Getting to see the processes behind Heston Blumenthal’s wacky culinary experiments on various television shows is something that many members of the public thoroughly enjoy. You might think then, that the chance to peek behind the scenes at a thee Michelin-starred restaurant in Catalonia, Spain, that is considered one of the finest purveyors of imaginative haute cuisine in the world would be equally as thrilling. Regrettably, German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel doesn’t manage to wow the audience like the food on offer might in his documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (2011).
The food at ‘El Bulli’ is unconventional to say the least (a large proportion of the dozens of courses we see served prominently feature ice) and Wetzel has clearly attempted to emulate their out of kilter approach by choosing left field camera positioning, overwhelming the audience with shallow-focused close-ups of food and denying the chance to meet and understand the men behind the meals. His insistence on avoiding any type of talking heads discussions with the chefs that we watch for almost two hours is initially intriguing but means that by the close there is nothing to keep us engaged.
Ferran Adria, the show runner as it were, may well be an eccentric and magnetic genius and there are hints of interesting relationships within the kitchen but through Wetzel’s cold lens the head chef just comes across as sullen and pedantic. For the opening half an hour of Cooking in Progress we see the team experimenting with different ingredients during the close season but with no insight either into why this is impressive or more importantly interesting, it ends up being a fly-on-the-wall look at how many ways to cook a sweet potato. It could be fascinating, but with no commentary of any kind the audience is left guessing.
Naturally, in keeping the camera behind the scenes, we are also denied the opportunity to see the effect that food has on their customers. There are two moments that offer respite from the drudgery – a hilarious mix up between the still and sparkling water and a brief interlude in which a couple of the head chefs sit outside with a cigarette, reflecting – but otherwise we’re left unmoved.
When Adria welcomes his new team of chefs to the restaurant he is candid about the fact that flavour is not the main concern, being a bit arty is, and it would seem that the filmmaker also took this idea to heart. Where he has fallen down in his emulation of Adria and El Bulli is that for all their zany ideas, you can’t imagine them allowing such bland pabulum to leave the kitchen, whilst Wetzel certainly has. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress isn’t an utter disaster, but certainly doesn’t taste anywhere near as good as its ingredients suggest that it could.