“Constructing Albert” and “Cuban Food Stories” both showcase beautiful food and gorgeous settings, but the circumstances of the two documentaries are more than worlds apart.
Sibling rivalry’s rough enough, but what if your sibling rival happens to be the world’s most revered chef? “Constructing Albert” tells the story of Ferran Adrià’s younger brother trying to get out of his prodigious shadow. In case you’re not a serious food nerd, Ferran Adrià ran the restaurant elBulli, which represented the pinnacle of haute cuisine before closing in 2011. But Albert Adrià ran it too, from the very beginning, a chef in his own right, unsung. He refused an official partnership offer from his brother twice, seemingly averse to the brightest possible food-world limelight.
But this documentary shows an Albert Adrià who’s intensely ambitious, setting himself an arguably insane task. “Why am I opening five restaurants in one year?” he asks. “That’s a good question.” He likens it to a film director making different genre movies — “science fiction, horror, romance” — before leaving it at “I need to express myself.”
The food and the suffering in “Constructing Albert” are both exquisite. When the first Michelin stars come, they’re clearly not enough; when the camera rests on staff members’ faces as they’re obviously thinking Adrià is stark raving mad, it speaks volumes. There’s a little horror (or maybe more) in his drive, a bit of romance (or at least a spark of human emotion) in his love for his son, and his crowning achievement feels as much like science fiction as a conventional restaurant (the ceilings!). Industry types and gourmands will already know the outcome, but this account of how the uber-high-end sausage gets made is fascinating, thrilling and slightly repellent. The city of Barcelona plays an understated supporting role, showing its magic around the edges without even trying.
The place pretty much steals the show in the documentary “Cuban Food Stories,” in which filmmaker Asori Soto returns to his homeland and travels all over, looking for people who’ve kept culinary traditions alive under extremely adverse political conditions. Heroic Havana, gorgeous in its dilapidations, is a star, but the lush countryside, pastel-candy small towns and footage on the sparkling water demand all one’s attention as well, in every frame.
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The people portrayed here are beautiful, too: the nuclear physicist turned fisherman, an extremely intense coffee farmer, the city lady who found love and a love of cooking in the mountains. The film’s nine separate chapters look at nine different stories, and some are almost distressingly brief; the man who makes Cuban-style barbecue, sold on the street at festivals, demands an hour or more of his own. Food appears briefly, tantalizingly, leaving you wanting more footage and more information. The exception: a farmer’s New Year’s Eve pig roast, shown in loving (and unflinching) detail through the post-prandial, hand-rolled cigars and into the night.
Soto acknowledges Cuba’s government-induced past food crises, when merely finding sustenance took precedence as ingredients for recipes became an unattainable luxury for most. The film consciously sets out to find places where the country’s rich food heritage lives on, honorably doing its part to preserve it. Ongoing hardships are presented, too, as with an innkeeper who must spend half a day seeking out food at different shops for one dinner. The tone, though, is unmistakably optimistic, the cinematography given a halcyon glow. Presumably, “Cuban Food Stories” was made before a new American president reversed policy, re-tightening the U.S. economic embargo on the country. The stories of Cuban food have since likely taken a turn for the darker again.
“Constructing Albert,” 4:30 p.m. June 1, Kirkland Performance Center; 6:30 p.m. June 3, Pacific Place
“Cuban Food Stories,” 6:30 p.m. May 27, Uptown; 4 p.m. May 28, AMC Pacific Place; 6:30 p.m. May 31, Shoreline