“El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” @ FILM FORUM July 27-Aug 10, 2011

July 23, 2011 § Leave a comment


It is heartbreaking to see a 47 year old phenomenon close, however, when one door closes another one opens, and the film El Bulli: Cooking In Progress, by filmmaker Gereon Wetzel, transports us into what Ferran describes as “the complex, yet simple” restaurant and its concrete, yet unpredictable creative process required to become and remain the best.  Beginning this July 27th at the Film Forum in New York City, “El Bulli: Cooking In Progress” will teach you what these world renowned experts have spent decades honing their craft on.   Think about it this way: 2,000,000 people requested reservations at El Bulli annually, however, only 50 were accommodated on 160 nights per season.  Diners did not choose from a menu, instead, each guest was served between 28 and 35 small portions, consisting of cocktails, snacks, tapas, desserts and morphs.  Snacks are an interesting alternative to bread and butter, they are little bites (for example, madeleines with black olives) served at the beginning of the meal, after the cocktail and before the tapas.  Pre-desserts are small dishes served after the tapas and before the desserts, which mark the transition between the savory and the sweet world, and morphs are an El Bulli invention, which replace petit fours at the conclusion of the menu.  A culinary education in itself, you would be at a great disadvantage not to find 108 minutes out of your busy schedule to watch the documentary over the next couple of weeks.

El Bulli, also spelled elBulli, opened in 1964 as a simple beach eatery in Cala Monjoi, a cove near the town of Roses, in the Catalan province of Girona, Spain, located a few hours from Barcelona, by a German couple Hans and Marketta Schilling, and was named after the French bulldogs they owned.   It later evolved into a gourmet restaurant, serving mainly French cuisine.  A turning point began in 1981, when Juli Soler signed on as manager and, in 1984, hired the young Ferran Adria, and his then 15 year old brother, Albert Adria in 1985.  Ferran, a believer that “creativity means not copying”, began to find his own individual style, and due to a lack of business in the winter months, the restaurant closed for six months at a time allowing for Ferran, Albert and Oriol Castro, to research new “techno-conceptual” cooking art techniques, while experimenting with culinary physics and food science which soon influenced culinary professionals worldwide. Techniques and textures including foams, warm jellies, salty ices, caramelization, sodium alginate, liquid nitrogen, xanthan, gelification, emulsification,  and spherification, put El Bulli on the map, allowing it to earn its third Michelin star in 1997 and catapulting the restaurant forward to becoming a five-time recipient of Restaurant Magazine’s “World’s Best Restaurant” award.   Although El Bulli is closing in a few days, Ferran Adria and Jose Andres can be found at Harvard University as they began teaching a 13 week culinary physics course this past fall.

Coincidentally, while on vacation in Asheville, NC,  I met one of Jose Andres’ (The Bazaar in Beverly Hills) and Ferran Adria’s apprentices, Katie Button.  Katie is not only young, intelligent and gorgeous, but hard working, focused, and driven, as well.  Out of  8,000 applicants, she was accepted  as one of the  40 to intern at El Bulli.  Author, Lisa Abend, documented Katie’s experiences at the restaurant in her new book, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, and Katie can also be seen in the film, “El Bulli:  Cooking in Progress”, as well.  Taking a leap of faith, she had given up a fellowship to study biomedical engineering to pursue her  culinary dream, experience the world, work with the best mentors, and this past March, opened CURATE, a Spanish tapas restaurant, with her mother and fiancee, Felix.

CURATE on BILTMORE AVENUE in the lovely town of, ASHEVILLE, NC has received rave reviews.


  • Q:  SHARON ABELLA:  What qualities does one need in order to be respected at “El Bulli”?
  • A: KATIE BUTTON:   “In one word:  ATTITUDE.  Without the proper attitude, you cannot be a part of the team.  There is no room for pride or egos at elBulli.  In another word: DEDICATION.  In more words: You must be hardworking, focused, a bit of a perfectionist, detail oriented, have an innate sense of high standards, self critical, be able to not only learn new things quickly and only be told how to do something once, but you must also have the ability to enjoy doing repetitive work as that is a natural part of the restaurant industry.”
  • Q: SHARON ABELLA: What was the most valuable experience you learned?
  • A: KATIE BUTTON:  “To believe in something and go for it!  I went from studying biomedical engineering to a position in the kitchen at elBulli in a little over 2 years. An amazing feat that I am very proud of. The fact that I succeeded in my position there reaffirmed my change in careers, and the fact that with the right attitude and determination, you can do anything.”
  • Q: SHARON ABELLA:  Talk about the various food chemistries, culinary physics and molecular gastronomy. How does one know what to blend together?  Is it learned, instinctual or both?
  • A:  KATIE BUTTON:  “Both. The techniques that I learned while I was there have been studied, and practiced. It was mainly about applying the proper proportion and following the proper procedures. However, in the realm of actually attempting to create new flavor combinations or techniques, I do believe that it is a mix of learned and instinctual. There is a certain amount that can be studied and procedures that can be followed in order to create, but there are limitations to those that lack the instinct. I think that Ferran has this instinct, which is what makes him and his team so amazing. You have to have a certain natural ability to be truly creative, and that cannot be learned.”
  • Q: SHARON ABELLA:  Have you experienced any obstacles being a female in a primarily male dominated industry?
  • A: KATIE BUTTON:  “Of course!  One example is when I first arrived in Asheville, and Felix and I were introduced to people and starting talking about how we were going to open a restaurant.  Everyone assumed Felix was the chef.  It was amazing to see the looks on some of their faces the day we opened the restaurant and I was the one in the kitchen with the chefs coat.  It is such a male dominated industry, that women are naturally overlooked.”
  • Q: SHARON ABELLA:  How did you handle constructive criticism from Ferran Adria?
  • A: KATIE BUTTON:  “Ferran did not really address me directly about my job performance.  He would address the pastry chef, who in turn would speak to me.  I always try to take constructive criticism humbly.”
  • Q: SHARON ABELLA: Describe some of the techniques used in the film.
  • A: KATIE BUTTON:  “The main technique was the use of oblate, potato starch paper.  Oblate is a Japanese product and something that we use at Curate.  It dissolves in water, but holds up to fat and oil, so you can encapsulate fats and oils with it, but then it dissolves instantly on the tongue releasing the fat and oil. You can also use it to give stability to a very, very thin sheet of hard candy.  I use this technique in the restaurant to make a special dessert that goes out to those dining at Curate for a special occasion.  This is something I took straight from my time at elBulli.”
  • Q: SHARON ABELLA:  How did Curate come about? Why Asheville, NC?
  • A: KATIE BUTTON: “CURATE came about through discussions with my mother.  When I decided not to pursue my PhD in neuroscience, but instead to go into the restaurant industry, she embraced the idea since that was her background.  In the summer of 2008, after I returned from my time working in the front of the house at elBulli we were sitting at a restaurant in New York when my mother came up with the idea of opening a restaurant together.  The concept for Curate came about after we moved to Asheville and Felix and I were reflecting on the type of restaurant we would like to open. Since Spain is what we both know best, Curate was it.  As for Asheville, my mother and I chose Asheville.  We took a road trip through various cities in North Carolina, upstate New York, New Jersey, and Asheville is unlike any place I have ever been.  Most of the people living in Asheville moved here because they want to live here.  The quality of life, the beautiful mountains, the vibrant downtown, the sense of community, the edginess, the art, the diversity…for all of these reasons we chose Asheville.  Plus we felt this was a good time to be here, the town is growing and we wanted to be a part of that growth.”
  • Q:  SHARON ABELLA:  What’s next for you?
  • A:  KATIE BUTTON:  ” I hope to intern on a yearly basis at the restaurants I admire, in order to continually develop my skills.”
Article by Sharon Abella

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