Serious Reads: 'The Sorcerer's Apprentices,' by Lisa Abend

Restaurant elBulli is renowned worldwide for its innovative, surprising cuisine and genius head chef Ferran Adria. Adria has been leading this kitchen in Roses, Spain, for more than 25 years, and in that time has expertly merged creativity and artistic expression with haute cuisine. The restaurant is a five-time winner of the title "Best Restaurant in the World" and holds three Michelin stars. Adria's methods are so advanced and secretive that most outsiders project an aura of untouchability onto him and his staff. Journalist Lisa Abend spent more than 70 days in the elBulli kitchen, with a mission to reveal the human side of this mysterious restaurant in her book The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria's elBulli.

Abend's main focus are the stagiaires who come to learn and work at elBulli. Each year, about 30 young cooks leave their homes and travel to Roses at their own expense for an unpaid six-month stint in Adria's kitchen. Nearly 3,000 applications are considered before the stagiaires are chosen. All those accepted have prior experience in some of the best restaurants in the world—noma, Per Se, Alinea, the Fat Duck. Once they've all made the pilgrimage, they receive a short introduction and a few brief training sessions before service begins.

Working in the elBulli kitchen is manageable by some industry standards. The restaurant serves only one meal per day—dinner—and every guest receives a fixed menu, thus eliminating any ingredient shortages or major surprises during service. There are two days off per week and occasional longer breaks, and most stagiaires get enough sleep and benefit from the restaurant's excellent staff meal each day. There is not much rotation of duties, mise en place is always the same, and the cooks are exposed to some of the most brilliant culinary minds in the world.

But Abend's purpose is not to paint a rosy, idyllic picture of life as an elBulli apprentice. By delving into the personal lives, opinions, and experiences of the stagiaires, we soon begin to see that the environment of the restaurant is not for everyone. Many cooks take issue with their repetitive duties, feel their passion dulled by a lack of creative outlets, and are stifled by the rigid kitchen hierarchy enforced by the chefs. Some cooks don't make it through the season; others look to the last day of service as if towards a desert oasis. Abend tracks their moods carefully, putting the hyper-modern, exacting cuisine of elBulli in conversation with the true desires of these aspiring chefs.

A recurring theme throughout the season is the stagiaires' dissatisfaction with how removed they feel from the restaurant's food. Nearly all of the cooks wish to return to a simpler form of comfort cooking, removed from spherification and freeze-drying. They feel inspired by chef Adria's presence—and yes, he is in the kitchen for practically every service—but find that their real culinary passion stems from remembering their family members hunched over a stove, putting something delicious on the table for all to enjoy.

Abend's goal is to bring this untouchable restaurant down to earth, for those many readers who will never get to experience its gustatory delights (elBulli will officially close after the 2011 season). Her observations and commentary are helpful, providing analysis based on in-depth interviews taken with all members of the kitchen. Not only is one given a great understanding of what elBulli is all about; we can also clearly see the impact that the restaurant and its food has on aspiring chefs. Abend is successful in conveying the intense pressure felt by the young stagiaires, while providing insight into Ferran Adria's commanding but beneficent rule over his well-oiled machine of a kitchen.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.