminaries will discuss the movie during its two week run; among them, Colman Andrews, co-founder and former editor in chief of Saveur magazine and author of Ferran — The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food.
El Bulli was born as a simple beach eatery in 1964, opened by a German couple, Hans and Marketta Schilling. It wasnʼt until the Seventies that it evolved into a gourmet restaurant, serving mainly French cuisine. Ferran Adrià joined the restaurant in 1984. His brother Albert Adrià joined him in 1985 at the age of 15.
Inspired by French chef Jacques Maximinʼs maxim “creativity means not copying,” Adrià developed his trademark style.
El Bulli from its early days closed for six months of the year — the out-of-season winter months. The restaurant’s seasonal ebb and flow features in the film.
The millions who know about the famed eatery from stories written about it over the years — and now the movie — will know that for years now, about 2 million people a year have tried to book at El Bulli.
About 8,000 – 50 people per evening, 160 days per season — have managed to get a table annually to eat between 28 and 35 small portions — cocktails, snacks, tapas, desserts and morphs — that make up each meal.
El Bulli completely changed its menu at the end of each season. No guest lucky enough to get a second seating was served the same dish twice.
El Bulli — Cooking in Progress begins with scenes of the restaurant being stripped down at the end of the season. Cutlery is wrapped, equipment is dismantled, a delivery van is loaded — and chefs Ferran Adrià, Oriol Castro, Mateu Casanas and Eduard Xatruch head off to Barcelona where they cloister themselves in their experimental kitchen, essentially their lab, and work rather like scientists — tasting, analyzing texture, boiling, roasting, frying, steaming, vacuumizing, spherifying, freeze-drying and recording — creating ideas and possibilities for the upcoming season.
Not complete dishes, mind. When they take the viewer back to El Bulli before the season starts, we hear that the menu is still a work in progress.
And we see the experimentation continue.
Back on the Catalan Costa Brava at the start of summer, new cooks arrive from around the world. Like a theatrical production in rehearsal, the cast follow their roles. The tastes are tweaked to please Adrià. He is the arbitrator, the judge. Please him — or be damned. Finally, the curtain opens and the meals are served.
Only at the end of the movie do we see the gorgeous visual presentations. Exotic dishes like tea shrimp with caviar anemones, pumpkin meringue sandwiches with almond and summer truffle, and ice vinaigrette with tangerines and green olive.
I’d like to have had a preview of these at the start, like a trailer, to know where we were going. But then nobody knows where anything is going until it gets there at this place, so that probably would not have been authentic.
According to Wikipedia the restaurant has operated at a loss since 2000, with operating profit coming from El Bulli-related books and lectures by Adrià.
A group of Californian women chefs I interviewed not so long ago called El Bulli’s style “male ego food”. Why not stick to fresh and local and minimal intervention? they asked. Because, at El Bulli, very little is what it appears to be. So, for example, we see the creation of a cocktail composed of water, hazelnut oil and salt; and mushrooms experimented with and made to look anything but what they started out as.
Perhaps it is ego. Although when Adrià exclaims: “The more bewilderment, the better,” I hoped these ernest culinary rituals were being conducted with at least some tongue in cheek.
South Africa’s longest-running film festival, the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), opened on July 21 with the World Premier of the South African film, Otelo Burning. The DIFF 2011 awards ceremony, on July 30, features one of two screenings of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
For film lovers traveling to South Africa, the eclectic program and diversity and accessibility of films make the Durban International Film Festival is a good time to visit this part of the world.
El Bulli — Cooking in Progress
- With: Ferran Adria, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, Mateu Casanas, Eugeni de Diego, Ailor Lozano, Toni Morago, Francois Chartier. (Catalan, Spanish, French dialogue)
- Produced by Ingo Fliess. Directed by Gereon Wetzel. Written by Wetzel, Anna Ginesti Rosell.
- Screening at the Durban Film Festival on July 30 (6 PM Musgrave B) and July 31 (3 PM Sneddon).
The Durban International Film Festival is organized by the Centre For Creative Arts (University of KwaZulu-Natal) with support by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (principal funder), National Film and Video Foundation, the City Of Durban, the German Embassy of South Africa and other funders. DIFF films are shown at venues throughout Durban including township areas where cinemas are non-existent.
For film synopses, screening schedules and programme details on the 32nd Durban International Film Festival visit www.cca.ukzn.ac.za.
Fly to South Africa with South African Airways. SAA flies to South Africa from Washington and New York. For West Coast travelers, SAA has an alliance with Jet Blue. Read about the SAA-Jet Blue link here.