The Sorcerer’s Apprentices

Book Review: The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria’s elBulli, by Lisa Abend.

In The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, Lisa Abend chronicles the experiences of thirty-five stagiaires, unpaid apprentice chefs who have beaten out thousands of other applicants to spend a season in the kitchen at elBulli, Ferran Adria’s world renowned avant-garde restaurant in southern Spain.

The three-star Michelin ranked restaurant has been something of a food mecca, with millions of people requesting the several thousand coveted reservations each season, and experienced chefs from around the world willing to work as unpaid stagiaires, to absorb some of the experimental techniques and creative genius of Ferran Adria.

The book is fascinating–as information packed as a documentary, but as suspenseful as reality TV.  The stagiaires arrive from all over the world, nervous and excited.  They are indoctrinated into the procedures at elBulli, slowly gaining confidence and proficiency at new techniques.  The stagiaires work under military-like discipline, day after 14-hour day, to produce the cutting edge, labor-intensive dishes that come together in meals of thirty-plus courses for the lucky patrons of the restaurant.

From steaming rose petals to molecular gastronomy techniques like spherification, reading about the cooking process is riveting.  So, too are the individual stories of the stagiaires–their aspirations, interpersonal struggles, and how they learn to cope with the exhausting pace.

Which stagiaires will not make it through the entire season?  Will any of them be offered jobs as chefs at elBulli?  Will the experience have been worth it?  Where will they go next?  These questions provide the tension that keeps this book moving from start to finish.

One fascinating tidbit from the book: the stagiaires never got to eat the elaborate food that they created for the patrons of the restaurant.  The frustration of cooking stunning food day after day and never actually getting to try dishes such as the “Petroleum”, made of black sesame paste swirled though a pool of transparent white yogurt water, or the “Montjoi Lentils” made from a spherified batter of melted, clarified butter and sesame paste, or the fried chicken cartilage, or baby goat kidneys, was palpable.

Like the punishing pace of boot camp or a medical residency, I had the impression that after their experiences at elBulli, the chefs would find the long hours and fast pace in a more traditional restaurant kitchen laughably easy.

I have long wanted to experience a meal at elBulli, and after reading this book I want to even more.  It seems that is an unlikely dream now, as elBulli is closing in 2012, to be transformed into a creativity center.  But through reading this book, I have at least had the satisfaction of a vicarious experience of elBulli.

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5 thoughts on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices

  1. Eggton

    ACK! I didn’t know it was closing. Is that typical, do you know, to not let the apprentice chefs ever taste what they’re cooking? That seems so wrong. How are they to excel at managing flavors and refining their palates (in order to be better chefs) if they never get to taste it? That would drive me bonkers.


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