What goes on behind the scenes at elBulli? Elected best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine an unprecedented five times, elBulli is the site where chef Ferran Adrià’s remarkably creative cuisine comes to life, and the object of gastronomic pilgrimage. But it is also the place where each year, dozens of young, ambitious cooks come from around the globe to work for free carrying out his extraordinary vision. The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli explores the remarkable system of apprentices, or stagiaires, that Adrià uses to run his restaurant and, in the process, train the next generation of culinary stars.
Granted unprecedented access to this system, Abend spent the 2009 season in the kitchen at elBulli. There, she observed the staff firsthand as it both invented new dishes and turned out some 1500 dishes a night. In the process, she learned each stagiaire’s story, and followed the group as they struggled to master the long hours, cutting-edge techniques, and interpersonal tensions that come with working at the most revered restaurant on Earth. It’s a great cast. There is Luke, for example, a Korean man who so longs to enter the world of haute cuisine that he took a job in a slaughterhouse in order to earn enough money to travel, and camped outside elBulli until Adrià agreed to accept him as a stagiaire. There is Katie, an over-achieving American woman, who left a promising career in biomedical research, and a prestigious fellowship, to learn pastry in elBulli’s kitchen. And there is Roger, the son of Catalan goat farmers, who struggles to deal with what it means to work in a restaurant of elBulli’s level, even while he succeeds at it. 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 unforgettable. But they also offer a look at a Ferran Adria few ever see, a Ferran who is not only a genius chef and artist, but also a boss, teacher, taskmaster, businessman, and sometimes flawed human being. And in an age in which food has become the focus of unprecedented attention, ambition, concern, and desire, it explores the strange phenomenon that in less than two decades has turned a once-maligned profession into a source of celebrity. It asks, in other words, a pressing question whose answer Adria himself has been critical in changing: Why cook?