In The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, Lisa Abend, Time magazine’s correspondent in Spain, documents the life of arguably the most acclaimed chef in the world, the Catalan master Ferran Adrià. The author follows 35 of the chef’s stagiaires (unpaid apprentices) in the kitchen of elBulli, Adrià’s restaurant in Roses, Spain, which has been named the best restaurant in the world five times by Restaurant magazine. In a book that Kirkus called a “slow-motion gastronomical feast and a rare chance for gourmet enthusiasts to witness the creative process behind some of the world’s most innovative cuisine,” Abend gives readers backstage access to one of the most exclusive and mysterious professional kitchens on the planet.
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From your experiences with the stagiaires, what do you think is the most difficult part of apprenticeship at elBulli?
Mastering the tedium. Apprenticing in a kitchen always requires tedious labor—there are a lot of carrots that need to be chopped—but at elBulli, it seems worse than in most. In part, that’s because of the work itself—many of elBulli’s most striking dishes can only be made because the chef has lots of free manual labor at his disposal. He can make his corn risotto, for example, only because he has 15 or 20 young cooks who will stand there for an hour squeezing out the tiny germ from each kernel. But I think there’s also a bit of cognitive dissonance for many of the stagiaires. They arrive knowing that elBulli has the reputation for making the most exciting food in the world, but quickly learn that they’re not, in general, doing exciting things. They spend their days shucking oysters and peeling pistachios.
The term “molecular gastronomy” gets thrown around quite a bit these days, especially in relation to Adrià and his former apprentices. What do you think of that term?
Like most people [including Adrià] who are serious about food, I’m not crazy about it. For one thing, it seems so inexact. As Gaël Vuilloud, one of the apprentices I write about, says, “What does that even mean? All food is made up of molecules.” As a phrase, it also seems to carry a disproportionate number of negative connotations. But I recognize that it serves a function. Unfortunately, there’s not a great, universally agreed-upon alternative. A Spanish journalist named Pau Arenós came up with “techno-emotional” to describe that style of cooking, but I’m not crazy about that either. I tend to go with “avant-garde.”
Do you still keep in touch with Adrià and chefs Xatruch and Castro? What do you think we can expect from them after the elBulli closes to the public?
Yes, I’m in touch with all of them. Adrià will keep doing what he has always done, which is to push the boundaries of cuisine. He’ll just be doing it under the auspices of the new elBulli Foundation, rather than within a restaurant.
The big question is what becomes of Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch. They are two of the most talented chefs I know, and each could, if he wanted, be running a top restaurant anywhere in the world. But they’re both incredibly loyal to Ferran, and have spent their entire careers working at elBulli. They’ve both decided to stay on with the Foundation, but I do wonder if, at some point in their careers, they’re not going to want more recognition for what they do.
What else is on the horizon for Adrià? Can we possibly hope he opens a restaurant in the United States at some point, or is focused on the instruction part of the industry?
Ferran and his brother Albert [it’s primarily in the latter’s hands] have just opened a new, and very innovative cocktail-and-tapas bar in Barcelona. If it’s successful [and how could it not be?] they’ve discussed opening more in other cities around the world. But that’s a long way down the line.
In the meantime, Ferran will work on getting the Foundation underway in 2014. He’s also just signed on to teach at Harvard, this time in a more sustained manner.
For those of us who unfortunately can’t afford to travel to Spain to visit elBulli, do you have recommendations for restaurants in the United States that could at least come close to approximating the experience?
It sounds ridiculous to say, I know, but there is no restaurant that approximates elBulli. Ask anyone who’s been there—it truly is a unique experience.
Do you have plans for another book?
Yes, I’m tossing around a few ideas. None of them have much to do with food, but all of them are, in one way or another, about Spain. I’ve been coming to Spain for the better part of my adult life, and remain as fascinated by it as ever.
The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli
Free Press / March 22, 2011 / 9781439175552 / $26.00