A close-up look at haute cuisine

Food has become a spectator sport these days. Television has given us a smorgasbord of shows, from “Top Chefs” to “MasterChefs.” For those who like their food with a spicy side of loud and aggressive, the new documentary, “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress,” will be as about as exciting as watching water simmer. But for those truly interested in the art of cooking without the histrionics, this is a fascinating fly-on-the-wall experience of what was one of the world’s greatest restaurants.

The celebrated three-star Michelin restaurant, El Bulli, located in the Catalan region of Spain and run by ground-breaking chef Ferran Adrià, was a leader in haute cuisine with its wild experiments in molecular gastronomy. The restaurant was seasonal (usually opening between June and December) and while it only accommodated about 8,000 diners a season (who would pay around $300 for the privilege of sampling around 35 different dishes in three hours) up to two million people each year tried to make a reservation.

The restaurant closed its doors last July and will reopen as a new incarnation in 2014. While it was still open, German documentarian Gereon Wetzel spent a year observing and filming Adrià and his minions of chefs as they meticulously prepared the intricate dishes served at the restaurant.

The documentary starts with El Bulli closing its doors for the season and the team repairing to a sterile test kitchen in Barcelona where they remain ensconced for months, manipulating every last molecule of the most mundane ingredient until they discover what Adrià describes as “something magical.”

For a mere sweet potato or mushroom, that means being freeze-dried, juiced, pressure cooked, vacuumized, steamed or roasted in its journey to becoming a menu item. The cameras focus on Adrià’s top chefs, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch — skilled and disciplined technicians who will go to the local market and buy only five grapes, telling the bemused shop owner that they hardly need a bunch to experiment on.

Every success and failure is meticulously logged and photographed. Adrià is no screaming Gordon Ramsay as he seemingly drifts in and out of the proceedings. His emotions range from slightly pleased to mild annoyance. He slices and dices his apprentices with a mere few words like: “Don’t bring me anything that isn’t good.”

When the film finally moves to the reopening of the restaurant for the new season, 35 new cooks from around the world form like worker bees in the strict hierarchical structure of this kitchen. Adrià sits to the side at a neat table with a white place mat as each strange dish — from vanishing ravioli to a cocktail made of water and hazelnut oil — is brought to him to sample.

We never see the dining area of the restaurant or the reaction from the patrons. The action stays firmly planted in the kitchen. The only evidence of the final result is a series of beautifully crafted still photos of the chosen dishes that ends the film.

This is not an interactive look at food preparation. There is no one glaring into the camera explaining anything, so the result can be madly frustrating and monotonous, but once you warm to the pace of the film, watching the proceedings unfold becomes strangely addictive. It’s a rare window into a unique culinary world.

KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at tulichk@aol.com.

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