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In Search of elBulli

So much has been written about the wildly creative Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, who brought molecular gastronomy into the spotlight, that a fresh perspective seems impossible. But when journalists take  trips that are more about the journey than the destination, they often discover something new. Such was the case for author Lisa Abend and filmmaker Gereon Wetzel in their separate explorations of the world created by Adrià at his now-shuttered restaurant, elBulli.

Neither one relates a single recipe or showcases the few fortunate patrons lucky enough to score a wundermeal at elBulli, which opened for a limited season each year. Instead, Abend, author of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli” (Free Press, 2012 paperback) and Wetzel, director of the documentary “elBulli: Cooking in Progress,” (Kino Lorber, 2012 DVD) both focus on the creative process that was at the heart of Adrià’s success. In doing so, they capture Adrià’s true legacy to future chefs: license to break the rules and play with their food. They also offer a glimpse of Adrià’s next venture, a culinary research foundation that is to open in 2014.

Getting to know elBulli through its minor players

Before elBulli closed for good in July 2011, the only spot more coveted by foodies than at its tables would have been behind the scenes, watching the preparations for one of Adrià’s performance art-like exhibits. Abend got a backstage pass for the 2009 season, and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” became the theatre critic’s notes.

But Abend did not focus on the show’s director. Instead, she studied the 32 apprentices who toiled to serve Adrià’s imagination. Readers are introduced to the entire repertory cast, from Katie Button, the American biomedical engineer motivated by the disciplined process, to Gael Vuilloud, the stubborn Frenchman with a penchant for pushing his own creativity, and Myungsan “Luke” Jang, the meticulous Korean who sought a culinary education by immersion. Viewing day-to-day operations through the eyes of elBulli’s kitchen brigade, Abend uncovers the themes that drive Adrià’s work and the reason that some of the best chefs in training from around the world chose to work gratis for six months in hope that they would absorb some of his genius.

It might be counterintuitive to suggest beginning a book at the end — in the section that readers often gloss over — but Abend’s acknowledgments succinctly capture her education in the kitchen at elBulli and the essence of her book. Then, go back to the beginning, where Abend invites the reader to stay the course as she recounts, month by month, the interplay between the apprentices and their chefs. Her ability to find the spirit of elBulli in the elusive details of tension and triumph are what makes this book such an interesting and intimate read.

“The portrait of him that emerges is based in part on the perspective of those who work for him, and is therefore necessarily more complicated than often seen,” Abend writes. “But I hope it is no less admiring; in addition to convincing me of his genius, the times I spent at elBulli revealed to me the great depth of Ferran’s intelligence and courage.”

The visual art of Ferran Adrià

Director Gereon Wetzel ripped a page from Adrià’s textbook when he opened his documentary with a darkly lit single shot. Barely discernible, Adrià licks a sucker-like fluorescent fish on a stick that leaves an eerie residue of blue light on his lips and his tongue. It’s theatrical, unexpected and definitely not for the squeamish, but this first scene gets to the heart of Wetzel’s film, also made during the 2009 season at elBulli: Its head chef’s insatiable curiosity for exploring the edges of imagination to create culinary art.

The film is neatly broken into two halves: six months of research in anticipation of six months of operation. Like other documentaries about artistic genius, the film starts in the artist’s studio — or rather, the elBulli workshop in Barcelona where Adrià and his top chefs meticulously explore the possibilities of ingredients for the upcoming season’s menu.

“At the moment, taste doesn’t matter to us — that comes later,” Adrià explains to a visiting sommelier advising the team on flavor issues at the workshop. “At the moment, what matters is whether something is magical, and whether it opens a new path.”

Unfortunately, the lengthy observation of these lab experiments in culinary science could lull a viewer to sleep. Wetzel’s cinéma vérité style of an unobtrusive lens with no supporting commentary works better in the second half, when the camera follows Adrià and his team back to the restaurant, where the tension and energy of the real performance begins.

The strength of the story is its singularly focused view of chef as artist. Adrià’s canvas of choice is dinner-table linen; and the chef’s body of work is every experimental oddity that graces the table. As the film unfolds, it’s hard not to imagine that the director was exploring the chef’s cultural DNA. Was Adrià simply following in the footsteps of fellow avant-garde Spanish deconstructionists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí? Perhaps. In style and in execution, Adrià’s penchant for looking at dinner from a different perspective suggests he is just as much a master of his medium as his forebears.

In a final nod to the real talent of the film, the credit roll is given over to a photographic montage of the dishes created during the 2008-2009 season at elBulli, with the chefs following in supporting roles. By the film’s conclusion, it is clear that Adrià would agree with the billing.

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“elBulli: cooking in progress” (2010, Germany): Directed by Gereon Wetzel, based on a concept by Anna Ginestí Rosell and Gereon Wetzel; director of photography, Josef Mayerhofer; edited by Anja Pohl; music by Stephan Diethelm; produced by Ingo Fliess; released by Alive Mind Cinema. In Catalan, with English subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes.

Caroline J. Beck is a freelance food and wine writer and a strategic advisor to specialty food start-ups. Her articles and columns have appeared in such publications as the Santa Ynez Valley Journal, Michigan BLUE — Michigan’s Lakestyle Magazine, and The Olive Oil Source, the world’s top-ranked olive oil-related website, where she has served as editor since 2007. Caroline’s website,, provides common sense advice for enthusiastic entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the specialty foods business.

Top photo: From left, Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Ferran Adria. Credit: Alive Mind Cinema

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The Sorcerer's Apprentices

Zester Daily contributor Caroline J. Beck is a freelance food and wine writer and a strategic adviser to specialty food startups. Her articles and columns have appeared in such publications as the Santa Ynez Valley Journal, Michigan BLUE -- Michigan's Lakestyle Magazine, and The Olive Oil Source, the world's top-ranked olive oil-related website, where she has served as editor since 2007. Beck's website,, provides common sense advice for enthusiastic entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the specialty foods business.