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The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: Book Review

July 14, 2012

The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in The Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli
Lisa Abend
Simon & Schuster, 297 pages
(Thanks to Kristin Matzen at Simon and Schuster for sending a review copy.)

I began reading this without knowing about elBulli, or Ferran Adrià. I love a good chef and kitchen memoir, for the voyeuristic thrills of getting details about a fascinating world I will never inhabit. I don’t have the stamina to be a chef. But I love to eat and savor good food, and I’m intrigued by the techniques and the discipline it takes to create it, and the ethos of combining artistry with hard work, and the rigorous details of duplicating a recipe perfectly across hundreds and hundreds of plates.
Then, of course, there’s the vicarious delight of reading passages that lovingly describe the food, conjuring tastes I wish I could experience.

This was a definite departure from the typical chef and restaurant memoir. The hard work is there, and the devotion to quality ingredients. Even some of the offbeat personalities.
But Ferran Adrià is known for his work in molecular gastronomy, finding ways to transform eating into a sensory experience that challenges and shocks, innovating and transforming ingredients.

Reading about techniques like creating “Parmesan air,” or making a skin out of scalded milk that would then become a wonton-like pastry wrap, I could only marvel. Fried rabbit ears. Edible rose petals transformed into an artichoke shape, with nearly that taste. I can barely get my head around eating some of these dishes, let alone making them. Food as adventure, food as performance art or spectacle. It’s a little alarming, as well as awe-inspiring.

It’s absolutely fascinating and fun to read about, though. The kitchen culture as a whole intrigued me, as Abend pointed out some of the ways elBulli’s culture differed from the typical kitchen, and the construct of the “chef as bad boy pirate” kitchen memoir. Discipline reigns in this kitchen culture, with less swearing and none of the insults as camaraderie that are part of other kitchen traditions. As the chefs and stagiares work around each other, they use the Spanish word “Quemo,” as an all purpose “watch your back, I’m coming through,” warning. Laughing and joking are discouraged, muted, as the stagiares are supposed to focus intently on their tasks.

Spending a little time with each of the stagiares, (unpaid apprentice chefs) working and learning in elBulli made a good way to understand what elBulli and Ferran Adrià meant in the larger context of cooking. Contrasting the experiences of chefs who had worked with other famous name chefs like Thomas Keller, or come from military backgrounds, with their experience at elBulli helped me figure out what made this particular restaurant unique.

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