The Spanish restaurant elBulli surely tops the bucket list of most avid diners. Set by cliffs near a beach resort on the Costa Brava, it is both the most influential restaurant of modern times and the hardest to get into. Complicating matters, it is only open six months of the year; people the world over plan their European vacations around reservations.
But the coming season will be elBulli’s last before its genius chef Ferran Adrià turns his attention to other projects and plans to turn the space into a culinary research foundation. A lucky few will scratch this dinner from their bucket lists; many more will come to terms with the fact that they will never win the reservation lottery, make a Mediterranean pilgrimage, and sit down to the dozens of startling courses that will offer them a lifetime of bragging rights.
For those destined to miss the boat, I recommend “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli” (Free Press, $26). Author Lisa Abend, an Atlanta native and graduate of Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs, focuses her account on the 35 unpaid stagaires (kitchen interns) who make the magic happen. She spends a season with this United Nations of ambitious cooks as they stand for hours performing repetitive tasks such as harvesting boiled milk skin, attend to noncooking chores like arranging the stone gravel in the parking lot, share cramped company housing and carouse after hours in town bars.
A Madrid-based correspondent for Time magazine, Abend was in town recently to visit her parents and make a couple of appearances related to the book. She has only lately gotten into food journalism, and perhaps for this reason her writing is free of the mannerisms and braggadocio that figure in many other Accounts of Great Meals. In her introduction she relates the story of a friend who, perplexed by the brouhaha over this restaurant, blurts out that “it’s just food.”
Is it? That’s the tension that underlies the deft tone of this book. Abend takes a fly-on-the-wall stance as she reports the story, never stepping out of the background to salivate over the wonders passing under her nose. There’s no place for food porn in this narrative as she follows the members of the elBulli kitchen through their tasks and into the past lives that led them to it.
One young Colombian woman with Atlanta roots, Andrea Correa, had her first cooking job at Buckhead Diner and developed an interest in pastry while at Pricci. At elBulli, she gets a coveted internship as an assistant to chef de cuisine Oriol Castro, who develops new recipes. As a stagaire, she isn’t allowed to taste any of the food but rather helps assemble it. At one point she asks if she can at least go into the dining room to see it being eaten. She does, and Abend remarks that she returns “beaming.”
For her part, Abend pretty well has carte blanche access, and so she observes the multilingual wait staff in the front of the house comfort diners as they are presented with some of the more outrageous items, such as a combination of sea anemone and rabbit brains that she calls “slimy on the one hand, squishy on the other.”
“Ferran wants you to approach some of the courses with a little apprehension, if not outright fear,” she said while in Atlanta. “He wants to create a tension in the meal, and so not all of the food will be delicious.”
And so the stagaires back in the kitchen are kept busy with bizarre ingredients. At one point a stagaire must face a pan of bloody rabbit heads and yank out their tongues. Sometimes jobs are created simply to keep all these skilled hands busy. Abend says there is usually one excessively labor intensive dish on the menu designed for this purpose. During the season she visits it is corn risotto made only with the germ painstakingly removed from corn kernels, one by one.
In the end, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” draws an intimate and closely observed portrait of elBulli and its staff. It is just a restaurant, and it is just food, not all of it delicious. But it is also a monument and an expression of genius, built to a large degree on the backs of unpaid laborers. Seeing how this comes about can be as gratifying as eating the food.
At least, that’s what I tell myself.