The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli
Posted by Degan on July 21st, 2012
I love reading books about food and cooking, and I also love Spain, so The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli by Lisa Abend has been on my reading list for a while now. When a restaurant was the best in the world for so many years, as elBulli was, it becomes part of the culture and you think you know all about it. Likewise it’s become the norm for people to be invited behind the scenes at restaurants, whether through an actual invite into the kitchen, an open kitchen, or via the chef (bare-all memoir / TV show / speaking tour / twitter feed, etc.). The author does a good job of writing about Adrià’s philosophy and presence, but she wrote that she wanted to show the human side of elBulli and so this is largely filtered through the restaurant’s staff and stagiaires - the sorcerer’s apprentices named in the title of the book.
A stagiaire is someone who works at a period of time in a restaurant for free, in order to learn new skills from a chef he or she admires but you had to have a pretty impressive to get a stage at elBulli and the restaurant had an unusually high number of them. The book was written in 2009 during the penultimate year of service when they had about 35 stagiaires on at once (for a total of 45 people including permanent staff) but many of them didn’t stay the whole season and so the kitchen was re-supplied from the long waiting list. The book traces the history and storylines of a few individuals to make the narrative more interesting but it also serves to explain how important the combination of constancy and (free) labour is to the genius that ends up on the plate.
When we were making our molecular dinner, we remarked at how Tickets (and by extension elBulli and other restaurants of that style and calibre) could handle a service with these fussy components that took hours and intense focus to make and this excerpt pretty much sums it up:
“Montjoi lentils” are made from a batter of melted clarified butter and sesame paste that is the exact color of a Puy lentil. Squeezed through the narrow tip of a syringe into a bowl of ice water, the batter seizes, transforming each drop of liquid into a small, elliptical sphere. As long as it stays cold, you have a “lentil”…It’s a brilliant dish – delicious and playful at the same time. And the playfulness is layered.
This is a standard elBulli trick: to serve something that resembles what it is called but is not, in fact, made of it. In this case, there is the “lentil” that looks and tastes like a lentil but is not a lentil. But there is also a self-referential quality to the disk. The knowledgeable diner who understands Adrià’s signature techniques tends to sit down to the bowl of Montjoi lentils and assume…that the tiny disks at the bottom of the bowl are spherifications. Maybe made from lentil purée, maybe made from some other substance altogether, but definitely mixed with calcium carbonate and run through an alginate bath. The joke is that this isn’t an elBulli trick at all. There are no additives in the Montjoi lentils, and they are not spherified. There is nothing to them, in fact, besides butter and sesame and the natural reaction that occurs when a liquid fat encounters cold water…The diner’s expectations are twice dashed. Montjoi lentils are elBulli’s idea of an inside joke.
But for the stagiaires who make them, the lentils are not the least bit funny. Each bowl contains precisely thirteen grams, which comes out to several dozen lentils, and since the dish appears on almost every menu, the stagiaires must push approximately two thousand drops of lentil batter through their syringes each day. Divided by eight or so people, that’s 250 lentils per stagiaire. And although the technique is ridiculously simple (put lentil batter into syringe, push plunger), a lot can go wrong. Push too hard and you’ll get a stream instead of a drop; even the slightest excess of pressure results in globules that look more like tiny bullets than legumes. The batter also tends to firm up if it spends too long in the syringe, making it hard to expel properly…It takes the stagiaires more than an hour to finish a day’s batch.
If, in its double entendre, the Montjoi lentils perfectly represent the diner’s experience at elBulli, so too do they capture what it means to be a stagiaire in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Everything was performed to that level of exactness; the other dishes, of course, but even the dicing or carrots or setting up for family meal and even cleaning the rocks outside the restaurant before the season starts.
His dedication to perfection reminds me of Jiro in the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but where Jiro made the same sushi every day, subtly improving it each time, Adrià makes an entirely new menu every year and no diner, even the ones that come every year, has ever eaten the same thing twice. Madness! While the stagiaires are learning last seasons dishes, he and his creativity team are dreaming up an entirely new catalog that gets introduced one dish at a time until until the new menu is out. This means trying out the dishes from each stagiaires region and ordering and experimenting with every interesting thing they’ve ever heard of. Although foams and some of his other techniques are known the world over now, but when they first heard of agar-agar they ordered some from Japan and spent days boiling seaweed until they figured out it had to be dried and powdered.
Adrià’s genius, dedication and philosophy that “food can be whatever you imagine it to be” have changed both the cooking and dining arenas, but although his creativity and exactitude seem tireless throughout the book, it’s not hard to see why they would consider closing the restaurant. Maybe it’s obvious after reading about the pressure of the season in such detail, but surprisingly the book doesn’t get into the closure and afterward at all.
The press release on the elBulli site reads:
|elBulli will remain closed to the public during 2012 and 2013. These two years will be devoted to think, plan and prepare the new format for subsequent years:a. This situation will allow elBulli to have two creative centers: elBullitaller, currently located on Portaferrissa Street in Barcelona, and elBullirestaurant itself in Cala Montjoi.|
b. During this time all the know how about elaborations, techniques and stiles acquired after 30 years of creative research will be analyzed, and the results of said work will be complied in a comprehensive and thorough encyclopedia.
4) elBulli will open again in 2014, always seeking the limits of what a restaurant means as a format, based on the following criteria:
a. Research will be prioritized over production.
b. Each season will be different in terms of opening dates, number of services and clients, staff, etc.., going beyond the pursuit of innovation that elBulli has been doing for years since it was decided to open only for 6 months, offer only one service per day or cancel the standard menu, just to name a few examples.
Likely they will just keep experimenting and innovating until they find the thing that works. As he is quoted saying to the stagiaires on their last night of service, “Be brave…because the world is not for cowards.”