This book saved me $400!
Actually, not having a spare $400 plus airfare to Spain saved me, but this book made me feel better about it!
I had long cherished a hope of dining at elBulli, the cutting-edge restaurant on Spain’s Costa Brava, open only a few months out of the year and able to book an entire season’s reservations in a single day. Its 30-course tasting menu showcased chef Ferran Adrià’s revolutionary style of molecular gastronomy (he prefers the term “modernist cuisine”): foams, airs, unexpected flavors, textures altered by liquid nitrogen, and dishes that look like one thing but taste like another.
Both aspiring and established chefs have come from around the world to labor at elBulli for free, hoping to learn from Adrià’s creative approach to food. Lisa Abend, a journalist for Time magazine, follows 35 of these apprentices, or stagiaires, through their season of indentured servitude, describing their work behind the scenes as well as the varied backgrounds that led them to the culinary field. The stagiaires at elBulli are particularly overqualified, in some cases having left behind paying jobs in four-star kitchens. Others have gambled everything to get here. A South Korean ex-army cook literally camps out on Adria’s doorstep to get one of the coveted places.
While I enjoyed reading the cooks’ stories, two things became apparent. First, even given that elBulli’s menu is supposed to be out of the ordinary, there was not a single product or preparation described in this book that tempted my appetitite. With disdain for boring proteins (“What the hell am I going to do with a whole chicken?”) Adrià constructs his 2009 menu from the skin of chicken feet, gelatinous tuna spine marrow, deep-fried rabbit tongue, soy milk skins, and something combining agar-agar and “Parmesan serum.”
If I’m less than enthused about rabbit tongue, you should talk to the stagiaire whose daily job it is to prep the rabbit heads. Because, to borrow Anthony Bourdain’s notion of the restaurant kitchen as a pirate crew, elBulli’s kitchen is one unhappy, if not mutinous, ship. No talking, no joking, unquestioning obedience to the chef, and no tasting. Some of the rules make sense when you have dozens of people running about with sharp knives and hot oil. But, no tasting? “It’s like trying to play the violin wearing mittens,” complains one frustrated cook. Only one lucky apprentice gets tapped as “creativity assistant,” to take notes as the chef invents and vets new recipes. For the rest, learning is slaphazard, unless you count the highly-specialized tasks they perform over and over and over, without talking. They may be working in a genius’s kitchen, but they are weary of spherifying.
Or maybe Abend and the 2009 class of stagiaires came to elBulli at a bad time. The culinary world, less enamored with liquid nitrogen, was moving on. 2009 was the first year that elBulli lost the “Best Restaurant” title (to Noma, a Scandinavian establishment on the new cutting edge of foraging and entomophagy). At the end of the season, when the cooks have the crowning insult of having to pay for their own end-of-season party, Adrià announces that the restaurant—which never turned a profit—will be going on hiatus.
A few years later, it still isn’t clear exactly what’s going to happen when (if?) elBulli reopens. But making a culinary pilgrimage is no longer high on my list. Well… maybe just for dessert.
Check the WRL catalog for The Sorcerer’s Apprentices