Men in White Aprons:
An Interview with Gereon Wetzel, director of El Bulli: Cooking in Progress
by Ohad Landesman

El Bulli, long considered among the world’s best restaurants, specializing in molecular gastronomy, is headed by a genius chef (or a mad scientist) named Ferran Adrià and a devoted, multidisciplinary team. The Catalonian, Michelin-three-star restaurant, which will be closing its gates in 2012 due to massive monetary loss, gets over two million reservation requests for a limited space accommodating only 8,000 diners each season. It also closes each year for six months, when the team retires to its cooking laboratory in Barcelona, and experiments with new dishes for the next season. A few months ago Adrià announced that he’s going to sign a contract with a Hollywood producer for a forty-million-dollar production focusing on the restaurant, a gigantic project which will include real chefs and will be, according to his words, “something between The Social Network and Ratatouille.”

In the meantime, the talented and ambitious German documentarist Gereon Wetzel has embarked on a long journey to capture the process behind the making of new avant-garde tastes and dishes in the lab, and observed patiently and closely the invention and craft of an appetizer made of ice or a cocktail composed of olive oil. His new documentary, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, provides an intimate look, devoid of any context or background information, into the simple but complex materialization of ideas. I spoke with Wetzel about the his unique strategies, his ideas about representing food on film, and his fondness for men in white aprons.

Reverse Shot: You decide to begin the film without much context. We know almost nothing about the restaurant El Bulli, except for a few intertitles. There is no narration, and the camera, one may say, is "doing the talking." Could you talk a bit about your decision to embrace this rather traditional—but today quite rare—direct cinema approach?

GW: This kind of approach epitomizes my own style of documentay filmmaking. Direct Cinema, that "invention" from the 60s, which gives you the option of traveling with your own camera and sound machine, and following some kind of a process, corresponds with my own purpose in film. I always want to expose a process. Surely, there have been a lot of good movies about El Bulli, working with interviews and providing information about the restaurant. In some of them you get perspectives from the guests themselves, or even Ferran’s (the head of the restaurant), or learn the philosophy behind the enterprise. I, on the other hand, was trying to follow the “making of” behind the ideas, and this is what makes the project different. I always look for things you can only do with film. If you want, for example, you can always read about the restaurant in books, many of which are really good (like one called One Day in El Bulli). However, this is not what I’m interested in. Many people think that ideas like Ferran's just "appear" to you in the morning when you wake up. That’s not the situation. You have to work very hard and put yourself in very strict discipline, system and method. In all of my films the idea is to show this to the viewer and to throw him directly into such a process.

RS: How easy was it for you to get access to document such a process?

GW: It wasn’t too difficult, as Ferran really liked the idea from the beginning, and was quite convinced that a documentary about his restaurant could work without any interviews. The only question for us was when, so we basically waited for the right season in the restaurant to make the film. Our goal was to follow and not to intervene.

RS: You start by talking about the Direct Cinema heritage. As the years went by, though, there’s been a renewed discussion about the naiveté of such an approach, about the fact that the subjects in a direct cinema documentary can never be really unaware of the camera, and therefore, their behavior always includes a certain measure of performance. On the one hand, subjects in your film seem to not pay any attention to the camera and mind their own business. On the other hand, they must be aware of the fact that your documentary is providing a glimpse inside one of the most famous restaurants in the world, and this realization probably entails a certain type of predetermined behavior on their behalf. How do you bridge those two opposite poles?

GW: Well, there’s always a certain measure of performance going on in any documentary, and the camera can never be hidden (unless you do a keyhole documentary). I really enjoyed hanging out with the protagonists in my film, when a typical day of shooting started at 10 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. You know, people get used to you, even if they never forget the presence of the camera. It’s like there is a kind of contract between you and the protagonists: they gradually begin to understand what you want from them. Consequently, they do the scenes in a little more interesting way, or just say something that they would have not said without the presence of the camera. I like this because I don’t really believe there’s much difference between fiction and documentary. I think it’s basically all film, in which people play themselves by way of performing. It’s quite interesting to see how you as a documentarist can conduct people, and how they may try to do anything in order to forget the camera.

RS: I’m particularly thinking about the last sequence, where Ferran is sitting down to taste all the dishes before the restaurant opens for dinner. On the one hand, the scene is completely observational, since Ferran is not paying attention to the camera; but on the other hand, the scene is also functioning on a kind of performative level, where we get Ferran’s reactions to the food as a substitute to those of the guests, which we never really see.

GW: I really wanted to avoid showing people eating from the menu. I think eating is something quite intimate, and most people don’t look good while doing it. Also, I didn’t want to show any visceral reactions to the experience of tasting, as it’s almost too pornographic. When Ferran eats, it’s quite obvious that he’s also thinking at the same time; it’s almost like he’s eating professionally. In many documentaries it’s the lacuna that I like, the vacuum of representation. I don’t like telling things in my films, and I think that much of the tension in my work revolves around my decision to not tell things, but let the audience decide and think for themselves. I also expect this from my viewers.

RS: There’s quite a lot of tension in the scene, suspense even. We’re eager to find out what Ferran thinks of the dishes, but are also left to imagine what the dishes taste like. For an hour and a half we watch the process that goes into making those dishes, but then we find ourselves left out without any clear idea about what the results are.

GW: You know, there’s really an inherent contradiction in making a film about food. This thing has always got me thinking: what aspects of food could you show in a film, considering that as a viewer you can’t really taste anything? We can show somebody tasting something, sure, but I don’t want to force this experience on the viewer because I know it entails a contradiction. You can say that the question of food representation is really an intellectual exercise.

RS: Well, one probably experiences a similar sensuality in your other film, How to Make a Book with Steidl, when Gerhard Steidl, the publisher, talks about the smell of a new Steidl book. Both films are triggering quite similar spectatorial experiences, don’t they?

GW: Probably yes, and I do hope that I’m getting on the right way here in addressing the viewer’s senses with cinema.

RS: Can you talk a bit about how much the technology of the camera is important in your film? You achieve a high measure of intimacy with your subjects using a digital camera, but at the same time there’s almost no cost paid in quality, as the images are quite pristine.

GW: The two films were shot with two very different cameras. Steidl was shot using a very small camera, simply because we were travelling a lot. El Bulli was shot with an excellent shoulder camera, even if quite a heavy one. The result is a cinematographic experience that is more organic. The camera is connected to your body, and you can control it better than a smaller handheld camera. This triggers a different documenting style altogether. I think that what the 16mm camera was for the direct cinema filmmakers in the 60s, the Sony EX1 is nowadays for contemporary filmmakers. It’s a state-of-the-art HD camera, very small, and with great quality, a huge advantage for documentarists. In general, I think that using digital video is really important for documentarists. Sometimes you recognize that something is interesting only after the scene starts, and it’s good to have the liberty to continue shooting those scenes with video, without being limited by the length of the film.

RS: Let’s talk a bit about your interest in men in white aprons. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between both Ferran and Steidl as two craftsmen who are so meticulous in what they do that they almost strive to create a total artwork in their professions. One is a book publisher with a very keen eye for the artistic, while the other is a chef whose work straddles on the border between being a food maker, a scientist, and an artist. Why were you so attracted to those characters?

GW: One always looks for characters in film. I am interested how one does things, and therefore always like people like Steidl or Ferran, who have a mission to complete, and want to express themselves as artists. They keep the process in their mind and don’t let anything in their way. Naturally, those people have to communicate, and they don’t do it only with words. That is the moment when I, as a documentarist, should help them show and expose their process. It’s as if they invite this cinematic observation. There’s one film about Picasso that I really like. I can’t really remember its name, but it’s the only film which I would accept as a film about a painter, because it’s all about the process of painting, and nothing besides that. In a similar way, the process in El Bulli is very complex and scientific, and I truly enjoyed surrounding myself with people dealing with those aspects. They all come from different disciplines in the cooking laboratory, which makes this even more interesting.

RS: Your film style seems to rhyme with those characters: one can say that if these two craftsmen try to see themselves as artists, you wish as well to create documentaries which not only observe, but are also quite aesthetic and stylized. To me, every shot in the film is more beautiful and crafted than the previous one. What were you trying to achieve here aesthetically?

GW: The work in the editing room was very similar to what the characters do. When Ferran is doing the sequencing of the restaurant’s menu at the end of the movie, the process feels quite similar to building the dramaturgy of a story and dividing it into different acts. I think that it’s really rewarding to see the things you documented in the making of the film again, when you have an interaction between the real content of the film and the aesthetics of it. This is the moment when you may realize that the form you chose corresponds to what the people in the film do. Stedil says: “every book needs a special form.” In modern television and formatted documentaries, you put all the content you can find in one standard form and it becomes quite boring. I try to do things a bit differently.

RS: Was it an expensive film to produce?

GW: In Germany it had quite an average budget. The difficulty was shooting it in Spain, and having to travel there from Germany once a week for seventy days of shooting. The travel expenses were quite high. Also, it’s a cinema documentary, so we tried to maintain high postproduction values, which made it a bit more expensive than a television documentary.

RS: You must tell us, what were all those extraordinary images of dishes that you showed at the end of the film?

GW: They were all taken from a menu served in the summer of 2009. There are about 35 dishes altogether, and it’s more or less what we ate at the restaurant. You actually eat more than that in one meal, but you really can’t stop. You get addicted to trying new tastes and new things. Having dinner there was a unique experience I will never forget. It’s really difficult to describe, and it was quite a reward after 15 months of intense shooting.