My 3rd Grade self sat riveted as the teacher read aloud the tales of chocolate rivers, Fizzy Lifting Drinks and a Great Glass Elevator that shoots up into the atmosphere. Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory captivated my young mind and delivered a vivid and delectable look behind the scenes of the world's greatest chocolate factory. Years later, I find myself experiencing the same warm, fuzzy excitement as Lisa Abend documents the world that goes on behind the doors of Ferran Adria's El Bulli restaurant; a place that only a lucky few have been privy to experience.
No Golden Ticket necessary.
With news that this season will be Adria's last behind the front pass of el Bulli (he announced he is closing the restaurant this July), I will never have the privilege of an el Bulli experience, but Lisa Abend ensures that I get the next best thing. Similar to how Michael Ruhlman documents his experience at the Culinary Institute of America in his book The Making of a Chef, Abend settles in for an entire season at the most innovative restaurant on the planet.
Every year, 32 outstanding cooks are selected to work (also known as a stage) the season at el Bulli. They work for free, for long hours, and are responsible for funding their own living expenses. Most "stagieres" come from fantastic restaurants of their own right (see: French Laundry, Mugaritz, Arzak, Alinea), but they all know that el Bulli is where one goes to truly put themselves in a position to learn new and innovative technique.
For those of you out there unfamiliar with the work of Ferran Adria; his impact on the world of food and why it's such a prestigious honour to be invited to climb a tall mountain to work for free under grueling conditions, I'll put the experience into more, shall we say, relatable terms...
Imagine a young Paul McCartney decides he wants to share his knowledge. He decides to invite a select few up-and-coming musicians to the studio whilst the band known as The Beatles (maybe you've heard of them?) works on some record called Abbey Road (or something similar to that). He's not going to pay you, of course; after all you're the ones benefiting from being in their general vicinity. Ringo can bang the drums just as well without you sitting star-struck in the corner. It's not like school, where the teacher coddles you until you understand; it's your job to pick up what little tidbits of wisdom poke their way to the surface. "Big deal" you may find yourself saying, but consider that at el Bulli, 99% of these morsels of wisdom have never before been idealized anywhere else on this planet. Now that, my friends, is worth paying for.
Abend chooses to tell the story through the eyes and ears of the stages; a wise decision because one finds themselves experiencing the shame, pride and frustration that comes with constantly learning new things and finding out that everything you used to know is not needed. It takes a skilled writer to make spherification seem intriguing. Trust me; I've actually DONE the technique myself and it's a shining exercise in repetition and redundancy.
With books such as this one, the key to its success is immersion; the reader absolutely must feel included within the activity of the book. Abend does this excellently; one is swiftly instructed that the usual "Behind" and "Oui" call backs that are traditional in Western kitchens have been replaced with the Spanish inflected "Quemo" and "Oido". I challenge anyone to not feel inspired to yell "QUEMO" while passing someone in a tight grocery aisle as a result of this book.
Imagine what the perfect strawberry would be: "Wild, picked straight off the bush and popped in one's mouth, harvested in the warm Summer Sun." Sounds absolutely delicious, doesn't it? Now at this point, a chef's mind might be processing ways on which to improve even further on your so-called perfect strawberry: "What if, we could take the flavour of 100 'perfect' strawberries and put them all into a single mouthful?" Such are the principles that Adria centers upon; principles that even those not in the food industry can benefit from adapting. Declaring the drive to "never copy" as his motive in cuisine, Adria constantly forges new paths towards a world of wonder and delectability; refusing to pause in content or exhaustion.
In 1987 Ferran Adria became the head chef of el Bulli and re-established the notion of food as more than sustenance. Come March 2011, Lisa Abend reveals the clockwork behind one of the greatest restaurants to ever operate. Mark your calendars, my friends, and prepare to have your world rocked.
Reviewed by Kevin Jeung
The Sorcerer’s Apprentices by Lisa Abend
The Sorcerer’s Apprentices by Lisa Abend
Hardcover, $29.99, 296pp