Wednesday, July 20, 2011

'El Bulli,Cooking in Progress' and 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi'

This year's Sydney Film Festival screened two food films El Bulli, Cooking in Progress, about,unsurprisingly, Feran Adrià and his team at el Bulli and Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about Jiro Ono and his Tokyo restaurant Sukiyabashi Ono.

Both films concentrated on the chefs and the work which goes on in the restaurant kitchen and showed lots of close-ups of food. Both were interesting but not especially informative – it was interesting being a fly on the wall but there wasn't much depth to either film.

Cooking in Progress assumed the audience was already familiar with the reputation of el Bulli and some idea of the sort of food likely to be served there. Feran Adrià spent a lot of time looking enigmatic but there was no insight into what drives him to keep experimenting with food. Oriol Castro has been with Adrià since 1998 and seems to do most of the hard work but there was no hint of what he gets out of his job, why he spends his time analysing, documenting and perfecting. Nor was there any sense that any of the chefs had a life outside the kitchen but surely they must. Although the film starts in the laboratory with the ideas that might become the season's menu and finishes in the restaurant with the food being prepared and sent out to the diners there was no sense of tension or drama and no clear progression from initial idea to finished dish.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi gave some of Jiro Ono's background and attempted to be more personal but also assumed that the audience was well informed about sushi and understood something of the history and culture of the sushi kitchen and the sushi master. I would have liked to be told more about sushi in general and what makes Jiro's sushi unique rather than having to make my own inferences.

But personal gripes aside both films were fascinating because of what they have to say about restaurants and dining out in general .On the one hand we have a restaurant which seats 52, situated in a quiet oasis at the seaside, where the meal takes four hours or more and consists of thirty odd 'courses'; on the other a little hole in the wall in the basement of a city office block which seats 10 people, where the meal consists of nineteen or twenty mouthfuls of food and takes about 30 minutes to consume. Both restaurants have three Michelin stars and neither offers the diner a menu. One is all about experimentation, innovation, constant change and challenge to traditional expectations, the other is all about precision, practise, perfection and the maintenance of tradition. One embraces technology the other shuns fancy equipment.

Seeing the workings of both kitchens and the contrasts between them begs the question of what a restaurant should be and, by extension, what diners expect from restaurants. Fundamentally there is the question of what role food plays in the dining experience – is what Adrià serves food at all or just a series of taste and texture sensations, is a series of twenty mouthfuls of raw fish and rice a meal, is the drama of the meal and the atmosphere of the venue more important than what is eaten?

What neither film explored was the role of the diner and the relationship of the diner and the chef in these two very different situations. In both cases the diner is at the mercy of the chef, to an extent that is not always usual in a restaurant, since without a menu he cannot choose or even anticipate what he will eat. How much he enjoys his meal will depend to some degree on the extent to which he understands what he is eating.

In Cooking in Progress we don't see anything of what happens once the food leaves the kitchen but reviews of el Bulli suggest that many diners struggle with the unfamiliar and the unexpected. They rationalise their reactions to the food on the basis that the meal is essentially an event, an entertainment, that they are there for the experience. Dining at el Bulli is at once all about the food and nothing to do with the food. At Sukiyabashi Ono the food and its freshness and simplicity is everything. For the diner to fully appreciate the chef's creation he must also appreciate the aesthetic. The only surprise from Jiro Ono is the perfection of his offerring.

At el Bulli the kitchen is full of people each preparing separate components or specific dishes, many hands make a contribution before the waiter takes the dish to the table. The diner sees little or nothing of the preparation of the food he eats and in many cases the waiter has to explain not just what he is presenting but how it should be eaten. The chef and the diner occupy different worlds where the intentions of one and the experience of the other may not always coincide. At Sukiyabashi Ono the diner and the chef inhabit the same space. Jiro Ono prepares each portion literally with his own hands, the food passes directly from the chef to the diner, and the chef then watches the diner eat. In this situation there is little scope for ambiguity but who wouldn't be intimidated eating under the watchful gaze of the sushi master.

Come to think of it my family eat their dinner every night under the scrutiny of the kitchen master, which is just one of the many reasons why eating at home is not the same as eating in a restaurant.