A unique restaurant like El Bulli probably deserves a more creative documentary than El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, a static portrait that comes off as less than inspired by its unusual subject. Aside from some stylistic curlicues and a promising introductory tracking shot, which peeks into the establishment's windows like a roving prowler, this is a strictly fly-on-the-wall depiction. The result is a collection of long, reverent scenes of owner Ferran Adrià managing his huge staff like a military commander.
Famous for its short season, with half the year spent developing new recipes and concepts, El Bulli is presented as an insanely complex machine, employing over 40 chefs and a small army of servers. With each meal spanning 30 courses, each reservation booked the day after the previous season ends, it seems like the kind of place whose administration alone could warrant its own documentary. Instead, director Gereon Wetzel profiles the passage from idea to plate, beginning at the restaurant's workshop in Barcelona, ending with a celebratory slideshow of its completed menu. This is a strong focal point, but there's little room for specifics, such as how many plates the restaurant must go through in one night, or who's doing all the washing.
Cooking in Progress glosses over these kind of practical concerns, instead choosing mute reverence for the magisterial Adrià and his bizarre methods. Questions like the potentially hazardous nature of all these chemical formulas and foams are never broached. Instead, Wetzel takes the visual beauty of these inventions at face value, zoning in on the alien allure of things like glow-in-the-dark lollipops (developed from fluorescent fish proteins) and the piquantly beautiful "mint ice lake," which more closely resembles a terrarium than a dish. Watching the work that goes into building these things can be fascinating, with Adrià and his team of head chefs looking more like scientists than chefs, reducing food to its base essence, endlessly experimenting with and tweaking their formulas.
Aside from its uninteresting presentation, the lack of a narrator and any kind of explanatory information help Cooking in Progress keep to its titular focus, and it's successful as a portrait of an inimitable restaurant's basic creative process. While sometimes boring, the long experimentation scenes, a back-and-forth mix of cooking and debate, establish a nice rhythm. With the restaurant set to close its doors forever on July 30, the film provides a useful record, one whose workmanlike concern with the creative process at least justifies its existence as a film, giving it a visual aspect that's ultimately sufficient, if not spectacularly elegant.