elBulli: Cooking In Progress

El Bulli Movie Poster

War of Art” was written by Steven Pressfield (“The Legend of Bagger Vance“).  In this book, Pressfield examines how we need to follow our hearts and move in a direction that God has created us to do.  This book is in no way theological. However, Stephan dives deep into the discussion about what stops us from following our heart, the essence of art and how we are built.

Often, movies do not showcase the struggle of creating art. When we watch an artist work, it is slow – even painful at times. But this is the landscape of where art is created.

Same is true for the movie “elBulli.” The film begins with the closure of a serving season. The focus of the story revolves about the creative mind of  Ferran Adrià, and his sous chefs, Oriol Castro, Mateu Casanas and Eduard Xatruch, leading the staff of elBulli through a creative adventure. He pushes his team hard and has high expectations. In a point of frustration, he tells his sous chef to “only bring me things that taste good.” Farran keeps words direct and focused but never raises his voice. He consistently gives recommendations on how to make each course better.

Previously, elBulli had run in six month cycles. The initial six months were allowed for Ferran, Oriol, Mateu and Eduard to create in their lab. During this time, the elBulli chefs worked to create the most interesting menu imaginable. Day by day, they experimented in a scientific fashion. Farran’s team painstakingly documents every minor change and critique their own work regularly. Digital close-ups are taken of the most mundane looking food, while notes are taken about texture and taste. Slowly, you see how the mundane evolve into edible splendor. Then again, the process repeats. More photos are taken, printed into slides and all notes are given a digital manicure for historical records. Before the creative season ends, the chefs stand before a wall covered with recipes and, with the best of their memory, they pin each recipe with a one, two or three star tag. This creative sabbatical pushes the chef to whittle literally 100’s of items into a 35 course adventure.

elBulli: Cooking In Progress

As the dining season approaches, Farran, Oriol, Mateu and Eduard begin a two week training with their new team. They tell the chefs-to-be not to worry as the menu has not been finalized and, things will change in a moments notice. True to his word, Farran consistantly asks his team to make changes on the fly for reproduction. In a training class to his chefs, Farran tackles the idea of creativity versus reproduction, a notion many artists struggle with. As the artist, he tells his students that he could easily spend his days creating and spend the afternoons on the beach, leaving reproduction to their interpretation. Yet his desire is to assist in every process of the experience. Farran yearns to awaken the diner with every dish and that the dining experience should be emotional and nontraditional.

On opening night, the kitchen staff begins to work as if they were working in any other restaurant. Courtesy is dropped and patience becomes short. The volume of the kitchen begins to rise. Quickly, Eduard steps in demanding silence to work. Progress a few weeks and you begin to see a well-rehearsed team working in a quiet, eager manner. The staff knows their place and which step is next in the sequence.

During the dining season, elBulli hosted a 50-person single seating, costing €250, and accommodates only 8,000 diners a year. With an arsenal of 40 chefs to help complete their four-hour dining opus, elBulli has been operating at a loss since 2000. This alone is amazing considering 2 million people petitioned for a seat during elBulli’s final 2011 season. Farran and elBulli helped offset costs through releasing books.

Beyond elBulli, Farran regularly embarks in public speaking events and has been deemed one the the “Fathers of Molecular Gastronomy.”

On July 30, 2011, elBulli shut its doors as a traditional restaurant. However, Farran has promised that elBulli will “reopen in 2014 under a totally new format, focused on the limits of creativity from an interdisciplinary view.” The new venture will be privately funded.

In a recent discussion with a colleague, we talked about elBulli. As an MBA student, my colleague felt that Farran was missing out. He quickly came up with a grand scheme about how Farran should have posted each night’s seating up for bid and let the highest 50 bidders take a seat. “People would pay thousands,” he muttered. I couldn’t agree more, people would pay thousands, but a 35-course dinner at  €250 allows for a larger percentage of the population to enjoy the art.

Listen to this . . .
"Were you put on this earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.
Do it or don't do it.
It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don't do it, you only hurt yourself ... even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts for the sole purpose of nudging you the human race one millimeter further along on the path back to God.
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of an actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got.' - Steven Pressfield
Every once is a while, you get the opportunity to view greatness.  Farran, Oriol, Mateu and Eduard  each exemplify great art and I highly recommend this film, as an artist, foodie and big spoon!