Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Thursday, February 2, 2012 / 12:14 PM

Joe Pollack Slices and Dices "El Bulli: Cooking in Progress," Opening Feb 3

Imagine this scenario: You're working in the kitchen at El Bulli, one of the world's great restaurants, and Ferran Adrià, one of the world's great chefs, calls you over. Your assignment is to do some grocery shopping. "Get six grapes," he says, "and seven peas. And three kidney beans. Then go to the fish market and get four shrimp and two anchovies."

Shopping at Barcelona's matchless La Boqueria market is next, in an actual scene of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which opens tomorrow (Friday) at the Tivoli Theatre in the U. City Loop. A documentary on the world's most unusual restaurant and the chef who led it, it's must-see for those who follow food like bassets on the scent of a criminal. Fans of movies—and critics—may see it differently. It's beautifully shot and edited, fascinating in its story of a driven scientist, but there are long dry spells.

El Bulli, in a beautiful structure on the shore of the Bay of Biscay, closed last summer. For years, it had closed at the end of summer, to reopen the following June. In the interim, Adrià and his staff moved to Barcelona and spent the down time devising meals and planning menus for the next summer, rehearsing the steps in the cooking process, writing the menu. Reportedly, more than a million requests for reservations arrived every spring. Only 8,000 meals were served in a season. Believe me, it will be much easier to get a seat at the Tivoli.

Now the restaurant will become a culinary academy, perhaps a culinary Mecca.

 Adrià, who had been the chef at El Bulli since 1987, brought foam into the restaurant world, tried all types of ingredients, built delicate presentations around tiny portions (he'd never have made it in St. Louis), fussed over the smallest detail. Obviously a great chef, though I've never had the pleasure of eating at his restaurant, he gave total freedom to German director Gereon Wetzel. Anna Gnesti Rosell was a co-writer on the project, Josef Mayerhofer the director of photography, Anja Pohl the editor. All did remarkable work. The finished dishes look like jewelry in a Tiffany window. The film was shot during the winter of 2008 to 2009.

The overall aura is stark white, like a high-tech laboratory, and the chefs, led by Adrià's right-hand men, Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch, are in whites starched within an inch of their lives. Adrià, who has discussed and described and practiced with his staff as if they were to play in Sunday's Super Bowl, sits behind a desk as servers come by with a taste of the dishes. A meal at El Bulli easily could have two dozen courses, each a bite, maybe two (I told you he'd never make it in St. Louis). Technically, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress is a beautiful, outstanding film. Unfortunately, it's true to life, and kitchen work often can be dull, even boring. And the great Spanish chef, immersed in his work, is a chef and not an actor. Nor is his kitchen the rude, profanity-strewn place seen on American cooking shows with Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay. There's not a single cuss-word spoken--or at least not one translated into the English subtitles. A recalcitrant kitchen worker, however, does sport a T-shirt that says, "New York Fucking City."

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress opens Feb. 3 at the Tivoli in Spanish, French and Catalan with subtitles.

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