It was with great somberness that El Bulli—Ferran Adria’s Spanish castle of molecular gastronomy—was crossed off my Restaurant Bucket List earlier this year. With the announcement that El Bulli, heralded by many as the top restaurant in the world, is forgoing its six months of restaurant operation to assume the role of full-time gastronomic lab, there will be no more 30-course dishes at over $200 a person. No more reservation pools of up to 1 million people clamoring for a seat in the 50-seat dining room. No more pipe dream that I ever had a chance to eat here.
For those of us familiar with El Bulli and Adria’s impact in the cooking world who will never get to try one of his magical gastronomic creations, we have a gift: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress—a low-key documentary focusing on Adria and his staff and the menu-planning process they endured each year to craft the courses that make up the legendary restaurant’s menu.
We’ve reached a point where any person with a passing interest in food can no longer avoid molecular gastronomy. No, you’re not going to see Rachel Ray sous vide her beef on 30-Minute Meals or Giada de Laurentiis make a parmesan foam to top her asparagus on Everyday Italian, but the impact of the technique is almost everywhere. Top Chef is swimming with it, and though Adria (who looks like a crazy Spanish Dave Matthews) dances confidently in the realm of the chemist and cook, I have to wonder if the rest of the cooking world treats molecular gastronomy much like the publishing world, where I work, treats the digital world: we’re just now figuring out how to use it. How many times do we see contestants on Top Chef make serious missteps when trying to go molecular? How often does their food get tasted, or you just see it on the screen, and the chief observation is: this is different, yes, but is it really that much better? Are you using molecular gastronomy to actually make this dish better, or are you doing it just to do it? Five years from now we may have this all figured out, much like magazines and books may have their publishing techniques and possibilities figured out, but right now we’re just throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. For all its rawness and lack of mastery, it makes for great invention and entertainment.
This movie, though, is for celebration. It’s a one-hour-and-48-minute look at the why of molecular gastronomy and elevated cooking.
Much like Adria’s food, the movie plays with your expectations and ultimately delivers something different than what you anticipated. Expecting a full look at the restaurant’s operation, in fact, we are greeted with an opening scene of El Bulli closing. The first half of the movie is spent in a lab, with Adria’s staff meticulously experimenting, cooking, logging, writing, reading, meeting, tasting, and playing with different ingredients. There is no voiceover in El Bulli, no interviews, only minimalistic music—just raw dialogue and subtitles. It is slow and paced, like Adria’s process, and really you have to treat it like a 30-course meal to make it through.
The second half of the movie picks up. We’re taken back to El Bulli, where we meet the apprentice chefs that will be cooking with the staff for the season. (Including an energetic American!) Here we begin to see composed dishes: a vanishing ravioli, pine water and gin, peach algae, pumpkin meringue. We see the kitchen operation, the wait staff learning on the fly, and Adria, calm as ever, sitting in silence and tasting each as it comes before him.
El Bulli plays with your expectations of food media. We’re accustomed to the Food Network and to Top Chef—to quick cuts and dramatic moments of suspense in the kitchen. This documentary is not for that. It’s hard to tell, in the end, what it’s about. I could make an argument that it’s about the food, the restaurant, the man, and the process. But what was this restaurant really about, anyway? The food, the experience, the man, or the process? Maybe it was all of them. Only a documentary that captures the same essence, laborious as it can sometimes be, would be appropriate.
(Note: We saw El Bulli at the Belcourt in Nashville. What an atmosphere. Those of us in the city know how great that place is, but for everyone else: The Belcourt is seriously awesome. Go if you ever get the chance.)
The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000.
That’s the first line from Food, Inc., the powerful 2008 documentary about American agribusiness, which is not a new film. It’s been out for more than three years now, was Academy Award-nominated, and has begun to affect change, albeit in small steps, within the food industry.
Each month we bring you one media review of a book, magazine, app, show, or movie dealing with food for you to ingest (pardon the pun) in hopes of broadening your understanding of food and food culture. This isn’t a review of Food, Inc. At this point, that would be like reviewing The Dark Knight. In my opinion, however, you cannot build an understanding of the food business in America without seeing it. You just can’t.
So this isn’t a review. Instead, consider it a plea—a plea to see the movie, to give it a chance—and a wider look at the film itself and what it means to the agribusiness discussion in America.
By now you probably know that there is a small group of multinational organizations that control our food supply. You can’t hide from the abusive treatment of animals, particularly cows, pigs, and chickens, which are brought from egg to processing in just seven weeks—not nearly enough time for the chicken’s bones and internal organs to keep up with the growth. You may have even seen the shocking videos inside treatment centers, of cows who cannot walk, who scream as they are pushed by forklifts, and of animals who take two steps and collapse, two steps and collapse, and are herded on.
Whether you are destined to be a pilot or pepperoni, living things deserve better. There’s a balancing act, here, though—I see these videos and want humanity and care for these animals, yet heat up my pizza or stop by Chick-Fil-A for dinner. Is this speaking out of both sides of my mouth? I don’t think so. After Whole Foods retweeted our Twitter account over the weekend to more than 2 million followers, we had a mild reaction from vegetarians to my post about the Whole Foods Animal Welfare Rating, which I lauded as progressive and difference-making in the grocery industry. “Just don’t eat meat and you don’t have to worry about it,” they said. True. But what if I like meat?
Food, Inc. provides the middle ground to meat-eaters like me who want fairness in the food industry. You can eat meat and still stand for animal welfare. But we covered this last week, and to me it isn’t even the central issue. The main victims of Food, Inc. aren’t the collapsing chickens or herds of cows. Let there be no mistaking: it is the farmers—the producers of American foods and produce—who are the victims. We are victims of our own size and of our own greed. With 300 million people, there can no longer be seasons in American grocery stores. When you gotta have tomatoes, you gotta have tomatoes, even in the middle of January.
In the early part of the film we meet Carole Morison, a chicken grower for Perdue chickens, whose contract is terminated not long after her appearance. In the midst of tossing dead chickens around her packed and disgusting chicken house, which she is alarmingly fired from for not downgrading further by getting rid of the windows, we learn that to stay under contract, farmers must borrow $280,000-$300,000 per chicken house, plus borrow for upgrades. In the end, most chicken growers borrow $500,000 to earn $18,000 per year. “It’s degrading,” she says. “It’s like being a slave to the company.”
She’s right. It might not be as degrading, however, as seeing an ad in your local Mexican newspaper for a job just across the border in America, where companies are hiring illegal immigrants, striking deals with local law enforcement, and allowing them to be slowly sent back over the border little by little so as not to disturb production.
This is what Food, Inc. does so well—it puts faces to the victims we can no longer ignore in the food industry. And it’s just as effective when it portrays the dangers of corn syrup, E. coli risks, American obesity issues and how seed companies like Monsanto are literally spying on their farmers to ensure they are operating within their rules. (In Monsanto’s case, the rule is that you are not allowed to save your own soybean seeds after harvest, since Monsanto owns the patent. “If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers,” the website says. The most popular Google search for the company? “Monsanto evil.” I’d say they have work to do.)
There’s no other way to say it—Food, Inc. is required viewing for anyone who wants a basic understanding of American agribusiness or our food culture. It can’t be missed.
Upton Sinclair once said about his famous novel The Jungle, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit them in the stomach.” Food, Inc., with its uncensored and often disgusting look at the reality of American agribusiness and its unwitting victims, aims square in the stomach. But it’s likely to hit you somewhere else.
The bottled water industry has hit upon the greatest marketing scheme of our generation and tapped into one of the highest-grossing industries on the planet, leaving environmental responsibility and even consumer health in its wake in its quest to maximize surging profits at the expense of all environmental consequences it may cause.
That’s the message of “Tapped,” a scathing documentary chronicling some of the hidden truths inside the bottled water industry, which was screened Wednesday night at the Warner Nature Center in Nashville as part of its Good Food Film Festival series, which offers free food-related movies to the public once a week during the summer.
I didn’t use to drink much water. Then I married someone who does nothing but drink water, and now it comprises almost everything, save for maybe one drink per week, I drink. We were extremely interested in seeing “Tapped” as we are such heavy water drinkers. Thankfully, we possessed a working knowledge of how much of the bottled water industry works going into the movie, with all of our water coming from our tap and Brita filter, and we don’t patronize it. But we were excited to see it.