Introduction

Since Ferran Adrià first arrived at elBulli in 1983, upward of a thousand apprentice chefs, or stagiaires, have passed through its kitchen. In these interviews, some of them recall their time at elBulli and reflect on how the experience shaped them. Check back frequently for new entries.

Charles-Antoine Crête

Year: 2003

Born in Montreal, Charles-Antoine Crête had accumulated some interesting experiences by the time he started at elBulli. He started working in kitchens as a teenager, but took time off to stage at Tetsuya’s in Sydney, and to help open a new restaurant there. He also spent time in southern Australia working as a tuna fisherman and on an olive farm before moving on to first Japan, and then Barcelona. Today, he is chef de cuisine at the same restaurant where he began his career: Toqué!, in Montreal.

How did you end up staging at elBulli?

I really wanted to stage there, so I must have sent my resumé in eighty times. But I never heard back. Finally, my boss just bought me a ticket to fly to Spain and told me to go. So I showed up there—I remember it was pouring rain and I was soaking wet—and asked to speak with Albert. He had no idea who I was. I was like, I’m Charles, Charles Canada! Finally he realized it was the guy who had been sending him emails every day. So he said, “Ok, I’ll take your resumé.”

And once you got there, did it meet your expectations?

I had been a sous-chef in Montreal by the time I arrived at elBulli, so I was pretty hardcore. It’s the way I had been trained. So I loved the way the kitchen worked there, especially Oriol Castro. He was so dedicated. Read the rest of this entry »

Albert Raurich

Year: 1997

Like nearly all of the restaurant’s permanent staff, Albert Raurich began his tenure as a stagiaire. But he went further than most, becoming chef de cuisine in 2000, and staying on another seven years after that. In 2007, with Ferran’s blessing and support, he left to open Dos Palillos, a tapas bar in Barcelona highly acclaimed for its Asian tapas. He and his partner Tamae Imachi have just opened a second Dos Palillos in Berlin.

How did you come to work at elBulli in the first place?

I have a Harley Davidson. So does Christian Escribà [a famed Barcelona pastry chef] and we would go out riding together. I went to culinary school with Sergi Arola, and one day Sergi told me he was going to spend the year working at elBulli. He said he thought there was still a spot open. I knew that Christian was friends with Ferran, so I asked him to inquire on my behalf. He did, and Ferran told me to come on up.

So I went up, and Ferran showed me around. He said the most important thing is that you like us and the kind of cooking we do. I laughed, because I thought it was the reverse: that they like me. But I got the job.

What was it like?

When you start, all the jobs are really mechanical. But I had already worked as chef de cuisine in another restaurant, so they gave me a bit more responsibility. I helped out the girl who was in charge of making family meal. And that was an important job, because, as Ferran always says, how can a restaurant feed its clients well if it doesn’t feed its staff well? Read the rest of this entry »

Katie Button

(Francesc Guillamet)

Year: 2009

Even more than it does for most people, elBulli changed Katie Button’s life. After leaving a promising career in biomedical research, she took a job waiting tables at Café Atlántico in Washington, DC. where she met several visiting members of elBulli’s staff, including maître d’ Felix Meana. Felix convinced her to do a front-of-house stage at elBulli, and while there in the summer of 2008, she fell in love not only with him, but with the cuisine that the restaurant produced. Before that season was over, she convinced Albert Adria to let her come back the following year as a stagiaire in pastry. Tonight, she and Felix, who are now engaged, open their new restaurant, Cúrate, in Asheville, North Carolina.

What was your initial impression of Ferran?

I was so nervous! When you meet him for the first time, he seems so serious. You feel in awe of him. And then see him outside the restaurant, and he’s so friendly. But you know what? He still makes me nervous.

As a server, did you interact with him much?

The first thing they teach you when you start working is how to come into the kitchen. You approach the pass, and have to stand at a certain distance from Ferran or Eduard or whomever is expediting. You have to clearly express what you want, and then move down the line and get a tray ready with plates. Then you wait.  You look at the expediter. You repeat back what he’s saying. If you didn’t speak loudly or clearly enough—he would get upset. That was always Ferran’s thing. I would go up there and practically salute. Read the rest of this entry »

George Mendes

(Jerry Errico)

George Mendes is chef of the New York restaurant Aldea, where he serves an Iberia-inspired menu inflected with what he calls a “global palate.” After gigs at Wallsé and Bouley, and apprenticing at Martin Berasategui , he tried to do a full stage at elBulli, but wasn’t accepted at the time. Three years later, though, when he was between jobs (he had just left his position as chef de cuisine at Toqueville)  he managed to convince chef de cuisine Albert Raurich to take him on for a few weeks before he went back to New York and opened Aldea.

How did you feel when you finally made it to elBulli?

The air there was so thick with intensity and creativity. And it was really hectic the first couple of times during service—everyone was so energetic and hungry, in the athletic sense. I thought, “Holy shit. I can’t believe I’m really here.”

What did you find most striking or surprising about the kitchen there?

The organization of it all. Considering how long that tasting menu is, the amount of chaos it could generate is astonishing. All the clients come in at more or less the same time. There’s food coming out of three or four places at a time. But it’s all so organized. Read the rest of this entry »

Stefano Baiocco

Year: 2003

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Cedric Vongerichten

Year: 2004

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Simon Lennblad

Year: 2007

Simon Lennblad did a stage not only at elBulli, but at the French Laundry in Napa Valley as well. Before both,  he was already working at PM Restaurant in Våxjo, Sweden as chef de partie. These days, he’s chef de cuisine there, and also oversees the restaurant’s greenhouse and garden.

Where were you in the kitchen? Did you stay in a single station or move around?

In the beginning I worked everywhere, but after a while, they put me on fish station for service. And normally I did all the spherifications during the day.

What were the parts or tasks you liked the best? The least? Any part of mise that drove you crazy?

I really liked most of it. Taking out seeds of the cucumber at first drove me crazy but until I was driven to make myself the fastest at it. Then it got fun. Read the rest of this entry »

Jeremiah Bullfrog

Year: 2001

The man who goes by Jeremiah Bullfrog first learned of elBulli in 1999, before the restaurant had much of an international reputation. Still, he was intrigued by what he heard, and in 2001, left a position as executive chef at Light, a popular lounge in New York, to do a stage. While there, he ran into what he calls “some bumps in the road,” and only ended up staying three months. These days, he runs GastroPod in Miami, an Airstream trailer-turned-food truck that serves gourmet street food, and is a popular fixture at local music festivals and art exhibitions.

Any tasks you particularly disliked during your stage?

I was in the cubby, or Small Kitchen, for what seemed like an eternity. And every day we had to clean chicken feet. We even had a song for it—“Patitas” and this silly little dance.

And ones you liked?

I was really good at the sepia [cuttlefish]. They would set me up there in back with three bins, and I’d divide it into liver, ink sack, and meat. We would brunoise the meat to make this risotto without rice. Read the rest of this entry »

Nuno Mendes

(Ali Kurshat Altinsoy)

By Ali Kurshat Altinsoy

Year: 2003

Originally from Lisbon, Nuno Mendes worked at Coyote Café in the US before starting his stage at elBulli. After, he traveled extensively through Asia before landing in London, where he went on to become chef at the avant-garde Bacchus, and later founded the Loft Project, a sort of supper club in which up-and-coming chefs from around the world are invited to take up residence and showcase their cooking to a small group of appreciative diners. In April he launched Viajante, which may well be the best restaurant to open in 2010. Here, in a special guest appearance, he is interviewed by the most knowledgeable man in food, Ali Kurshat Altinsoy.

As a stagiaire, what tasks did you like best?

What I liked the most was just to be in kitchen and see how things were done. That and the rabbit brains. I thought they were quite cool.

And the least?

Oysters. Shucking oysters all day. Everybody’s doing oysters all the time. It’s a bit boring. Read the rest of this entry »