I just watched a new documentary film called A Day in the Life of El Bulli. It’s an intimate and moving look into a restaurant that has changed the way many people think about food.
In 60 minutes, the film watches a day go by (Aug. 22, 2008, to be exact) in the restaurant, which occupies a modest house by the beach in an out-of-the-way cove of the Mediterranean above Barcelona. Juli Soler, who began at the restaurant in 1981 and is now a co-owner, unlocks the doors early in the morning, fixes himself some coffee, and off we go. Chefs gather, deliveries arrive, the kitchen swings into action, and we watch as the elaborate and mysterious dishes come together under the direction of chef Ferran Adrià.
In the afternoon, servers ready the dining room and the tension builds. Each of the 50 guests will be served menus of 35 courses, an undertaking that requires a staff of 70 workers. At seven-thirty in the evening, the first guests arrive and the restaurant explodes into activity, a kind of controlled chaos that is always on the verge of catastrophe, yet for the customers, flows together into a symphony of pleasure. Around midnight, the last plates are cleared, the final glasses drained, the cars pull out of the parking lot and the maître d’ turns out the lights and locks the doors once again.
The film, directed by Ferran’s brother Albert Adrià, who is also a chef at the restaurant, is engaging on a number of levels. Most generally, it reveals the hard work and high tension that animates any successful restaurant. More particularly, it offers insight into the work and creativity of Ferran, who, in my opinion, has been the world’s most influential chef of the past 20 years.
Adrià’s project, as I understand it, has been to take ingredients, both common and obscure, and transform and combine them to create dishes that surprise and delight the diner. Describing the dishes in words never seems to convey their essence, but watching them come together onscreen gives a much more vivid idea of how playful and imaginative Adrià’s food is.
Also, while Adrià has a reputation for being as much of a chemist as a cook in creating his “molecular gastronomy” (a term he dislikes), watching his team at their tasks supports his comment in the film that the cooking “is not fundamentally technical, it’s the work of many hands.” Don’t look for a mad scientist; this is intricate craftsmanship and plain hard work.
It was interesting to watch the reactions of the customers in the film. They were all smiling—pleased to have obtained the most difficult reservation in the world, happy to be together in such a comfortable setting, delighted by the food. But they occupied a tiny fraction of the screen time. And they seemed not oblivious, exactly, but somehow on the sidelines, far removed from the intense, disciplined, focused team that was preparing and serving the food.
El Bulli is a restaurant, of course, and Ferran would never say that a restaurant’s fundamental mission is not to serve its diners. But at the screening, the stocky, graying chef insisted that the secret of El Bulli’s success has been its willingness to take risks, and its determination to work hard enough to ensure those risks paid off.
Customers are the essential endpoint of the process—they are the ones who benefit from the results of that risk-taking and, of course, their money supports it. But the real achievement—and the most fulfilling satisfaction—accrues to the people who are at the beginning and the middle of the process, who have the vision and do the work.
You can see it in the faces of the young, multicultural team, in their comraderie, in their dedication to Ferran. Even the dishwashers appear proud and happy, essential to the restaurant’s success. It’s emotional for them, and it was emotional for me. It makes El Bulli seem like a magical place. No wonder that 2 million people each year plead for a place at the table.
According to Adrià, the film should be available in English in a few months. But it’s based on a 2008 book called A Day at El Bulli, which tells the same story in a collection of 1,000 black-and-white photographs. For those interested in the man as much as his food, I recommend Colman Andrews’ new biography, Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food.
A recent review of Andrews’ book in the New York Times criticized the author and, by implication, the chef: “He’s written hagiography, not biography,” grumbled Dwight Garner about Andrews. “Reading Ferran is like being waterboarded with truffle oil.”
I wonder if Garner has ever eaten at El Bulli. I find that people who have only heard or read about the restaurant are often skeptics, while those who have made the pilgrimage tend to be converts. I have eaten there, and I believe that Ferran is a genius. What’s your take?
Matthew Hayes — Dijon — October 19, 2010 4:43am ET
Anthony Fortuna — Westchester, NY — June 20, 2012 8:27pm ET
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