When German-born Uwe Opocensky arrived as a stagiaire at elBulli, he had already worked for years in the industry, including a stint as Executive Chef at the Shangri La hotel in Kuala Lumpur (“My wife wasn’t so pleased when I told her we had to pack up everything and move for six months,” he recalls. “For no pay.”) After his stage, he continued to work in some of Asia’s top hotel restaurants. Currently, he is Executive Chef at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, which got its first Michelin star in 2009.
You arrived at elBulli with quite a lot of experience. Was it hard to adjust to being a lowly stagiaire?
The first few weeks were frustrating because they didn’t realize that I knew what I was doing. But one day, Ferran brought in a banana blossom and started asking around if anyone knew what to do with it. That plant is commonly used in Asian cuisine, so I spoke up, and he realized that I wasn’t someone who knew nothing. My stage changed from that day on.
I got to be creativity assistant for a month, so I got to work with Ferran and had the chance to try and understand his thought process. Then they moved me around to all the stations, so I got to try everything. And I helped translate his German cookbooks into English. I was really lucky.
Any good Ferran stories from that time?
There was one day I was sitting outside with another stagiaire. It was 9 in the morning, and I was there translating those cookbooks. We were talking about the dishes in them, and got a little carried away. Ferran came out. And you know how he talks really fast, and is hard to understand? Well, he came out, and started talking, and then started laughing, and then he just walked off. To this day, neither of us has the slightest idea of what he was saying.
What did you do on your days off?
Because my wife would come down during days off, I had rented my own place—I didn’t live with the rest of the stagiaires. On Sundays, the guys I was friends with would come over and we would cook dinner. I remember one time we went down to the dock in Roses and bought a 20-kilo bag of mussels. Each of us had to cook four kilos in a different style.
Is there anything on your menu now that was directly inspired by your time at elBulli?
Since I left there, every single dish I’ve developed has started with elBulli. For me, that’s where everything began. They gave me the key to opening a door that had always been closed.
What was your favorite family meal?
Probably the one I cooked—Szechuan pork and tofu. Ferran asked me for the recipe.
If you had to summarize, what would you say was the most important lesson elBulli taught you?
Be open-minded and look at food in different ways. Don’t let yourself be restricted by what’s been done before.