“Anyone interested in the very vanguard of creativity in any medium, aside from the ever-growing ranks of foodies and celebrity-chef watchers, is certain to be enchanted.”
—Booklist (starred review)
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Now in paperback—Kitchen Confidential meets Heat in the first behind-the-scenes portrait of the world’s most influential restaurant and the aspiring culinary geniuses who toiled to make it so exceptional.
WHAT GOES ON BEHIND THE SCENES AT ELBULLI?
Elected best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine an/i>/b>/i>/i>
Now in paperback—Kitchen Confidential meets Heat in the first behind-the-scenes portrait of the world’s most influential restaurant and the aspiring culinary geniuses who toiled to make it so exceptional.
WHAT GOES ON BEHIND THE SCENES AT ELBULLI?
Elected best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine an unprecedented five times, elBulli is where chef Ferran Adrià’s remarkable cuisine comes to life—with dragon cocktails that make the drinker breathe smoke and caviar made from tiny spheres of olive oil. elBulli is also the object of culinary pilgrimage—millions clamor every year for a reservation at one of its tables.
Yet few people know that, behind each of the thirtyor more courses that make up a meal at elBulli, a small army of stagiaires—apprentice chefs—labor at the precise, exhausting work of executing Adrià’s astonishing vision. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchenat Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, Lisa Abend explores the remarkable system that Adrià uses to run his restaurant and, in the process, train the next generation of culinary stars.
Granted more access to Adrià and the elBulli kitchen than any other writer in the restaurant’s history, Abend follows thirty-five young men and women as they struggle to master the cutting-edge techniques, grueling hours, furious creativity, and interpersonal tensions that come with working at this celebrated institution. Her lively narrative captures a great cast, including a young Korean cook who camps on the doorstep of elBulli until he is allowed to work in the kitchen; an ambitious chef from one of Switzerland’s top restaurants struggling to create his own artistic vision of cuisine; and an American couple whose relationship may not withstand the unique pressures of the restaurant. What emerges is an irresistible tale of aspiring young talents caught, for good or ill, in the opportunity of a lifetime.
Taken together, their stories form a portrait of the international team that helps make a meal at elBulli so memorable. They also reveal a Ferran Adrià few ever see, one who is not only a genius chef and artist but also a boss, teacher, taskmaster, businessman, and sometimes- flawed human being. Today, food has become the focus of unprecedented attention, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentices also explores the strange evolution—in less than two decades—of a once-maligned profession into a source of celebrity.
“Anyone interested in the very vanguard of creativity in any medium, aside from the ever-growing ranks of foodies and celebrity-chef watchers, is certain to be enchanted.”
—Booklist (starred review)
The Sorcerer’s Apprentices
“Quemo. Quemo. Quemo, quemo, quemo. Quemo. QUE-mo!”
The most important thing the stagiaires learn on their first day at elBulli is this word: quemo. Literally, it means “I burn.” The ones who don’t speak Spanish don’t know that, however, and so, as they mouth the strange word in the early days before it becomes reflex, it comes out a question, one often formed, it seems, in their own language: Kay-moh? Quémeau?
At the restaurant, quemo is an all-purpose warning: behind you, coming through, hot stuff, watch your back. There is no room for variation in this kitchen, where forty-five chefs and cooks and stagiaires and dishwashers from different countries are constantly moving, and so one word must carry the burden of many kinds of caution. If you listen closely, you’ll hear it in the background of the louder, more obvious din created by the Thermomix whirring and coconuts being cracked and orders being fired and marrow bones being sawed apart and the occasional plate crashing to the floor. It is always there, like a looped soundtrack, this steady chorus of quemos.
The cooks are supposed to say the word as they round the treacherous bend between the small kitchen and the main one or step through the portal that divides the hot stations from the cold—an alert on a blind curve. Some, however, repeat it as they pass through any crowded area of the kitchen, rhythmically announcing each step—“QUEmoQUEmoQUEmo”—so that the word becomes a mantra against accidental bumping and other calamities. Admittedly, this produces something of a boy-who-cried-wolf situation: how do you know when something really is hot? For that, the kitchen has spontaneously devised variations: quemo mucho for when a cook takes a hot pan from the flattop and turns around to empty its contents at his station—in other words, when something really is hot.
Except for when it isn’t. Aitor Zabala, the chef de partie of Cold Station, says, “Quemo mucho” as he takes a tray of Ponds, delicate glass bowls of ice that will become one of this year’s stellar dishes, and moves them from one freezer to another. In other words, he says “Quemo mucho” not when he is burning a lot but when he is freezing. The other variations are a little more reliable: quemo máximo is used for pots of boiling oil and other potentially disfiguring substances. And this being elBulli, at least twice a day comes the warning quemo nitro, as two of the cooks—protective goggles strapped to their heads, a cloud of smoke trailing behind them—haul a tank of liquid nitrogen back to the cold station.
Quemo has its personal variations as well. Katie Button never completely loses the querulous tone of the first day; for her, quemo will always be a question. Luke Jang puts the accent on the second syllable, which has the effect, like so much of what he does, of making his version seem faster, more efficient. For Luis Arrufat, quemo is a kind of personal manifesto, a bellowed I am here!, as if he were the lead in a musical who, having already walked onstage and puffed out his chest, still feels the need to signal that he is about to commence singing. The chefs de cuisine, Eduard Xatruch and Oriol Castro, get away with not saying it at all; it’s a sign of their authority that they can assume that any person with whom they might collide will say it first. When they do use the word, it carries a distinctly didactic tone, as if to say, “Remember? This is how you’re supposed to do it.” Ferran doesn’t have to say “Quemo” either, of course, but he often does, accompanying it with a swift flick of his hands, so that it takes on a meaning unique to him: Would you please get the hell out of my way?
The stagiaires learn another word today, too: oído, or “heard.” Used the way an English speaker might say “roger,” oído is an acknowledgment that you’ve heard what the speaker has said. At elBulli, “oído” is what you say when you are chef de partie and the person expediting has just called an order that will come from your station—you’re acknowledging that you heard the request, and you’ve started working on it. But since oído is a hierarchical signifier—you say it only to those above you—the stagiaires say the word a lot more than anyone else. After all, they are the ones doing the restaurant’s grunt work—cleaning schmutz from the rabbit ears that will be fried into something resembling potato chips, splitting open tuna spines to release the translucent blob of marrow, turning dozens of pieces of rhubarb into something resembling sea cucumbers.
When the stagiaires receive instruction or criticism (We need more ears. You call that a sea cucumber? That’s a fucking zucchini!), they are supposed to reply with “Oído”—I heard you, got it, I’m on it. Sometimes Ferran will make a suggestion to the group and then, like a mostly benevolent drill sergeant and his “I can’t HEAR you!,” will ask, “Oído, cocina?” On those occasions the stagiaires will respond in unison with their own robust “Oído!” But usually the word is uttered by an individual, with varying intonations of enthusiasm or resentment, to demonstrate that he understands what the next task is. For despite the fact that many of them have cooked in important restaurants around the globe—Tetsuya’s, noma, the French Laundry, Alain Ducasse—the thirty-two stagiaires in elBulli’s kitchen are now on the bottom rung of the most famous restaurant in the world. And on the bottom rung, there is always something else to do.
A table at elBulli is the holy grail of reservations for food lovers around the world, but a stage there is even more desirable for young, ambitious cooks. Each year, roughly three thousand apply for the privileged opportunity of passing six months as stagiaires—technically the word means “interns” or “apprentices,” but it translates metaphorically as “kitchen slaves”—at its stove tops. The high regard in which the restaurant is held, as well as the chance to receive instruction from Adrià and his chefs, explains why apprentices travel, at their own expense, from Seoul and Bologna and Los Angeles and Caracas to the tiny, overbuilt town of Roses on Spain’s Costa Brava. It is also why they agree to work fourteen hours at a stretch in exchange for one meal a day, a bed in an unattractive apartment, and exactly no pay. It is why they stand practically still for seven of those hours, their feet planted at the center counter, squeezing the germ from thousands of kernels of corn or trimming the slime off anemones. If they make it through the six months that elBulli is open, they are able to say that they have worked in the best restaurant in the world. Luca Balboni, one of 2009’s three Italian stagiaires, puts it like this: “A stage at elBulli is like a baptism. Without it, you’re not really a Christian.”
Yet it wasn’t that long ago that a stage in Spain would have been more like an excommunication. “It would be like saying you were going to go train in Turkey or someplace,” says chef Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill restaurant. “Interesting in an ethnographic way, but it would have meant you weren’t serious about cuisine.” Indeed, as late as the 1980s, Spanish food had almost no reputation at all; when expatriates such as Gerry Dawes and Janet Mendel began writing about it, they had to persuade skeptics that there was more to Spanish cuisine than paella and gazpacho. That Spain is now the most exciting and admired place to work for a serious student of cuisine is the result of the labor of dozens of innovative chefs and hundreds of exceptional producers. But in its origins, the phenomenon is almost entirely attributable to Ferran Adrià.
The stage is a remnant of Europe’s medieval guilds. In fact, it is older than restaurants themselves and in its traditional form more akin to the voluntary indenturing that a young man would undertake in order to learn to print books than anything you might see on Top Chef. These days, a formal apprenticeship is no longer mandatory for an ambitious chef, and the modern incarnation of the stage is most often an internship arranged by his culinary school—with all the abuse-avoiding oversight and regulation that implies. Or it can be an impromptu passage: a young cook asks to spend a week or a month in the kitchen of an established restaurant, doing the drudge work—peeling the potatoes, cleaning the snails, chopping the garlic—in exchange for the chance to learn from a chef he admires.
But at elBulli, the stage remains a formal training period, with a beginning and end that coincide more or less exactly with the six months that the restaurant is open. Prospective stagiaires send in their applications a year in advance, so that a few months before the season begins, the restaurant has compiled a collection of cooks eager to indenture themselves. With only thirty-two slots to fill, the odds are against most of them. Those who do get in have Marc Cuspinera to thank.
For years, Marc was elBulli’s chef de cuisine, but these days he oversees an odd combination of administrative and design work for the restaurant. With his longish sideburns and gently ironic sense of humor, he could be running a retro record shop in Brooklyn selling vinyl records. Instead, he is in charge of a broad category of tasks at elBulli that include scheduling photo shoots of each new dish for that year’s catalogue, commissioning local artists to design the plates and bowls that the restaurant uses in its new dishes, and constructing the wooden separations that divide the compartments of the box of chocolates that goes out at the end of each meal. He also designs the silicone molds the restaurant uses to make one thing look like another—the “mimetic” peanuts (and almonds and pistachios) made from nut praliné, the roses made from frozen whiskey sours. “Marc,” Ferran says, “is the MacGyver of elBulli.”
Along with his other responsibilities, Marc has been in charge of the stage program for the past three years. When he himself started at the restaurant twenty years ago, he was one of only seven stagiaires (more than one person tells stories of elBulli’s early days, in which Ferran would beg people he met on the street to come work for him), but these days, the number stands at around thirty-two, which means that Marc now spends the better part of the months prior to the restaurant’s opening weeding through those three thousand applications, securing student visas, and convincing landlords in Roses that they do indeed want to rent their apartments to a small horde of mostly twentysomethings who all return home simultaneously to troop up the stairs at two each morning. As a result, he’s acquired the weary tolerance of a longtime dorm mother: this is a man who has seen everything, from fights in the kitchen to the occasional arrest. (In fact, in 2009, he will be rousted from bed one night when the neighbors in a building that houses eleven stagiaires call to complain about the noise levels. This is after they have pelted with eggs and oranges the offending stagiaires, who were drinking on the terrace of their apartment.) Marc is the first person from elBulli with whom the stagiaires will have contact, and, should anything go wrong while they are working there, he will also be the last.
Selection is an inexact calculus, based more on instinct than on anything resembling a formal hiring process. In fact, elBulli doesn’t interview its prospective stagiaires; Marc makes the call largely on the basis of how an applicant fills out a form. Most gush about their desire to work with the greatest chef in the world; many demonstrate an intimate knowledge of Ferran’s career and recipes. But Marc is not swayed solely by enthusiasm. Experience counts; elBulli prefers its full-season stagiaires to arrive with significant work experience not only because it makes things run more smoothly but because the restaurant, in order to maintain good public relations, fills some of its slots each year with students from the local culinary schools. “And that,” says Marc, “is as many beginners as we can handle.” He tends to prefer younger cooks (“A forty-year-old won’t last the six months,” he says. “I know, because I’m forty”) and ones who come from restaurants—Per Se, Alinea, the Fat Duck—whose level he considers roughly comparable with elBulli’s. A chef may have years of experience at the top restaurants in, say, Malaysia, but if those restaurants are not familiar to Marc, the chef in question will receive the “We’ll keep your name on file” letter rather than the one that reads, “The season begins on June 10.”
Those chosen are supposed to arrive speaking at least some Spanish, although in practice not all of them do, and some, like the French-speaking Gaël Vuilloud, blatantly lie about their language skills in the hope of securing a spot. Men outnumber women, although in 2009 Ferran was proud to have seven female stagiaires. And although the restaurant likes to maintain a healthy mix of nationalities, there are certain limits. Spaniards always predominate; in 2009 there were generally fifteen of them at a time. The rest came from Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Venezuela, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, the United States, Japan, India, Brazil, and South Korea. For the last few years, none, pointedly, has been French. “It’s the attitude,” Marc admits with a shrug when confronted with this apparent oversight. “They never seem to work out.”
On the first day, the stagiaires appear one by one on Roses’ boardwalk, dragging their suitcases and backpacks behind them in the bright morning sunlight. The ones who arrive first grab an outdoor table at the beachfront café, and order coffee or beer, depending on how they spent the previous night and how cocky they are feeling that morning. With each new arrival, the seated ones squint up into the blinding sun and offer a wary hello. A small group of the Catalan stagiaires—some cooks, some servers—know one another from culinary school and chatter together happily, but the rest sit awkwardly at the edge of their circle, introducing themselves, then falling into nervous silence. It feels like the first day of summer camp.
There is always a photographer or reporter around at elBulli, and even on this first day, a German documentary crew films every move as the stagiaires are ushered inside a dining room at the same café and take seats in straight-back plastic chairs. Through the windows they can see fat, sunburned tourists stroll happily down the boardwalk in their bathing suits, but inside the mood is tense and no one says a word. Marc takes his place at the front and begins to enumerate the rules: no facial hair, nails clean and trimmed, no wearing your chef’s jacket outside the restaurant, and, by the way, you’re responsible for laundering it yourself. No kidding around or practical jokes in the kitchen; we don’t want any misunderstandings. Pants and shoes should be black; you should have a small offset spatula (a flat, angled knife with a rounded tip) with you at all times. No drinking on the job or showing up late; do the latter more than once, and you’ll be sent home. Marc tempers his sternness with a little encouragement: “You’re with us for 196 days, and 54 of those are days off. So take advantage of your time here, take advantage of it fully.” But then, almost as an afterthought, he turns gruff again. “I’ve got a list of three thousand people who want to be where you are,” he says, jutting his chin in the direction of his audience, whose members look decidedly stricken. “So if I have to throw you out, I’ve got plenty of people waiting to take your place.”
After a lunch of chorizo sandwiches and local apricots, the apprentices have one last thing to do before heading up to the restaurant. Instructing them to grab their chef’s coats, Marc breaks the stagiaires into groups and takes them to their new accommodations to drop their bags. Not only does he assign them an apartment—with anywhere from four to eleven housemates—but he assigns them their rooms (“If there’s any damage, I want to know who to blame”). Their selection may have depended on a good deal of luck, but now that the stagiaires are part of elBulli, nothing they do will willingly be left to chance.
The route that leads from the town of Roses to Cala Montjoi, the jewel-like cay where elBulli is located, is seven kilometers of the most narrow, tortuous road you would ever want to travel. For clients, the location is part of the restaurant’s allure—isolated, not easily reached, along a road that is as beautiful as it is dangerous. But for the stagiaires, the drive is more complicated. For the next six months, beginning around 1 P.M., a small line of cars will bear them up the mountain and, fourteen or so hours later, back down again, passing vistas of vineyards on the one side and the sparkling Mediterranean on the other. It’s a bittersweet journey: all this beauty, yet not theirs to enjoy; unlike the cars they pass on the way, which inevitably contain vacationers with lobster-colored skin on their way from another beach, the stagiaires take the road only to work. And on this first drive, piled into cars for what is, for most of them, their first trip to the restaurant, those feelings are even more confused. “I was nauseated the whole way up,” confesses Ralph Schelling, a young cook from Switzerland. “But I couldn’t tell if it was nerves, excitement, or car sickness.”
Soon, all thirty-two are standing around elBulli’s stove tops with the thirteen permanent staff, including Ferran Adrià. As professional kitchens go, it is beautiful: broad and airy, with a large window in front and a glass wall in back that lets in the speckled Costa Brava sunlight. Erect in their still pristine white jackets, with long blue aprons around their necks, the stagiaires line the kitchen’s edges like soldiers nervously awaiting inspection. Marc has traded his T-shirt for a chef’s jacket, and he makes some initial comments as several of the stagiaires strain to keep their eyes focused on him, rather than trying to take it all in. “All I kept thinking was ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” says Colombian-born Andrea Correa. “It was all I could do to stand still.”
Chefs de cuisine Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch lead the meeting that starts the stagiaires’ workday. (Francesc Guillamet)
Introductions come first. In any restaurant, identity stems from where you have worked, which is why Luca Balboni, the tall, handsome pastry chef from Milan, begins by saying he is from Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. Short and wiry, Sungho Jin—he invites everyone to call him Sunny—worked at Tetsuya’s in Australia. José Luis Parra nervously adjusts his red-framed eyeglasses and blurts out that he was at Biko in Mexico City. Perfectly erect, Kim Floresca quietly says, “Per Se, en Nueva York”; for Roger Alcaraz, part of the Catalan contingent, it is “La Broche, en Madrid.” Tall and smiling, Katie Button exercises her fledgling Spanish and says painstakingly, “Yo trabajo con José Andrés, en El Bazaar.” Gangly Luke’s Spanish isn’t much better, but he manages to get out “Mugaritz,” the same as the raven-haired Begoña Martínez, standing next to him. Swallowed up by her jacket, the petite Andrea whispers that she worked at noma. And so it goes, a virtual who’s who of the world’s best restaurants: Txema Llamosas is from Arzak in San Sebastián; Emmanuelle (Emma) Leftick, who wears a tiny silver chef’s knife around her neck, comes from the French Laundry. With virtually no knowledge of Spanish, Gaël Vuilloud manages nervously to get out only his age (twenty-two), until one of the other cooks asks in French where he last worked: Denis Martin in Vevey, Switzerland.
The permanent staff then introduce themselves. In contrast to the stagiaires, they come from mostly one place: elBulli. There is Oriol Castro, the kitchen’s thirty-six-year-old second in command, who has been with Ferran for fourteen years. Mateu Casañas, thirty-three, has just been put in charge of Pastry—or “the sweet world,” as it’s called at elBulli—after working at the restaurant since he was twenty. Now twenty-nine, chef de cuisine Eduard Xatruch has been with the restaurant since he was seventeen. Sous chef Eugeni de Diego, twenty-five, joined when he was twenty-one. And all of the chefs de partie—Luis Arrufat, Andrés Conde, Aitor Zabala, Toni Moraga, Anthony Masas, Sergio Barroso, and Pablo Pavón—have also put in years at elBulli, sometimes exclusively. Every single one of the permanent staff, Marc tells the group, started as a stagiaire.
Finally Ferran speaks. Dressed in sandals and jeans, his dark, curly hair beginning to gray and his round belly straining against the confines of his T-shirt, he is not an intimidating figure, at least not until he begins to speak. In his staccato voice, he delivers a speech that is half pep talk, half hellfire and brimstone. He begins by welcoming them and emphasizing what a remarkable opportunity they have before them. “We’re going to explain creativity to you,” he declares. “Each year we become more and more like a university. You’re going to learn a lot. And we don’t expect you to know everything, not now, not today. We”—and here he gestures to the other chefs—“don’t know everything. At this point, we don’t even know what the menu is going to look like. We’re all starting at ground zero.”
This appeal to a common starting point is reassuring to some, but it raises mild warning signs for Sunny. After all, he is thirty-two years old and has worked in restaurants since he was nineteen. And not just any restaurants: he followed his stint at Tetsuya’s with one at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, which is considered by many the best restaurant in the United States. He prides himself on his hard-won skills, and this suggestion, that experience doesn’t matter, doesn’t coincide with what he’s learned. “Either you know what you’re doing or you don’t,” he says later. “The recipes may be different, the plating may be different, but if you know what you’re doing, your knowledge, your skill—they’ll carry you through.”
Ferran continues. Some of the things he says they’ve heard from Marc already: the unquestionable importance of arriving on time, the absolute need to drive carefully on the perilous road that leads to and from the restaurant. He reiterates that cell phones are prohibited in the kitchen and that anyone caught taking photos there will be summarily fired—the restaurant has had more than one bad experience in which stagiaires have posted a new or developing dish on the Internet. He tells them to buy a notebook and bring it every day in order to keep track of the new things they learn. Then he adds one item that comes as a surprise to those cooks who have worked in other highly regarded places: “I don’t want to hear any screaming in this restaurant. No one insults anyone else, no one belittles anyone else. If you have a criticism, you raise it calmly, in a meeting. We’re a team. And if I hear of anyone insulting anyone else, they’re out.” Can this be true? A few of the more experienced cooks look at one another questioningly. “When I started,” Ferran continues, “insults, shouting, outbursts were normal. But by now we’ve created an environment of respect so that when others come here, they admire us.” At this, chefs de cuisine Eduard and Oriol exchange a knowing glance. But Ferran, always speaking a mile a minute, has moved on.
“We’re like the Barça,” he says, making reference to Barcelona’s beloved soccer team. “Maximum seriousness, in order to have a good time.” With a warning that they are to be at work at ten the next morning, on time and dressed in their jackets and aprons, he dismisses them to their cleaning tasks. Then, thinking better of it, he calls them back for one last message. “Remember,” he says, raising his index finger to a spot between his eyebrows in a gesture that will soon become familiar. “The recipes aren’t the most important thing to take from here. What you have to take is elBulli’s spirit.”
As José Luis goes to hunt for a mop, he shakes his head with a mixture of awe and joy. “I can’t believe I was just standing next to Ferran Adrià,” he says. “I can’t believe I’m here.” But excitement is not the only emotion rippling through the crew. As the stagiaires scatter to their tasks, wiping down shelves and sweeping under the countertops, a thin wire of tension runs through the kitchen. Certainly none of them ever wants to arrive late for the start of the workday; Ferran has made it clear that more than one tardy arrival will mean automatic dismissal. (In fact, no less famous a former elBulli cook than José Andrés—today a chef and the owner of top restaurants in Washington and Los Angeles and a close friend of Ferran’s—was fired on the spot when Ferran arrived at the Barcelona bar where they had agreed to meet at a certain time, and discovered that José Andrés had not yet arrived. The fact that Andrés had gotten there an hour early, after an eight-hour bus ride from Madrid, and stepped out to a phone both to call Ferran, apparently made no difference. The two fought, and Ferran told him to leave. “Four days later, I flew to America,” says Andrés. “If that hadn’t happened, I’d still be in Spain, probably still cooking at elBulli.”) But their doubts, almost palpable, run deeper, expressed silently in the sideways glances they cast at one another as they check to see if anyone is working harder, then redouble their own efforts if they suspect someone is. They all know the names of the now-famous chefs who have passed through elBulli’s kitchen, and they’ve all heard stories about people who couldn’t cut it. So there are questions in their eyes: Who is going to stand out? Who will fail? Is there a future great among us? And the question that worries each of them the most: Am I good enough?
Like most serious European and American restaurants, elBulli operates according to a strict hierarchy that is militaristic in origin. Indeed, a kitchen staff is referred to as a “brigade,” a name that comes from Auguste Escoffier, the fin-de-siècle French chef who not only transformed French cuisine but created the modern restaurant system as well. As a young man, Escoffier had cooked in the army during the Franco-Prussian War, and he recognized that many of its protocols were well suited to the kitchen (which, not unlike the battlefield, is a chaotic, dangerous place that tends to produce among its denizens an intense feeling of survival-born camaraderie).
At the top of the hierarchy is the executive chef, or chef/owner, which at elBulli is of course Ferran Adrià (Juli Soler, who runs the front of the house and who originally hired Ferran, is also an owner). Beneath him come the chefs de cuisine. In most restaurants, there is only one, and he (the vast majority even now are male) is not only the executive chef’s second in command but the person who oversees the kitchen every night: if not actually cooking, he is at least there making sure that the people who are cooking are doing it right. At elBulli, however, there are three chefs de cuisine, each roughly equal to the others, though with his own sphere of influence: Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch, and Mateu Casañas. Beneath them comes a position Ferran created that replaces the sous chef of Escoffier’s blueprint. Eugeni de Diego is the head of production, responsible for ensuring that all the mise en place (the phrase translates literally as “set in place” and refers to prep work, though at elBulli it is used to signify not just the work, nor the diced onions and julienned herbs produced by the work, but the entire period prior to service) is done correctly, which means he is responsible for ensuring that the stagiaires are doing their mise en place correctly.
Below Eugeni come the chefs de partie, each in charge of one of elBulli’s six stations besides Pastry: Cold, Starters I, Starters II, Meat, Fish, and something called “Small Kitchen,” which prepares staff meals and otherwise does a bit of everything—though in a separate, claustrophobic space squeezed between the main kitchen and the dishwashing station. Given the promiscuous nature of elBulli’s cuisine, the labels attached to stations are less an indication of what actually gets cooked there than an instinctive reliance on an organizing principle that, in a normal kitchen, would be logical. (At elBulli, the fish station, for example, is responsible for the rabbit canapé; Starters I turns out the abalone, which comes not, as one might think, at the beginning of the meal but about two-thirds of the way through it. Cold Station’s dishes, however, are uniformly cold.)
It is not just the brigade that finds its origins in the restaurants of late-nineteenth-century Paris and Lyon; nearly every other aspect of the modern professional kitchen’s structure can be traced to France as well. At elBulli they may refer to the station as “Cold Station” (cuarto frio) rather than garde-manger, and it may be responsible for spherifications and freeze-dried meringues instead of salads and pâtés, but the connection is clear. There are other remnants of the French system as well: the cooks—stagiaires and permanent staff, all the way up to Ferran—wear blue aprons, tied around their necks, during mise en place (which goes by its French name, just as the dishwashing station is called plonge). During service, Ferran, the chefs de cuisine, and the chefs de partie switch to white aprons—a traditional distinction in the French kitchen. The stagiaires keep their blue aprons on throughout the day and night, however, lowering them from neck to waist when it comes time to start service.
Yet, for all these debts, elBulli also rejects some of the most important French traditions. First among them is the food itself. ElBulli has done away with mother sauces and the classic repertoire of dishes, and so represents the greatest rupture ever in the history of cuisine. But there are more subtle rejections as well. None of the chefs, for example, is called “chef”; if you want to address Oriol or Mateu or even Ferran himself, you call him by his first name. (“I just can’t bring myself to do it,” confesses Sunny. The result is that, like a recently married man urged to call his new mother-in-law “Mom,” the stagiaires don’t call Ferran anything.) It’s as if elBulli exists in a permanent state of tension with the French heritage of modern cuisine, at times embracing its traditions wholesale, at others pointedly rejecting them.
On their first full day of training, no one dares arrive late. By 9:45 the stagiaires are lined up in their white jackets and blue aprons on the outdoor stairs that lead to the kitchen’s back door. All of them clutch notebooks. Most stayed in their apartments the night before, getting to know their new roommates and trying to catch up on sleep, though a few, the Argentine Diego Corrado proudly among them, went out for drinks. (“Of course, I went out,” he says the next morning, looking none the worse for wear. “We have to celebrate!”) At precisely 10 A.M., Eduard Xatruch’s commanding voice comes up the stairs. “Señores, let’s begin.” For the next six months, those words and that voice will signal the start of their workday.
The kitchen gleams as spotlessly as they left it yesterday, empty except for a vaguely menacing pile of carrots that sits on the long center counter, or mesa central. This will be the morning’s main task: brunoising (chopping into fine, uniform dice) vegetables for the bolognese sauce that will comprise family meal later in the week. In this, elBulli is repeating a long-standing culinary tradition: all initiations start with the carrot. But first the stagiaires have a kitchen to learn.
Oriol and Eduard become whirling dervishes as they issue instructions for how to set up the kitchen. Carts go at the end of each counter. Trash cans go underneath, next to but not touching the legs of the counters. Rolls of paper towels go into the well beneath the counters, alternating with washcloths (“Smell them first!”). Dirty utensils go into the tray beneath each salamander; remember to carry those trays with both handles when you take them to the dishwasher. Don’t walk in front of the pass, even during prep. Never throw out anything, not even carrot skins, without asking first. Tell Eugeni whenever you go to the bathroom. Smell the plastic containers before you use them, and wipe them out with a paper towel just in case. Drink only water while you’re working, and then only from plastic cups—not directly from the bottle. When you move through the kitchen, walk in straight lines and turn at right angles—no meandering. Keep an offset spatula in your pocket at all times and a towel tucked into your apron string. When you wash your hands, don’t dry them by flicking the water off, wipe them on your towel.
If the stagiaires find these instructions illogical or mildly infantilizing, they do not say so. They assiduously take notes when Eduard suggests they should be careful not to get crumbs everywhere while eating bread at family meal (thereby reducing cleanup time) and nod in apparent agreement with Oriol’s hand-drying instructions. “I know this is ridiculous,” the chef admits. “I know it’s a drag. But everything we do, we have to do well. If a single piece of paper sits on the floor and no one picks it up, the whole thing, all of this, starts to falls apart.”
All of this starts to fall apart: this sentiment too is French in its origins. Escoffier himself wrote of the importance of a kind of universal precision, noting that without it, with the moment’s inattention that could lead to an imperfectly formed potato scale on a piece of red mullet or an insufficiently braised piece of beef, the restaurant’s most important emblems—its dishes—would be imperiled. Thus, it comes as no surprise that at elBulli, there are very particular ideas about how a carrot should be cut. Eugeni demonstrates, peeling the carrot first and lining up the discarded peel in neat stacks. He trims the ends from each carrot, then slides it lengthwise over the blade of a mandoline. Once he has perfect carrot planes, he slices them into sticks and then again into the tiny cubes that brunoise requires. He pats the mound of carrots—all twenty-four pounds of them—and motions for the stagiaires to line up on either side of the center table. “It would take one person ten hours to get through all these,” he says. “But with all of you, we can get it done in ten minutes.”
Not exactly. Roughly two hours after they begin, Ralph, Begoña, and thirteen others are still dicing carrots into tiny cubes. Eugeni periodically passes through to inspect their work, shaking his head with dismay. “This one,” he says, reaching into a plastic bin that at elBulli is called a taper (an abbreviation and approximate phonetic rendering of Tupperware), “has nothing to do with this one.” To an outsider, it may seem silly to devote fifty hours of manpower to one element of a dish that won’t even be served to the restaurant’s customers. Does it really matter that each tiny carrot cube is the same size as every other if they’re going to be cooked down into a sauce—and a sauce that only the staff will eat?
The reason the answer is yes pertains not only to carrots but to hand drying and tablecloth rolling (always from right to left) and the precise location on a one-liter taper where you paste a label. It’s not that the way these things are done are necessarily the best or most logical way; it’s that they are done—that attention is paid to them—at all. Ferran and Oriol and Eduard are not despots (at least not more than any other well-regarded chefs), nor are they possessed by a burning need to control every aspect of life at elBulli. Rather, they seek to create an environment in which there is a right way to do even the most menial task because they believe that same mind-set will carry over into the tasks that do matter. In other words, you take the time to chop the carrots in uniformly fine dice—even though they’ll be cooked down in sauce and even though it’s only staff who will be eating said sauce—because doing so helps ensure that the infused sugarcane sticks in the mojito cocktail will be precisely the same length, the drops of vinegar dew on the oyster leaf will be equidistant from one another, and the tiny lines of powdered freeze-dried shiso that adorn the nenúfares will all narrow away from the center and toward the rim of the plate. You do it because it reminds you, from the moment you walk down the steep hill that leads to elBulli’s back door until you stuff your dirty jacket into your bag and walk back up some fourteen hours later, that you are in a place where nothing short of perfection is acceptable. (Or at least that’s the idea. Those stagiaires who have worked previously in a Thomas Keller kitchen will maintain that things at elBulli fall a bit short of their standards.)
In the end, it takes the stagiaires a little over two hours to brunoise the carrots. Just before 12:40, Andrea reaches for the final one and places it on her cutting board. An almost audible sigh of relief ripples through the line: done. But before anyone can even wipe his hands, Eugeni and Luis are standing at the head of the counter with two large trays, filled to overflowing. “Now,” says Eugeni. “Garlic.”
A little less than four hours after the stagiaires begin, it is time for family meal. At elBulli, the staff eats together, in one seating, in the kitchen itself. As a result, the minutes before and after the meal require a nearly complete dismantling and reconstruction, as the counters that just moments before were filled with cutting boards and tubs of alginate baths are transformed into tables and then are transformed back again. Eduard and Oriol take their places at the front of the pass and begin a new set of instructions, no less exact than before. Counters are cleared completely and wiped down, floors swept, trash cans emptied. Plastic lawn chairs appear at the front of the kitchen (to the cooks, so caught up in their own tasks, their apparition must seem magical, but it is actually the servers who have dragged them in from the storage room outside) and are distributed around the counters. A glass is put at each place setting. Bottles of water and loaves of bread appear on what are no longer counters but tables, as do platters bearing parts of the meal that will be served family-style. It’s all incredibly noisy and incredibly fast; for a few minutes the kitchen explodes with an activity made all the more intense after the studiously quiet atmosphere of mise en place.
But the key word is “minutes.” The kitchen breakdown for family meal is supposed to take no more than five, and as Eduard keenly observes every move, one eye stays firmly on the clock. Periodically, he’ll call the time, “Señores, you’ve got three minutes.” In a kitchen that is always humming with purposeful movement, these moments of action seem nearly frenetic, as each stagiaire rushes to do the task she has been assigned and the chorus of quemos reaches a fever pitch. When the “dining room” is finally ready, the entire staff lines up at the doorway to the small kitchen to receive, one by one, the day’s reward: a plate of food. As they sit this first day, Toni Moraga, one of the chefs de partie, notes their location on a map. For the rest of the season, each stagiaire will be required to sit in the same seat during family meal.
Thirty short minutes later, the chaos begins again, like a film running in reverse. Off come the bottles of water and bags of bread, up go the chairs. The tables—reconverted into counters—are wiped down again; the floors are reswept. Diego is charged with rolling up the blue tablecloth that has covered the pass during mise en place and family meal and replacing it with the gold one that signals service. He’s forgotten the crucial instruction, however—tablecloths are rolled from right to left—and thus loses valuable time in unrolling the cloth and starting again. After all, this setup too is being timed. And because this is the one that will precede service, it comes with its own set of tasks. Kim and Iosu are assigned the pass and must learn to place each utensil and set of serving dishes in a particular relation to the large bull’s head that adorns the center of the table. Within days, they’ll be expected to have all the locations memorized, but for now they furiously take notes. The other stagiaires busy themselves with the plates, wiping down every one in the house with gin (the alcohol removes fingerprints without leaving a taste or smell). For all this, the kitchen again has five minutes, provoking an urgency more commonly associated with medical emergencies or a newspaper’s election-night deadlines. When it’s over and everything is set for service, Eduard convenes the group and reports with barely disguised disgust: ten minutes. The stagiaires hang their heads in failure.
Luckily, on June 11, service is still five days away. This barely controlled frenzy of breaking down and setting up has been a trial run for the real thing, slated to begin the following Tuesday. The stagiaires will spend the next several days mastering a slew of tasks, from how to clean a fetal pig’s tail to how to spherify pesto to how to turn milk into a skin that can be filled and rolled. But in the middle of their days there will be this frantic sequence to master, this race against the clock. Provided, of course, that they successfully clean the rocks outside the restaurant.
As a physical structure, elBulli comes as a shock to most first-time visitors. The most cutting-edge cuisine in the world is served in a small beachside restaurant that in good light looks inviting in a gemütlich sort of way but in the wrong light can just as easily look frumpy and out of date. Except for the dramatic views of Cala Montjoi from its patio and dining room windows, there is nothing striking, or even particularly modern, about the front of the house. But outside, in the parking lot and the rugged landscape that surrounds elBulli’s white stucco walls, there is, for those who pay attention, a small, unobtrusive sign of its status as the premiere avant-garde restaurant in the world. Outside, there are rocks.
ElBulli’s parking lot is made of gravel. But around that gravel, and in the ample landscaped area leading to the front door, are thousands—maybe millions—of flattish slate rocks that act as ground cover, obscuring the dirt beneath with their modulated colors and pleasingly geometric shapes. But that geometry is not wholly natural; look carefully, and you’ll see that the rocks—whether those that line the front window where arriving guests get a glimpse into the inner workings of the kitchen or the ones that swirl into a hill just below the parking lot—neatly overlap. And they neatly overlap because a stagiaire, on his first full day of work at elBulli, placed them there.
It’s a tradition nearly as old as Ferran’s tenure at the restaurant. “I remember it perfectly,” says Marc Cuspinera of his first day in 1989. “I couldn’t believe they were making me clean rocks.” Twenty years later, Nico Bejarano can’t believe it either. He and Diego are dismantling the hill, moving each rock in the mound to the side. As they do so, Andrea comes through and rakes away the pine needles that have collected over the year. Diego complains about not having gloves. Nico sighs a bit as he looks at the seemingly undiminished pile. “I’m a cook. I didn’t expect to be doing this,” he says grimly. In the past year, the twenty-one-year-old has done stages at Arzak, Martín Berasategui (also in San Sebastián), and Comerç 24 in Barcelona, three of Spain’s top restaurants. “It’s not so great. All this stuff today—how to peel a carrot, how to carry a plate—it’s a little tiresome.” He pauses to toss a particularly large rock. “But I get it. It’s true that all these details add up.”
The rocks certainly add up: it takes fifty people (the kitchen stagiaires are joined by their front-of-house counterparts) more than five hours to finish the task. When it is over, most of them will look back on the chore almost fondly, recognizing in it a form of hazing that, now completed, proves they belong in the illustrious club of elBulli stagiaires. But for a few of the most reflective cooks, the rocks are a metaphor for what is to come. For some, they are evidence of an admirable quest for perfection in every aspect of the dining experience. For others, they are one more component of the restaurant’s avant-garde reputation, proof that most anything—even the ground cover outside the restaurant—can be turned into an aesthetic object. And then, for a very few cooks, there is the more disconcerting conclusion: the rocks are a sign that elBulli is willing to expend the talents of some of the world’s most energetic, devoted, and ambitious young chefs in tedium.
Why would anyone willingly seek out six months of often boring, physically exhausting, and utterly unpaid labor? “It’s a dream,” says Luis Frey, who goes by the nickname Lucho. Rangy and blond, he’s been hooked on cooking since he was sixteen and worked in a local pizza joint, despite the fact that his parents would have much preferred that he go into the family mattress business. Lucho represents the most idealistic—and, it should be said, most common—rationale for signing on for the elBulli stage. Quite simply, he worships Ferran. As does Perfecto Rocher, an amiable Spaniard who tried for four years before finally securing this stage at elBulli. “I have all his books,” he says. “I’ve been reading them since I was a kid. I think I’ve got his recipes memorized.”
No one denies that a stage at elBulli will look good on a résumé, but for most of the apprentices, it wasn’t only the restaurant’s reputation that attracted them; it was the chance to really know it, and learn from it, that was most appealing. Colombian by birth, Nico gushes, by way of explanation, “I’ve always wanted to be here. Not just to get some recipes but for the whole spirit of the place.” He taps the notebook he keeps in the pocket of his jacket. “These aren’t notes, these are concepts. If I ever get my own restaurant, I’ll be able to use all of their models.” Even the more jaded—or better-informed—stagiaires sound a bit starstruck. “Two people who worked here told me what I was getting myself into,” says Sunny. “They told me it was really hard and that I’d be bored to death. But nothing would have stopped me from coming here.”
For an ambitious young chef, a stage at elBulli, then, is the equivalent of getting into Harvard or making the Olympic hockey team. For so esteemed an opportunity, the stagiaires are willing to pay a price—literally. In addition to the cost of getting there, which for many includes an international plane ticket, they must budget for food and any other expenses during the six months they are there. And, as with many a Harvard student, a stagiaire’s parents often pay for whatever he can’t. Yet even those without financial support will do what they can to get here—they just sacrifice more once they arrive. Unlike many of his fellow stagiaires, who took the opportunity of being in Europe to travel on their days off, Mike Álvarez (a Spaniard despite his American-sounding name) never leaves Roses; he can’t afford even to go home to Galicia. Luke, from South Korea, has to limit the number of times he goes out with the rest of the crew for after-work drinks. And Jorge Puerta, from Venezuela, confesses to going hungry sometimes because he can’t afford groceries; some weeks family meal is the only meal he eats all day.
All stagiaires have a story about the sacrifices they have made: the wives and boyfriends left behind, the jobs abandoned. But cooking is already a career that demands what most would consider extraordinary sacrifice, and for most of the cooks who come to elBulli, the restaurant’s requirements seem, at least on paper, no more onerous than those of any other. That doesn’t diminish the fact that their days will be long, that the work will be physically hard and emotionally stressful, that their housing conditions are cramped, or that they are far from home. But during these first days, the stagiaires are certain it will all be worth it, confident that what they learn will compensate them for the hardships they endure.
Four days until the opening, and the list of things the stagiaires don’t know—from how to organize the walk-in refrigerator to how to plate the dish called yemitas—is practically infinite. The restaurant eases its burden by beginning the season with the previous year’s menu and gradually swapping out the dishes with new inventions. But for the stagiaires, even the old dishes are new and require preparations unlike any they have undertaken before. Garlic is not just peeled but organized by clove size. Olives are not just pitted but then puréed, and the purée is passed by hand—fifteen pairs of hands, to be exact—through a flexible net sieve, squeezing all the time to extract the full amount of juice (this liquid will become the restaurant’s famous spherified olives, served with the starting cocktail). Mackerel is not just cleaned and filleted but filleted in such a way that the belly comes out in a perfect, V-shaped shield. This task in particular strains the capacity of many of the stagiaires; minutes after they begin, the center table looks like an eighth-grade biology class gone bad.
Yet the mackerel is hardly the most complicated thing they will do; at elBulli, difficulty comes in numerous varieties. Some tasks are challenging because the product is new and unknown to just about everyone. None of the stagiaires, for example, has ever worked with ortiguillas (sea anemones) before, and learning to separate the slimy fringe from the equally slimy body is tricky. Picking up a pair of scissors, Eugeni explains a little about the product: how anemones grow in three areas of Spain, but these—from Cádiz, in the south—are best. He then demonstrates how to cut an intact circle from a creature that behaves largely like a ball of phlegm. The stagiaires attempt to follow his instructions, but most fail miserably; the apple-cheeked Sergi Palacín, one of the local culinary school recruits, ends up with a few shreds of slimy tissue that he pokes disconsolately around a plate. Eugeni demonstrates it again; the stagiaires try once more. Oriol comes over to inspect their work, shakes his head, and orders the stagiaires to leave each prepped anemone on a plate until Eugeni can check it. “We can’t have any mistakes on Tuesday,” he notes. “I don’t care if Eugeni has to demo it a hundred times. You’ve got to have it down by Tuesday.”
There are chores that are physically hard: because the restaurant makes its own coconut milk for its spectacular “balloon”—a dish that looks like a dinosaur egg—kilos of coconuts need to be cracked open and chopped into pieces, a job that requires a good hammer and strong biceps. Yet the coconuts pale in terms of exertion compared to the tuna marrow, which comes encased in thick, bony pieces of spine as tall as some of the stagiaires themselves. With cleavers, the cooks struggle to pare away enough bone to render the spine fragile enough to break, then carefully scoop out the gelatinous marrow inside. They are supposed to extract it in a single, bloblike piece.
The work is bloody and mildly disgusting—there are thick veins to contend with—but nothing as bad as the rabbit brains. For those, the stagiaires are confronted with several trays of neatly arranged rabbit heads, their fur and skin removed to expose the pink flesh beneath, their tiny teeth bared, their unseeing eyes all staring in the same direction. Each cook picks up a head, positions it on his cutting board, and drives the tip of a chef’s knife through the center of the skull until it splits open. Picking up the half head, he now carefully spoons out the cerebellum. Provided, of course, that he hasn’t accidentally driven his knife too hard into the carapace. In that case, he will have splattered the brains all over the interior of the skull. “I never got used to that one,” confesses Jorge, who was once a vegetarian. “I just couldn’t look at those rows of peeled bunny heads.”
Almost all of the prep work requires a level of precision that is new to all but a few of the stagiaires. Anyone who has been to culinary school knows how to turn a vegetable, paring its rounded edges into flat surfaces, so that the finished product resembles something akin to an American football. The idea is that when those carrots or parsnips are plated, all the vegetables will be the same size and shape, imparting a pleasing geometric symmetry to the dish. At elBulli it is rhubarb that must be turned, only in this case it’s not because one piece of rhubarb will be sitting next to another—in fact, there is only one piece per plate. The rhubarb is being turned so that it looks more or less like the espardenya, the sea cucumber beloved in Catalan cuisine, with which it will share a plate. For the visual effect to work, however, the rhubarb must be pared to a length of precisely six centimeters and then cut so that its ends taper gently. And that requires not only a ruler but a piece of modeling clay. In fact, the clay pops up everywhere during this first week, a splotch of bright red or blue molded to the correct size and held up as a model against which to measure a turned piece of rhubarb or a hand-piped gnocco or a baguette-shaped meringue. It is one of elBulli’s minor innovations and one of its ironies: that precision in this supposed temple to technology requires not some finely calibrated machine but a substance most commonly found in kindergarten classrooms. “We use it to minimize arguments over who has the size right,” says Ferran. “That’s what we want. A minimum of opinions.”
Precision, physical endurance, the abilities to overcome disgust and keep one’s opinions to oneself: these are all key qualities in a stagiaire. But although the cooks may not realize it yet, another characteristic will be infinitely more important to their success at elBulli, and that is the mental and emotional ability to withstand the tedious. In this first week, when every task is new, it makes a certain sense to spend hours at a time squeezing olives or cracking coconuts. “You have to repeat it over and over until it becomes second nature,” says Luke uncomplainingly. But there are signs, even now, of what is to come.
First thing on the morning of June 12, for example, the new cooks learn to make yubas. The group is divided in two, with half crowding around the flattop as Eugeni demonstrates. A yuba is a milk skin—the solid film that forms, as anyone who has ever made hot chocolate knows, when milk is boiled. Ferran learned the technique in Japan, and he has used it for the last few years at elBulli, turning it into the protagonist of several dishes. Later in the season, the yuba will be made of soy milk and will become one component on a plate filled with several of soy’s possible iterations. But for now the kitchen will be serving skins made from cow’s milk as the wrapper of a dessert called “omelette surprise.”
Emma Leftick pulls a yuba from a pot of milk (Francesc Guillamet)
Eugeni begins by pouring several cartons of organic German milk into a pot. Even this mundane task comes with methodological instructions that border on the banal: “Lower the carton into the pot and pour from there,” Eugeni commands. “Otherwise, you’ll splatter.” Milk safely in the vessel, he turns on a flame and waits for the contents to boil. As the skin starts to form, he presses it lightly with a pastry brush to prevent air bubbles from forming. An unspecified number of minutes later, he deems the skin sufficiently solid, scoops it up with his bare hands, and carefully lifts it onto a sheet of plastic wrap. This is the trickiest step in the whole process: getting the yuba to lie flat and wrinkle-free, without tearing. If it rips, it goes into the trash. If there is a hole in it, it goes into the trash. If there is a tiny air bubble through which, once filled, its innards might leak, it goes into the trash. Each of the stagiaires takes a turn practicing before Eugeni asks for volunteers to be in charge. In the haste to show themselves eager for any responsibility, a slew of hands shoots up. Eugeni pauses for a moment to look at each face before choosing Iosu Sainz and Miguel Alexander Pérez. The others eye them with a mix of envy and resignation, suspecting that the selection has been a judgment and that those not chosen have been found wanting. But all is not what it seems at elBulli. Iosu and Miguel Alexander have no idea what they’ve just volunteered for.
With each new task, the learning process is the same. Utensils and receptacles are laid out in twin lines on the center counter. Taking his place at the head of the table, Eugeni demonstrates the proper technique, then hovers over the stagiaires as they attempt to replicate his movements. If too many of them fail, he does the demo again. Once he’s sure they’ve got it, the entire line—fifteen stagiaires—begins on the product in earnest. As they near its completion, Eugeni pulls away some of the cooks and starts them on a new task, which he again begins by demonstrating. And so it goes, through pigs’ tails (blanch the tail, split it open with a paring knife, scrape out the cartilage, lay it flat in a tray), rabbit ears (blanch the ears, peel the skin and fur, swab a stick through the crevices to clean out any dirt, insert a skewer to keep the ears flat, lay in tray), and pistachios (crack, peel).
In these early days, the stagiaires are too excited by the new products and too afraid to screw up to mind or even notice the repetition involved in their prep work. And there are so many unexpected steps, so many things to keep in mind with even the most mundane products: they must remember to smell each oyster after they open it and hold each pea-sized mandarin orange segment up to the light to check for seeds. If they forget—if one oyster accidentally goes straight from hand to taper, Eugeni will be there, chastising. Watching them from the sidelines, Marc Cuspinera comments, “In three days they get enough information to drive any sane person crazy.” As he observes them struggling to keep up, he makes a little joke: “Go on, ask them if they have any questions.”
The center table plates during service (Francesc Guillamet)
With two days to go before the opening, the stagiaires finally begin to learn how to plate. From the very beginning, the pastry apprentices have worked in their own station, but by now all the rest have been divided as well, based on criteria that are neither expressed to them nor understood by them. Sunny is clearly one of the most technically skilled cooks, but he is sent to the small kitchen, which—perhaps because it is responsible for family meal, perhaps because it is so small that it is claustrophobic—is seen by many of the stagiaires as the rough equivalent of remedial math class. Meanwhile Cesare Marazzi, who puts off some of his peers with his laissez-faire attitude toward work, gets assigned cuarto frio, considered one of the more desirable stations because its cooks tend to work with the most avant-garde techniques and technology. Unsure of the criteria by which judgment is made, the stagiaires console themselves with the thought that none of these assignments is permanent.
But how are the assignments made? Language figures into the decision—the chefs don’t want to put anyone into a position of even the most minor responsibility if he doesn’t speak Spanish well, which is why Sunny and Emma—both of whom came through a Thomas Keller kitchen—get sent to Small Kitchen. But beyond that, the new assignments are based on largely intuitive judgments. Having watched the stagiaires do little more than clean proteins and pare vegetables—and having never seen most of them even turn on a stove—the staff still feels confident about its ability to judge its new apprentices. “You can definitely see differences among them,” says Luis, the affable chef de partie of Starters I. “Everyone has lots of energy, but some are more nervous, depending on their experience. You can see who pulls to one side or another, who uses the knife well, who’s faster, who works clean, or who just barely wipes a cloth over the counter, who is aware of what’s going on around them.” Aitor Zabala, the chef de partie of Cold Station, doesn’t get to choose his own crew, but he understands how they were selected. “We’ve been watching them—how they do basic things like chop,” he says. “Cold Station is its own little world, so I need people who aren’t too young and who can take responsibility for themselves. They have to be good.” He pauses for a minute. “But they can’t be too good. The very best go someplace else.”
The very best go, in fact, to the chefs de partie in the main kitchen. Marc sees Nico, Txema, and Roger as among the strongest cooks, so the three of them are assigned as assistants to Luis on Starters I, Anthony Masas on Meat, and Sergio Barrosa on Fish. Because this assignment frees them from the center table during part of mise en place (which, even on the fifth day of work, is quickly becoming drearily repetitive), it is highly coveted. The fact that during service an assistant may occasionally be called on to actually cook—and not just plate—makes it all the more so. But of all the stagiaires, it is Andrea who wins what everyone agrees is the best job. Three days into her stage, Oriol taps her as his “creativity” assistant. The assignment means that she will have to come in earlier than the other stagiaires and that the very first thing she will be required to do in the morning is spray for flies, but she will also be quite literally at Oriol’s right hand as he invents and tests new recipes. She, more than anyone else, will witness what elBulli is all about.
The remainder—about fifteen of the stagiaires—stay at the center table, where, during service, they will be responsible for plating any dishes the chefs de partie and their assistants can’t do themselves. Which is why, on the morning of June 14, Oriol begins the laborious work of teaching the stagiaires not only what the forty or so plates currently on the menu should look like but how to make them look that way. They start with the gnocchi—a dish that looks like the traditional Italian pasta made from potatoes but is in fact made from spherified polenta so that its texture is lighter and its interior almost liquid. Sauced lightly with coffee, hazelnut oil, and Parmesan cream and dressed with strips of yuba, the gnocchi are finally garnished with a sprinkling of coffee beans and capers.
Oriol shapes a few pieces of modeling clay into “gnocchi,” then starts assigning tasks. Luke brings over the plates; José Luis takes them to the salamander to heat, then returns them to the center table. Pablo places six gnocchi on the plate, grouping them in pairs so that they form a triangle; Laia drizzles a tablespoon of Parmesan cream over each. Antonio follows with ground coffee beans, carefully applying them in a line. Diego places three capers in the middle of the triangle; Mike lays on two pieces of yuba. Jorge spoons a bit of saffron-infused cream on top of the two strips of yuba. Last comes Roger with a pipette, squeezing a few drops of hazelnut oil onto the bottom of the dish. This would all be confusing enough if the plates were passing one by one on a conveyer belt, but they are not. Indeed, they are stationary; it is the cooks who are moving. Oriol teaches them to rotate clockwise around the table so that, ideally, they won’t crash into one another. But in the heat of the moment, with everyone watching and Oriol there calling out “C’mon, c’mon,” the action looks more like a scrimmage than a plating, and the dishes reflect the chaos. Oriol spends a good five minutes delineating mistakes: the yuba is touching the gnocchi, the capers are touching the yuba, the coffee beans are not equidistant from one another. “Anytime you make a mistake, we’re going to send the plate back. And let’s say that plate is part of a four-top and you’ve got other tables behind you. We send one plate back, we’re going to throw everything off. You’ll be totally fucked.”
They try again. This time Oriol calls, “Three gnocchi,” and for a moment, the stagiaires all freeze, like deer caught in headlights. Toni Moraga has to intervene: he quickly tells Luke to get some plates and the other apprentices fall into place. At last, the finished product get Oriol’s approval. They move on to the next dish, an asparagus canapé wrapped in an obulato—a tissue-thin, clear paper made from potato starch that will be heavily featured in the 2009 menu. It’s delicate enough that several attempts are ruined simply by the sweaty grip of a nervous stagiaire. Next comes the omelette surprise. For it, yogurt air—yogurt that has been turned into an ethereal mousse by shooting it through a siphon—is piped onto a yuba, which is then rolled up and dusted with sugar. The sugar, in turn, is caramelized with a hand torch, and the whole omelette is garnished with tiny flowers. One after another, new dishes are added to the roster, until finally Oriol is imitating service, calling for three gnocchi, two canapés, two omelettes at once. The cries of “Quemo!” grow louder and more insistent as the entire kitchen leaps into motion. José Luis breaks into a trot as he goes to fetch more plates. Eugeni calls him on it immediately, reminding him of yet another rule: no running in the kitchen.
On June 15, a gnawing anxiety wakes Eduard Xatruch at dawn. Though he’s been working at elBulli for the past twelve years, he seems never to have relaxed into the job. In large part, that’s because so much of the burden of running the day-to-day operations of the restaurant depends upon him. He may share a title with Oriol Castro, but the two have divided their labors neatly, and Eduard makes sure that, when it comes to the mechanics of the kitchen, everything runs smoothly. And thus, every year right before the restaurant opens, he is awakened by this worry: Will they form a machine?
At elBulli there are many metaphors for how the kitchen should work. Oriol tends to refer to its ideal state as a piña—pineapple—which is common Spanish slang for something that is tightly united. Ferran calls what goes on behind the pass a ballet—a series of moves that flows like choreographed dance. But for Eduard, the most practical of the three—and in many ways the one with the greatest pressure on him—a well-run kitchen hums like a machine.
One day before the restaurant opens, Eduard knows his machine isn’t running smoothly. The other chefs will say, with perhaps just a bit too much enthusiasm, that everything is going fine, that the chicos are working hard, that it will all fall into place, that it always does. But Eduard notices everything that goes wrong. As he prepares to purée olives, Gaël sets up the Thermomix in the wrong place. Anthony leaves a stack of trays jutting over the edge of the counter, where anyone could knock them over. Unable to rid himself of the vocabulary of his former job, Txema keeps saying “Voy” (“Coming through”) as he rounds a corner, despite the fact that Eugeni corrects him repeatedly: “Quemo, Txema, quemo.” Eduard catches two stagiaires failing to smell their oysters as they shuck them—a failure that could condemn the restaurant to food poisoning charges should bad shellfish make its way to the diners. Oriol looks over the turned rhubarb, finds a problem with the ends—they don’t look sea cucumber–ish enough—and dumps them in the trash, telling Eugeni to demo them again. Family meal setup and breakdown times have been pared but are still not where they should be. Even simple communication remains a problem. Pablo Pavón, the chef de partie of Small Kitchen, sends Emma to Cold Station to get some yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit), and Aitor, who is busy shaping meringue rolls, responds that he’ll bring them to her. She nods a bit too earnestly, starts to walk away, then thinks better of it and goes back. “No entiendo,” she admits sheepishly.
But the greatest threat to Eduard’s machine is a lack of concentration. Much of the stagiaires’ work may look mindless, but it requires intense focus if the proper effect is to be achieved. Nothing seems simpler, for example, than cutting black strands of codium seaweed (the cooks use scissors to snip its branches at their base to get tiny Vs), but one quick joke with another cook, even a glance up at the clock, could easily result in a cut that is more Y than V. For Eduard, the embodiment of discipline, that possibility is unacceptable. Every task requires total focus, yet with one day to go, all he can see is the lack of it. There is a pit in the squeezed olives, a seed in a mandarin section. Miguel Alexander’s sweeping after family meal leaves whole spots of the floor untouched; it remains anyone’s guess whether Diego will remember to unroll the tablecloths in the proper direction. During prep, Sergi suddenly grabs his chest and doubles over in pain. Eduard and Oriol rush to his side, fearing the young cook has suffered a heart attack. But no: Sergi has snagged his nipple ring on the inside of his jacket. Oriol finds it funny, but Eduard is not amused. “The time for mistakes was three days ago,” he says with a quiet firmness that silences not only Sergi’s nervous giggles but everyone else’s too. “There’s no more time for mistakes.”
The stagiaires finish the last day before opening around midnight. Fourteen hours earlier, they had watched a film entitled A Day at elBulli, a documentary about the day they would themselves be living in a few short hours. It was a strange experience, watching the people they know as their new bosses—Ferran, Oriol, Eduard, Mateu—interact with people they had never met but whose jobs they would be performing. For some it was exhilarating, seeing each dazzling creation come out of the kitchen to be received with utter delight by the diners. For others it was almost religiously comforting, a suggestion in its faithful re-creation of the minutes between the time when Eduard first came downstairs and turned on the lights to the one when the exhausted waiters turned them off again, that they were part of something bigger, more important, than the simple process of putting food on a plate. But for almost all of the stagiaires, it was also deeply enervating. “It made me realize that there’s no room for mistakes,” says Andrea. “That video totally freaked me out.”
Seated outside on the stone bench near the dressing room, the formal training period behind them, a handful of stagiaires smoke cigarettes and tries to imagine what the following day will bring. Daniel Ryan, who comes from Baltimore by way of Alinea and Alain Ducasse, echoes Andrea’s sentiment. “Ferran Adrià knows that it’s the first day, he knows that we’re going to make mistakes. But for the client who has been anticipating this meal all year, there’s no room for that. It really ups the pressure.” Ralph, who has worked only in small restaurants before and is still getting used to the crush of people in the elBulli kitchen, freely admits that he is nervous. “I haven’t learned the plates yet,” he says, fiddling with the buttons on his jacket. “I don’t know what I have to do.” His countryman, Gaël, nods miserably in agreement. “At least you have plates. I still haven’t figured out where I’m supposed to stand.”
But others are looking forward to the start of service. Sunny confesses to a bit of relief at having the training period behind him. “Look, it’s hard enough to train two people, let alone thirty-two, so I can’t complain. But I’m ready for a little more excitement.” Kim nods her head in agreement. “I’m ready too,” she says. “I want to see what it’s all about.” It is Luke Jang, however, who puts the anticipation most eloquently, despite his imperfect Spanish and a Korean upbringing that one would not normally associate with intimate knowledge of American popular culture. Untying his apron, he smiles broadly. “It’s like being a kid and knowing you get to go to Disneyland the next day. I feel like I’m going to Disneyland.”
So much of what happens at elBulli is the result of years, if not decades, of honing and practice. Much of what the stagiaires experience as new and exciting—which is basically everything from how stations are organized to the fact that no one ever uses butter to make a sauce—has been arrived at through extensive testing, year after year, one variable altered at a time and then another. That history is what makes the permanent staff at elBulli so valuable to Ferran—they, as much as he, are its institutional memory. Marc, the chefs de cuisine, and the maître d’s all have more than a decade under their belts, and so, on opening night, even though they themselves haven’t worked a service in six months, they step seamlessly into their roles, remembering how to time orders, how to plate certain dishes, how to greet diners, and how to clean the dining room and kitchen without ever having to stop to think about it. Like semiretired ballplayers called back for one last game, knowledge is imprinted not only in their brains but in their bodies—they have physical memories of how to carry out each task. Ferran’s creativity—the ability to totally reinvent his menu each year—rests in part on this stable collective memory, the confidence that, though the menu will change, everything else will be exactly as it should be.
That said, 2009 promised some unusual upheavals. Although rumors had run every year that this season would be elBulli’s last, they became significantly louder earlier in 2009, when the restaurant was named best in the world for the fifth time. Now that he had affirmed his position so resoundingly, the thinking ran, how could Ferran risk losing that status? Yet no restaurant is great forever. So strong was the speculation that Marc even made a joke about it at the stagiaires’ first meeting. Promising that anyone who successfully completed the stage could come back the following year to work and observe for a week or two, he smiled slyly. “That is, if we’re still around.”
Ferran was also coming off an ugly public battle with Santi Santamaria, a fellow three-star chef, who had criticized him openly not only for veering from any recognizably national tradition of cooking but for actually endangering his clients’ health with the additives he uses to achieve many of his dishes. It was the first time that the normal fraternal feeling of Spain’s top cooks had fractured publicly, and Ferran was both hurt and annoyed by the charges. The critics were ready to pounce: Would the greatest chef in the world change his style of cooking in response? In the past few years, many of them suggested, he had been moving away from technological innovation and was emphasizing ingredients in new ways. Would that trend continue, in an effort to prove that he didn’t need the scientific trickery that Santamaria had accused him of exploiting? Or would he roar back with more wizardry than ever?
But the biggest change was the season itself. For the past twenty-two years, elBulli had opened only in spring and summer, seating its first customers sometime in April and its last in September. The season has a certain inherent logic: elBulli is, after all, located in a beach town. But for the first time, Ferran had decided to shake up that logic; in 2009 the restaurant wouldn’t open until June and would run until the end of December. The new season would mean all sorts of changes: new purveyors would have to be found, for example, and guests wouldn’t only leave the restaurant and descend the mountainside in pitch blackness; it would be dark on the way up too.
Pressed for a reason for the change, Ferran would say something about wanting to take advantage of autumn’s products—the mushrooms and squashes and game with which he doesn’t usually get to work. As far back as 2004, he had noted in one of his books that he thought it would be “fun” to open in winter instead of summer. But spend enough time with him, and you might start to feel that he did it out of sheer impishness, a desire to change something simply because it could be changed.
By the time most of the stagiaires arrive at 1 P.M. on June 16, Iosu and Miguel Alexander have been working for hours. The assignment that so cheered them when they first received it—making yubas—has quickly become drudgery, one that requires them to turn up two hours earlier than anyone else in order to finish in time. Each yuba takes roughly fifteen minutes to make, and they have to prepare seventy. Bleary-eyed in the morning light, they stare into their pots of boiling milk.
The others don’t look much peppier. When Eduard calls the staff meeting at precisely 1 P.M., the stagiaires file in one by one to take their places around the kitchen’s edge, their nervousness and fatigue palpable. All the stagiaires in José Luis’s apartment stayed up studying late into the night, going over the elements of plates they had worked on, pressing one another for details about the ones they hadn’t seen. They got about four hours of sleep. Kim, agitated in equal amounts by her desire to perform well and the heat in her sweltering apartment, didn’t sleep at all. Even Oriol admits to feeling a little nervous.
Which is why Ferran begins the morning meeting by trying to calm everyone. “Tonight people will come from all over the world to eat our cooking. For them, it is a very big deal. For them, they expect tonight to be the best meal, even the best day, of their year.” He pauses to look around at his new crew, whose faces have drained of all color at this reminder. “But don’t worry. The world won’t end this week, no matter what happens in this restaurant. Relax. Have a good time.”
With those words, Ferran hands the meeting over to Oriol and Eduard. Although elBulli prepares an individual fixed menu for each table from among the roughly fifty dishes it has on hand at any time, enough new plates are introduced that the chefs routinely use the morning meeting to draw attention to any anomalies. Tonight, for example, a few lucky tables will get to try the new sugarcane cocktails, and Oriol details how many of those plates have been “sold” in order to alert the responsible stations to add their preparation to mise en place. Eduard mentions special tables: in this case, Rafael Ansón, the head of the Royal Spanish Gastronomic Academy, is coming with his family. There will also be a table of nine, which promises to complicate service. The rest of the meeting is given over to more mundane matters, such as the facts that the dressing area is too messy and some stagiaires haven’t been turning out the lights when they leave the staff bathroom. There is also a problem with spoons: they keep disappearing. Although it is only the chefs de partie who taste, and thus who regularly use spoons, they frequently forget to put them back into the water-filled bins on the stove top, where they are supposed to stand at the ready; instead, the spoons end up in the bin with dirty dishes. Or something like that—the truth is that no one really seems to know where all the spoons are going. In any case, it’s a problem, and Oriol is about to assign a stagiaire the task of making sure there are always spoons available, when Ferran, who has been flipping through papers at the kitchen table he uses as a desk, raises his head and interrupts. “There aren’t enough spoons?” he demands. “Well, there’s an easy solution for that. Why doesn’t each of us put our names on a spoon? With tape and a marker.” Oriol and Eduard exchange a look that could be mild horror. “No, no, no,” Ferran talks over their apparent skepticism. “This is good. This way you can keep it with you, and everyone will know it is yours.” It’s a trick that Ferran has already adopted for writing instruments, which once had a tendency to disappear from his desk. Now he writes only with a lurid Barça souvenir pencil whose end is capped with a child’s oversized eraser. Everyone in the restaurant knows who that pencil belongs to, and no one would dare touch it. But spoons are a different story. The chefs de partie look around nervously, as if to say, Are you really going to make us worry about where our spoons are? Eduard looks no happier at the idea but remains quiet, contemplating, perhaps, the idea of walking around all day with a dirty utensil in his pocket. Ferran starts rummaging through a drawer for tape.
In a kitchen where no one ever strolls but instead moves with a walk so purposeful that it always threatens to break into a full-scale run, mise en place is even more urgent today than before. The stagiaires trim anemone fringe, shuck oysters, crack coconuts, and squeeze olives with new fluidity and answer every request or command with robust oídos—the only human sound, in fact, in the otherwise deathly quiet kitchen. When Eugeni points to a small puddle of water on the floor, Luke drops to his knees with such rapidity to mop it up that he looks as if he’s been shot. All is not perfect—Eduard has to demo the rhubarb again—but there is a synchronicity to the activity that wasn’t there before.
This synchronicity is perhaps most evident when the delivery truck arrives from the Boqueria market at midafternoon and the stagiaires line up outside to unload it. Earlier in the week, the process bore a significant resemblance to a Three Stooges routine, with apprentices running into one another as they climbed and descended the stairs that led from the unloading area to the kitchen door. Eduard would pull an item from the truck, place it in the waiting cook’s arms, and issue an instruction (“Peanuts: storeroom. Xantham gum: storeroom. Blood sausage: walk-in. Yuzus: Mateu”), but because most stagiaires weren’t familiar with either the item in question or the place it was to be delivered, there was quite a lot of bumbling, and more than a few urgent whispers between them (Where did he say this goes?). This time, however, everyone knows more or less where everything belongs, and the movement up and down the stairs is ordered and fluid, like a machine.
But there are still new things to learn. In Pastry, Mateu spends the first part of the morning teaching Mizuho Nakamura—or Miso, as he and the other Spanish chefs insist on calling her—how to use the heat lamp to mold three-dimensional leaves made from candied mango dusted with freeze-dried basil powder. In the main kitchen, Oriol is still testing the new mojito—sugarcane sticks soaked in rum and mint, that the diner sucks rather than drinks—that he plans to serve that night. And throughout the day Ferran is there, tasting, questioning. Sometimes, seated at his table, with e-mails awaiting response and trial menus spread around him, he waits for Oriol to come over and dab sauce on his outstretched hand or place a plate before him. At others, he will meander over to the flattop, and dip his spoon—the spoon now inked with FERRAN in big red letters—into a pot. At around five in the afternoon, he looks over at the center table as they peel the skins from sticky cloves of black garlic and says to no one in particular, “It feels like you’ve been here forever, right? Don’t forget, you still have eight more hours to go.”
Still, it’s a rush to the finish. Iosu and Miguel Alexander finally plate their last yuba around 5:30. Twenty-five minutes later, Oriol is still tinkering with his sugarcane cocktails. He looks up at the clock and says, “Crap.” Today the crew will eat half an hour earlier than it normally does, to make sure everything is properly set up by the time the first customer arrives, but that means they’ve had less time to finish mise en place. As the last products go back into the walk-in and counters are cleared, the stagiaires are moving with frantic speed. Quemo, quemo, quemo: chairs slam into place around the tables and water bottles are set down even before tubs of pared ham fat can be cleared. Quemo, quemo: platters of salad go onto the table along with loaves of bread. A long-standing friend of the house, the owner of a local bar, has dropped off several large boxes of pastry to mark the occasion, and those go onto the bar, as do pears that the staff will pick up for dessert. The activity is so intense that a writer visiting that day feels compelled to press himself against the wall in order to avoid being run over. Through it all, Eduard watches their movements and the clock. He won’t allow himself to smile, but the lack of criticism tells the stagiaires they’ve got at least this part of the timing down. Or almost. Suddenly Oriol grabs a chair to stand on, and pulls down the clock. “I just realized that it’s not synchronized with the one in the small kitchen.” He rushes to align the two, just as the staff is filing in for dinner. “Quemo,” he says. “Quemo, quemo.”
The stagiaires bolt down a meal of salad, ribs, and the pastries. Most then throw back espressos (though, given the adrenaline level in the room, it would seem that few need the caffeine) before going outside to take in a bit of fresh air. In the precious minutes before they are called back, they chat nervously. Katie will be on the pass in Pastry, which is also responsible for the first snacks that go out. She seeks reassurance from the others. “I know Mateu will take care of everything,” she says, referring to her chef de cuisine, “but I have no idea what to expect.” Before anyone has a chance to console her, however, the half-hour dinner break is over. The stagiaires lower their bibs and retie their aprons around their waists. Then, in total silence, they descend into the kitchen to begin cleaning plates. Ferran is already there, simultaneously buttoning a clean jacket over his bare chest and sucking back a Germanic herbal digestif from one of those small bottles you get on airplanes; the digestif, he says, calms his stomach after tasting so many different dishes throughout the day. He removes the papers from his table in the kitchen and straightens the cushions on the chairs. “It’s a sign that the show is about to begin,” he says, then looks up through the plate glass window at the overcast sky. It has been threatening to rain all day, and in a kitchen where so many of the dishes contain fragile, freeze-dried elements, humidity is the worst enemy. It’s hard to tell from his gaze whether Ferran is beseeching the gods for mercy or challenging them, but the question quickly becomes irrelevant as Luis’s voice booms through the kitchen. “There are people outside.” The door to the restaurant opens, and as the clocks in both the main and small kitchens hit 7:30, Ferran says, “Okay, señores, let’s begin.”
At elBulli, all diners are ushered into the kitchen before sitting down to eat. Led by one of the multilingual maître d’s, they are brought directly to Ferran, who is always standing at the pass, ready to welcome them. Given the awe in which many of his customers hold him, the routine would feel like a papal visit if it weren’t for the warmth with which Ferran greets them and the busy industriousness going on all around him. Later in the season, the stagiaires won’t notice this part, not even when famous chefs such as Wolfgang Puck come to dine. But on this first night, as the first clients—an Australian couple who have dressed up for the occasion—are led into the kitchen, the cooks stop for a split second and gape. Eduard’s voice quickly breaks the trance. No sooner are the first couple on their way out of the kitchen then he calls, “Two coníferas,” ordering the new pine-and-yogurt cocktail that comes with a side of pine shoots to munch on. From Pastry comes the response. “Oído!”
The second table, a family of four, is led into the kitchen. On normal nights, Eduard expedites while Ferran observes how the kitchen is working, monitors the plates as they go out, and continues tasting new recipes. But tonight is no ordinary night, and on this occasion, Ferran does the expediting himself. As each new table is led into the kitchen, he moves gracefully out in front to greet them and pose for pictures, while Eduard slides into place at the pass and seamlessly continues expediting.
Glancing out the window, Ferran notices that the rain he has feared all day has begun. He makes sure that Mateu, who works with many of the products that must remain dry and crisp, knows about the weather. “Oído, Mateu?” he asks. “Oído,” replies Mateu with a sigh. An overweight American walks into the kitchen with a slim woman, whom he introduces to Ferran as “my new wife.” It is fifteen minutes past opening, and there are now three tables seated in the restaurant. Eduard orders two of the new sugarcane cocktails from Small Kitchen, where he gets a chorus of distant oídos in reply. A minute later he calls out, “Start two menus,” which is the signal to the kitchen that a table has finished its snacks and cocktails and moved on to the main part of the meal. By now, the stagiaires have finished cleaning plates and stand ready to spring into action as black-clad waiters stream by the front of the kitchen with silver trays. The restaurant has been open for only twenty minutes.
Ferran calls for four chicharrones (which are normally fried pigskin but in this case are made from the skin of chicken feet) and four avellantos (a fragile cake made from crunchy amaranth grains and ground, freeze-dried hazelnut skin, barely pressed together). There is enough work for only three or four stagiaires, but twice that many crowd around the plates. The noise begins to grow, and Ferran hisses, “Señores, silencio!” He calls the next plate to one of the chefs de partie, “Antonio, four Peking,” only to get two confused oídos in response. There are two chefs named Antonio (as well as a stagiaire), though neither goes precisely by that name—one calls himself Anthony, the other Toni. There is a moment of chaos as Ferran tries to figure out who should be preparing the order, but he doesn’t have time to resolve it because another group has just walked into the kitchen, and they too want a picture with him.
The chefs figure it out themselves (Peking come from Toni in Starters II), though everyone’s nerves are on edge: as Pablo goes to plate the delicate crêpes that Toni has prepared, his hand shakes. Ferran has enough time at the pass to call two more orders: a Parmesan “crystal” to Mateu in Pastry and four bizcochos to Aitor in Cold Station (bizcochos are his brother Albert’s spectacular invention—an airy but substantive sponge cake made from miso and black sesame paste, aerated in the siphon and then baked in a microwave). As each tray is readied to go out, Eugeni, Eduard, Oriol, and Marc (who has come in specially for the night) stand nearby, watching intently. One sends back a chicharrón that has been fried too long, another catches a plate with fingerprints on it. The noise level rises again, as cooks rush through the kitchen with cries of “Quemo! Quemo!” and again Ferran, raising his own voice now, silences them.
By 8:50 P.M., when the last table shows up (it is Ansón, the Gastronomy Academy president, who always comes to dine on the first night of the season), the kitchen has descended into apparent chaos. It is only now that the stagiaires have grasped an essential point of elBulli: during service, no one will be calmly telling them to put this element here, plate that component there. Instead, they have to listen to all the orders as they are called, figure out what station they’ll be coming from, remember what goes on which dishes, then, worst of all, fight off their fellow stagiaires for a place at the plate. They have been taught to move around the plates in an orderly, clockwise fashion, carefully putting “their” element on the dish before stepping aside to allow the next stagiaire through with the following item. But what actually happens during this first service looks like a rugby match, and a bloody one at that. Stagiaires with small cups of herbs elbow others with pipettes of oil out of the way in order to get to the plate, while still others, momentarily bereft of anything to do, crowd around trying to watch. At one point Eugeni physically pushes Sergi out of the way because the stagiaire is taking up too much space gawking as nine of his companions try to plate.
The food going out becomes more complicated as well. At the start of a menu, most of the dishes are dry snacks, prepared earlier in the day, that need only to be placed on their appropriate receptacle. But by this point in service, stagiaires have to remember techniques. Aitor corrects Ralph because he is messing up the mochi—slippery balls of Gorgonzola foam that have an unnerving tendency to behave like mercury. He is supposed to dribble each ball back and forth on a paper napkin four times, to ensure that no liquid makes it onto the plate, but his mochi are landing with tiny pools of water around them. Emma is constantly running between the small kitchen, where the grilled strawberries that accompany the mochi are prepped, and the salamanders on opposite sides of the main kitchen, where they are heated before serving. The baby cuttlefish have to be seared on the plancha; the asparagus canapés lifted onto their plates with perfectly dry hands; the pigs’ tails garnished with exactly three sprigs of microgreens.
A server hurriedly picks up a tray, and in the brusqueness of the movement an orange segment falls from the plate to the floor. She looks around to see if anyone has noticed and, not seeing anyone, continues on her way—after all, there are a lot more segments on the plate. But just before she reaches the edge of the dining room, Xus González, one of the maître d’s, calls her back; he has been watching the whole time. “What are you doing?” he demands before sending her back to the pass. Aitor can’t bring himself to look at her as he replates.
The orders keep coming. “Do you have two cuttlefish working?” “Oído!” “Two beans.” “Oído!” “Two olives and four airs.” “NO OÍDO!” comes Mateu’s frantic reply. Andrea goes to plate two asparagus canapés but, finding no more of the correct plates on the pass, throws out her arms in despair. Tempers start to fray. Ferran yells at the chefs de partie: “You have to look at the tickets!” Eduard yells at Sergio: “You have to listen!” Eugeni yells at Gaël: “You have to follow the chain of command!” Then it is Ferran again, clapping his hands and yelling for silence. Pol Perelló, one of the longtime maître d’s, walks into the kitchen and says with a wry smile, “It’s as if I went to sleep for eight months and just woke up. Nothing’s changed.”
In the midst of this chaos, Oriol has been quietly preparing a few plates. One of the most interesting products he and Ferran discovered in Japan during the months while the restaurant was closed was the obulato—the same clear sheet of potato-starch-turned-paper that cradles the asparagus canapé. It’s a remarkable product—adaptable to any size or shape, it can act as a seemingly invisible base for supporting most any product that isn’t too wet. All day, he’s been testing a dish in which the obulato is folded into a cone, filled with a pine nut praliné, sealed with a laminating machine, then cut into a small, neat triangle. Now, at last, he has the dish down. He gives one to Ferran to try, and the two agree they’re ready to send out—a special plate for Ansón, who will be the first customer to taste them. Oriol lays three triangles on each of four plates, along with small bowls of broth to dip them into. As a server picks up the tray, he tells her to instruct the clients to pop the triangles into their mouth quickly after dipping—otherwise they’ll dissolve. She nods her understanding and is halfway out the kitchen before she turns back. “But what do I call them?” she asks. Ferran and Oriol look at each other: clearly, they’ve forgotten to name the dish. “Call them ravioli,” Ferran answers without missing a beat. “Pine nut ravioli.”
At 10 P.M., Cold Station is in the weeds—or in the purée, as they say in Spanish. Its dishes, the restaurant’s most complicated, have to be timed perfectly to prevent them from melting. Ferran calls the first set of lulos, made with the tart pulp of a South American fruit, and Lucho comes running with the plate’s garnish: shavings of frozen foie gras. To ensure that the fatty liver stays icy, Aitor pours a bucket of liquid nitrogen over the plates, and for a moment smoke billows over the pass and out onto the main floor, momentarily transforming the kitchen into the set of a horror movie. But the plates aren’t finished—Jacobo Astray is still adding garnishes—and Ferran hurries over. He yells at Aitor, “What are you doing putting on the foie before the lulos are ready?” Aitor sends the foie shavings back to the freezer and starts the plates again. But he is only halfway through before Ferran is ordering nine yemitas, an Asian-inspired dish made with spherified egg yolks. Aitor throws down nine plates, and the entire station starts to work on a single order: Ralph squeezing out the yolks with a syringe, Jacobo spooning on the yogurt gelée, Lucho adding a few drops of thickened tea, Aitor sprinkling toasted sesame seeds. It’s taking them too long, and Oriol runs over and jumps into the fray, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” he urges, grabbing the powdered shiso (a minty herb) and dusting it on himself. Aitor grabs the syringe out of Ralph’s hand and starts squeezing yolks; Marc comes over to wipe down the edges of plates. Finally the dishes go out. But by then, of course, there are more lulos to plate.
At 10:45, Laia and Emma start rolling the first omelette surprise, a pre-dessert. Thirty minutes later, the first chocolate box goes out, a sign that one table, at least, has finished its meal. But eleven others are still working, and some still have a lot of menu to get through. Eugeni plates nine asparagus canapés. One isn’t right; he tosses it disgustedly aside and demands another, as urgent as a surgeon calling for a clamp. Roger drops a plate, and the noise of the crash brings the entire kitchen to a momentary standstill before Oriol is on him, chastising him for his clumsiness. By now the nine-top has reached its omelette surprises, and twelve stagiaires are at the center table, nine of them rolling yuba around the yogurt foam that three others spray from siphons. Ferran comes over to watch and is displeased with what he finds. He lays into Eduard for not ensuring that the stagiaires have mastered the technique. Eduard studiously avoids looking at him. But at 12:30, just as the main kitchen has finished with all its plates (Cold Station and Pastry are still hard at work), he calls an emergency training session. Luis looks at the clock, looks at Eduard to see if he is serious, and shakes his head. For the next half hour, the stagiaires, with thirteen hours of mise en place and service behind them, practice rolling milk skins. No one says a word the entire time.
Finally they are allowed to break down the kitchen. Each grabs a bucket of soapy water and attacks a different part: stove, floor, counter, walls. With those chores done, Oriol sends them outside to hose down the unloading area and take out the trash. While the stagiaires clean, the chefs confer about the night. Eduard says, “Well, that’s one day down. Only 195 to go.” Asked if he thought there were any serious mistakes on this first night, Ferran says, “For the customers, no, nothing they would have noticed. But for us, absolutely. Just wait until tomorrow’s meeting.”
Tomorrow’s meeting is about ten hours away, and by now only the pastry cooks are still turning out plates. Most of the stagiaires are outside, anxiously awaiting word that they can change and go home. Finally Oriol comes upstairs. In anticipation of getting the all-clear, Diego begins untying his apron. But alas: Small Kitchen needs help breaking things down, and the walk-in is a mess. As they descend back into the kitchen and their final chores of the night, a by-now familiar sound floats up the staircase. The voices issuing it are tired, even exhausted, but the sound is no less constant than before. Quemo. Quemo, quemo.
Lisa Abend has been Time’s correspondent in Spain for the past three years. Her work has also appeared in Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Food and Wine, The Atlantic, and other publications.
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I really enjoyed how the author gives a mini bio of the characters on the book.
What a fantastic look inside this amazing place. Even the prep work was fascinating.
I enjoyed this book in that it was a good narrative of a year in the life of a staggiere, but I would have liked a little more focus. The author chose to document the season of a number of staggiere's as opposed to focusing on 3 or 4 of the more interesting ones for more in depth detail of what their 6 months there were like. And when she did focus on one of them for more than a few pages, she seemed to not come back to them later in the book. But all in all, I enjoyed the insight and access to the restaurant that she was obviously given. I would have liked for her to provide some insight from the diner's point of view too. But if your a foodie, you will enjoy this book.
A true look behind the scenes at a true culinary genius.