Restaurant stories all seem to follow the same pattern. Through hard work and struggle our talented chef-hero (he’s a genius) encounters success early. But then he loses his way. The fame and money, it seems, have gone to his head. Soon he’s embarked on dangerous ventures. Failure peeks over the horizon. Our hero is shaken, but he’s not down for the count. After some soulful and somber moments of self-reflection he realizes the error of his ways. His stumbles have taught him a valuable life lesson. He’s a new man now. He rediscovers his passion for cooking and for cutting meager portions of food into small squares. Inspired by his revived spirit, he and his restaurant crew take his new venture to heights undreamed of before. He’s a bigger success than ever - and a bigger genius too!
If this weary old tale is one of which you cannot get enough, then Constructing Albert (showing in Seattle under the auspices of SIFF 2018) is right for you. The subject of this mediocre Spanish documentary is Albert Adrià, world-renown Spanish chef. Over the course of a few years he attempts to open five different restaurants in his hometown of Barcelona. The movie largely follows the mythos outlined above, the main difference being that during Albert’s “slough-of-despond” moments in the story we are, thankfully, spared any psycho-babble. Though there is babble aplenty of other sorts.
Unlike, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this film is not so much the portrait of a man as much as the portrait of a man’s ego. And what an ego it is. The film goes from admiration to adoration to adulation of its main subject. And then it goes beyond even that. In the “triumphant return” ending of the story, Albert opens a new restaurant called Enigma - the interior of which looks like the set of many an early-80s music video, though I don’t think that was the intention. On Enigma’s opening night the praises go stratospheric. Albert’s food, which was always amazing, is now good beyond imagining. In fact it's not just food - Albert has created a new language, we are gushingly told. The bite size foodstuffs are referred to as “discourse.” Albert is a genius. And it’s not just him. Also present at Enigma’s opening is his brother, Ferran Adrià, himself a brilliant chef whose famous elBulli restaurant was where Albert got his start. Ferran that night is referred to as “a god.”
One of the problem with this film may stem from the limits of film itself. If you make a documentary about a painter, a musician, a dancer, etc. we can see examples of their art and appreciate (perhaps) their talent. Chefs don’t have that opportunity. We can judge the presentation of their food but that’s all. Whether it tastes good or not has to be taken on faith. And on the glories of haute cuisine one may be, as I obviously am, a committed skeptic, if not atheist. The food may be fantastic but the entire venture often comes across as ludicrous. For instance, at one of Albert’s restaurants he is presented with a tree leaf coated in gleaming but no doubt flavorful oils, he puts it in his mouth, sucks off the coating, pulls out the leaf and says to the chef “It needs more lime.” At such moments it’s hard not to scoff. (“‘And fewer caterpillars, too,’ he added” would be my joke.)
It may sounds paradoxical but to make a good documentary about a restaurant or a chef it can’t be about the food. The food should serve as a gateway to something else. In the aforementioned Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s chef Jiro Ono’s lifelong commitment to an unattainable perfection of sushi that makes him interesting. You can be a brick-layer and still be inspired by his passion and his view of life. By contrast, in Constructing Albert we don’t get anything more than the awesomeness of Albert Adrià. Directors Laura Collado and Jim Loomis never take us beyond that. And unless you’re a passionate foodie, that’s simply not enough.