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Review Fri Nov 25 2011

El Bulli Doc Hits Chicago

Review by Lisa White.

"Quemo." You hear it echo throughout the kitchen, over and over at all times. Translated into English, it means "I burn," an astute word to encompass the chefs that pass through the hallowed ground of El Bulli. Regarded by many as the best restaurant in the world, the little inn in the hill is the focus of the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, showing at the Siskel Film Center until December 1st.

elb.JPGThe movie opens with chef Ferran Adrià testing out an unusual product that perfectly sums up the magical whimsy through innovation that Adrià and his team attempt to capture with all their work. Numerous books (and bloggers) have captured the experience of eating at El Bulli, and many a famous chef have recounted their stagiaires time in El Bulli, including Chicago wunderkind Grant Achatz. But with El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, the audience gets to witness the exploratory science and almost manic obsession that Adrià and his chefs de cuisine exude during the six months working in their lab in Barcelona while the restaurant is closed for their off season. The chefs spend each day exploring new taste, textures, and generally ripping apart each item of food. At one point there are notes detailing how one type of fruit behaves when deconstructed every way possible: boiled, roasted, frozen, pureed, etc.

The mastermind behind many of the first tests to compose a dish is Oriol Castro, the man most in sync with Adrià. As Adrià chatters away on his cell phone (a comical mainstay), Castro generates and composes ideas that are set forth, either declared interesting, magical, or in a select few, disgusting. Nothing is wasted, everything is explored, even the drippings from the foil around a roasted sweet potato. As they rate and compose the possible menu for the next season, the sense of madness is evident. Papers are everywhere, and tensions high regarding something as simple as oil and water. But payday comes in the joy of a new discovery, and after all these years you can still see the chefs light up when they come upon an idea that surprises and fascinates them. It might be comical when the three chefs ask for five grapes at the market, but there is a method to this madness.

The second component of the film is watching the fruits of their labor come to life, as the 2009 season of El Bulli begins. We meet the nervous stagiaires, coming from some of the most respected restaurants in the world (The French Laundry, Per Se, Noma) yet still sweating it out as they do everything from sweep the floor to boil and blanch rose leaves. The fly-on-the-wall style of filming really makes the energy of the kitchen kinetic as these chefs set forth to serve some of the best food in the world with little training and knowledge of each fully composed dish. The audience really understands that for every carefully calculated move at El Bulli, there are always some spur of the moment inspirations that elevate the creativity to the high standard it rightfully deserves. When a water and oil cocktail is served with sparkling water instead of still, Adrià calmly says no worries and suggest they try it because this mistake could be something magical. And that is the key word to describe El Bulli, a magical experience. Not only for the diners who wait years to get in, but also for the chefs creating a different way for the world to look at food.

Note: If you want to deep dive into what it's like to be a stagiaire at El Bulli, check out Lis Abend's The Sorcerer's Apprentices. I was given the book after I saw the movie, only to realize it follows the same group of chefs that were working at El Bulli during the documentary filming. It follows not only their El Bulli stay, but also goes into their backgrounds and follows up with them after the end of the season. It is the perfect companion and follow up after enjoying the film.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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