“I’m on top of the world looking down on creation…”

by Katie Pizzuto on March 20, 2011

in book review,Molecular,Restaurants

To be voted the best restaurant in the world is no doubt an insanely flattering honor, and an ego boost to be sure. Chefs and restauranteurs spend thankless lifetimes just trying to run a successful business, much less earn a star or two from the New York Times or Michelin. To receive that title five times, though, can be both a blessing and a curse depending on which side of the kitchen doors your standing on, because the top is a really damned far point to fall from, and for as much as people may want to join you up there, not everyone can hack the thin air.

Ferran Adria’s elBulli (pronounced boo-yee not boo-lee) sits at that pinnacle at a moment in time when gastronomy is more popular than ever and chefs are attaining celebrity status in a culture that once thought them to be society’s fringe. Adrià, despite how many may condemn his style of cuisine, has done more to change the face of cooking than any other chef since Escoffier. Unfortunately, the term “molecular gastronomy” is being used and abused for what Adrià and other innovative chefs are doing, but his goal in the end is still to create a meal that tastes great…a meal that entices all the senses…a meal that forces you to interact with your food and have a heightened sense of awareness when you eat. That work is labor intensive and demands attention to detail—something chefs from around the world would do just about anything to learn, and something that is captured from behind the scenes in The Sorcerer’s Apprentices.

In most recent years there have been about 45 people working in elBulli’s kitchen, and the overwhelming majority only worked there for one season. Other than the handful of permanent staffers, the rest of the kitchen is fueled by cooks from all corners of the globe who apply to be stagiaires, willing to leave their homes for six months and go work long, grueling hours in elBulli for absolutely no pay…all in the hopes of learning the ways of the “sorcerer”. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice follows an entire season and its stagiaires in Adrià’s kitchen…a kitchen run completely differently than just about any you’ll ever dine from…a kitchen that is an extraordinary machine with a very human soul.

Despite the fact that elBulli’s stagiaires all speak completely different languages—French, Italian, Korean, English, Japanese, Portuguese and of course the native Spanish—everyone manages to listen, learn and communicate, even if it’s only with the ubiquitous quemo which can mean anything from “get the hell out of my way, I have fragile food in my hands” to “I’m rounding a blind corner so please don’t hit me or we’ll both screw up service.” Variations include: quemo mucho (carrying something really hot or really cold), quemo máximo (carrying boiling oil or something equally capable of disfiguring you), and quemo nitro (literally hauling liquid nitrogen). But more than anything else, quemo is an assertion that they are there, something not at all trivial given that they’ve beaten out nearly 3,000 people for the privilege of cooking in Adrià’s kitchen.

For anyone that is curious about what the hell goes on behind the scenes in elBulli, why it has been voted the best restaurant an unprecedented five times, or why well-established chefs would jump at the chance to start at the bottom rung again if it means being at Adrià’s side for six months, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices is a fascinating read. It is a microscopic look at the most influential chef in the last 60 years and his “baby”. It is a rare peek at the quest for culinary expertise and the frustrations that come with it. It is the unlidding of the world’s most revolutionary pot.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Don March 21, 2011

Ok, a few questions. First where is this restaurant located? I would assume New York, but it could be Madrid, Paris, Rome, Vegas, LA, or London, or none of those places. Second, What kind of fare do they serve? Is it just working with the strengths of the chefs that happen to be on staff at any given moment? or is it a set type of cuisine? Finally, how did this guy get this revered status? Where did he come from? who influenced him? And how did he get to the point where he doesn’t have to pay any of his chefs? I’m guessing if you eat at his restaurant is isn’t free!

This post was a great teaser, but I wonder what makes a guy like this tick.

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2 Katie Pizzuto March 21, 2011

Sorry, Don, sometimes I’m a snobby jackass that thinks everyone knows elBulli. It’s in Spain, on Costa Brava. Adrià’s cuisine is what started the avalanche known as “molecular gastronomy” (a term he can’t stand, BTW). He’s completely changed the face of restaurant cooking, and if you do a Google Images search for elBulli you’ll see hundreds of photos of his food. He’s a genius for making you rethink what you’re eating, for example look at this image. It looks like an olive, but it is really olive “juice” that’s spherized to look like what it came from: http://bit.ly/eaW1fO.

He worked his way up in Spanish kitchens until he was able to eventually purchase elBulli from its previous owner and grow it into what it is today (though he’s closing his doors in 2012 and opening an academy in its place). It’s only open for 6 months of the year (which is when the chefs go and “stage” there to learn everything he knows) and reservations are filled quicker than a college pledge can funnel a six-pack.

What’s known as “staging” is commonplace in the restaurant world. When a young chef wants to learn from a revered chef, they offer to work there for free (kinda like an intern) and what they don’t take away in pay they take away in education, experience and wisdom that they’d otherwise never have. So it’s not necessarily particular to Adrià, it’s just that no other restaurant has thousands of applicants every year…..they have a handful at best, LOL. And no, eating at his restaurant is far from free! He pays a few staffers that are there permanently and the rest of the kitchen is fueled by chefs (many are very established) that just wanna get inside his head and take away a fraction of his approach to food.

You learn A LOT in the book about not only what makes him tick but why chefs flock to him every year to work at his side.

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3 Don March 29, 2011

Hey I watched No Reservations last night, and Bourdain went to a very high end restaurant quite literally in the middle of nowhere called Local Mail in a small outback sheep herding town in Australia. Kind of a fly in destination type resort. Anyway the owner and head chef had done a six month stint at this place. Bourdain was very impressed!

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4 Katie Pizzuto March 31, 2011

See, and you were all like, “hey I know that place” 🙂

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5 Don March 31, 2011

Exactly! I was really excited that I know what the fuck he was talking about! I felt really in the know.

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