Stefano Baiocco first applied for an elBulli stage in 2001. It wasn’t until 2003 that the restaurant told him they space for him. Even though he was by then working as sous-chef at a place in southern Italy, he dropped what he was doing and moved to Roses. Today, he is executive chef at Villa Feltrinelli, a grand hotel on the shores of Lake Garda, in Italy. He is also author of a cookbook, Mise en Place.
Why did you want to stage at elBulli?
My CV was already pretty complete. I had done stages in a lot of big places, like Enoteca Pinochiorri, Mugaritz, Ryogin in Japan, L’Astrance, Alain Ducasse in Paris, and Pierre Gagnaire,. And after being in France I thought, okay, so now I’m complete. I’ve tried lots of different styles, and with Ducasse’s perfectionism and Gagniare’s extreme creativity, I thought I was complete. But that year, people started to talk about this guy with a very different style, Ferran Adria. Someone I was working with flew to Spain just to eat at his restaurant. So I realized, no, I’m not complete.
How was elBulli different from the other places you had staged?
It’s not a real kitchen. It’s more like a theater. In fact, for an inexperienced cook, it’s probably not the best place to begin. You could work there ten years and not even learn how to cook a simple steak.
But was it a good experience for you?
Yes, but I was older—I was 30, and I already had a strong base. I got to work with Oriol in creativity during the day, and then alternated during service—one week in the small kitchen and one week in the main. Everything was new, so it was really exciting.
What was your impression of Ferran?
He opened my mind to a new world. Before him, pigeon was pigeon and sea bass was sea bass. But there, pigeon could be sea bass. He mixed everything up.
I thought of him as a movie star. In 2003, there were journalists and tv cameras in the kitchen every day.
Do you have a favorite memory of your time there?
One of the chefs then was this Catalan guy, Jordi Parra. Jordi liked me because I was a good worker, and because I was really organized. So he called me ‘chef,’ which no one does in that kitchen. And each day after family meal, he would go over to the coffee station and make me a coffee. Then he would hand it to me saying, “For you, with the maximum respect.” It was this joke we had, and he still says it to me whenever we run in to each other.
Is there anything on your menu now at Villa Feltrinelli that owes a direct debt to your time at elBulli?
Well, you have to be intelligent about these things, and understand where you work. If you work in a pizzeria, it would be stupid to make a pizza with potato foam. But I use some of the techniques I learned. I make a crespelle, for example, but instead of a crepe, I use a milk skin, then fill it with yogurt foam and serve it with a rosemary syrup.
What was your favorite family meal?
Fideua. It’s like pasta, but not. They sauté the noodles with onions first. It’s a little strange to see, but good.
If you had to sum it up, what would you say is the most important thing you learned at elBulli?
That no ingredient is more important than any other. A potato can be just as important as caviar or truffles. And you can use all of it. In a normal restaurant if you have an orange, you would use the flesh and maybe the peel. But at elBulli, you use the seeds and the pith as well. A normal restaurant would throw those parts away, but there, you have to be open to everything.