The Sorcerer’s Apprentices

Take an olive. Wring its pretty neck. Collect the juice,process it with algae-based gelifiers and calcium carbonate and—hey,presto!—the liquid turns into a tremulous globule of olive essence, beyonddivine with your martini. It’s subversive and witty, and Ferran Adria doesequally outré, ravishing things to the likes of rabbit tongue, marinated fishliver, and prehistorically large cardoons, all in the service of flavor andslaying expectations, setting your hair on fire with his rarefied creations.

But alright already, enough ink hasbeen spilled singing the praises of the avant-garde Spanish chef. What aboutthose apprentices in the kitchen, asks Timemagazine correspondent Lisa Abend, the ones actually making and plating much ofthe food served at the restaurant elBulli? Her book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, spends a revealing, dexterouslyrendered six months in their company, this troop of unpaid kitchen disciplesknown as stagiaires, part of thefeudal tradition whereby young cooks gain direction and purpose from a greatmentor.

They are an elect handful—Abendclosely, sympathetically profiles a half-dozen of them—as lucky to get thisapprenticeship as anyone else is getting a seat at elBulli, and thrilled withthe opportunity, at least at first. “Like all great restaurants, elBulli’sdazzle rests in large part on the willingness of the apprentices, in the nameof education, to do the dreary work no one else wants to do.”  Say, making2000 lentils a day out of clarified butter and sesame paste. That’s right,lentils: typical Adria legerdemain.

The man himself remains aloof tothem: “I don’t interact with stagiaires,” Adria snips, very unmentorishly, when one asked for advice. And somekitchen protocols seem plain weird: not only having to ask to use the bathroom;what about apprentices not being allowed to sample the food while putting ittogether? Too costly, claims Adria, though how’s an apprentice to know if therabbit ear with sea anemone is as it should be? Simply execute, my child, asAdria has plotted every dish to the nth degree. What stagiaires do learn is that thebrilliance of creation is well and good, but the genius is in the hard work ofgetting it just so, plate after plate, one perfect counterfeit lentil, onewobbly olive at a time.