When Cedric Vongerichten petitioned the Culinary Institute of America for an externship at elBulli, few Americans had heard of Ferran Adrià, and the school didn’t yet have it on its approved list of restaurants. But Vongerichten, who had worked in his dad’s restaurants since he was 14, went anyway. When it was over, he finished school, then worked as sous-chef at Jean-Georges in New York. Since 2009, he has been executive chef at Perry St.
You staged not only in the restaurant, but in the taller [elBulli’s workshop, where recipes are developed during the off-season] as well. What was that like?
It was amazing. I had the same routine every day. I would wake up early in the morning and go to the Boqueria market, which is right next to the lab, to get produce. Then we’d spend all day working on whatever the theme was that week—a particular product or gum, for example. Then at night we’d sit down and have a meeting where we’d talk about how things went, what we were going to work on next, and what produce I needed to get the next morning. We worked about eight hours a day. It was like office hours.
At the restaurant, were there any parts of mise-en-place that you particularly enjoyed?
I liked getting the whole rabbit heads. We had to remove the ears to make chips, and then scoop out the brain with a spoon. That was cool.
What impressed you most about the kitchen there?
The organization. You would have everyone working on the same project in the prep area, and as you came near to finishing, one person would step back and get a bucket of soap and water to clean up, and another would get the next project. You never stopped between tasks. There was never any break.
What was your impression of Ferran at that time?
I had a lot of interaction with him at the taller. He’s really open-minded. Even if something didn’t work out, he could still look at what went wrong and see how it could be used for something else.
What did you do on your days off?
I went fishing with Oriol Castro [chef de cuisine] a couple of times, on his dad’s boat. Once we went out at night to catch calamar. I remember the squid was bright red when it came out of the water—not like the white you normally buy. We cooked it that night.
Are there things you do now at Perry St. that owe a direct debt to your time at elBulli?
We had some spherifications on the menu in the past, including one of gazpacho that was a clear tomato water with a perfect mirepoix of gazpacho vegetables inside. And then there’s the black light.
The black light?
Yeah, at elBulli there would be six of us who would clean crab in the dark. We would use these black lights because they make it possible to distinguish really easily between the meat and the cartilage. It’s really efficient. I have one now in my restaurant.
What was your favorite family meal?
Pan con tomate. The first day I saw that, where they just smear a tomato on a piece of bread and throw out the rest, I couldn’t believe it: they were wasting the whole tomato! But they served it with a tuna mayonnaise and a slice of ibérico ham. It was the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.
Those Catalan tomatoes are grown in a closed environment and are amazingly sweet. Later we would do a dish where you peeled the flesh off from the gelee like segments of an orange. I realized then that all the flavor is in the gelee—the rest is just fibrous. That applies to melons too. The best flavor is closest to the seeds.
If you had to sum it up, what would you say is the most important lesson you learned at elBulli?
How to organize yourself so that you can be creative. When it comes to ideas, it’s so easy to get lost. You have to track yourself.