The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, Lisa Abend

<em class="BookTitle">The Sorcerer’s Apprentices</em>, Lisa Abend

Free Press, 2011, 304 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-4391-7555-2

I first became aware of el Bulli from The Amateur Gourmet’s blog post/webcomic Dinner at El Bulli: The Greatest Restaurant in the World in August 2009.  Not being much of a foodie at the time, it was my glimpse into so-called “Molecular Cuisine” (a term everyone seems to hate) and a first look at the legend of el Bulli, a place intent on pushing back the definitions of food.  (It definitely left an impression: By February 2011, I was seated at Ottawa’s own Atelier to enjoy the local version of such an experimental restaurant and I still remember it as one of the best meals of my life.)

As of this writing in early 2013, El Bulli has become legendary… something helped along by the restaurant’s decision to close at the end of 2011 to transform itself into a still nebulously-defined “culinary think-tank”.  During its heyday, El Bulli was named the top restaurant in the world five successive times.  Its chef, Ferran Adrià, has become something of a celebrated genius, an emblem of the new Spanish culinary creativity.  As a result, there is little about el Bulli that hasn’t been documented, filmed, described or exclaimed about: There are documentary films, numerous books and countless newspaper articles to quench your thirst for more el Bull goodness. 

In this context, what’s left for Lisa Abend to show in The Sorcerer’s Apprentices?  Quite a bit, as it turns out: Taking a bottom-up look at el Bulli through the forty-some stagiaires (apprentices) that form the backbone of el Bulli’s workforce.  As Abend reveals, the mind-bending high-prep thirty-course nature of el Bulli’s groundbreaking cuisine isn’t made possible by high technology or advanced science: it’s made affordable solely due to the highly-skilled, unpaid labour that volunteered to work at el Bulli for an entire season.  The rewards are obvious: who wouldn’t want to hire someone with el Bulli on his resume?  Who wouldn’t want a chance to peek over Adrià’s shoulders?  Who wouldn’t want to spend a few months working at “the best restaurant in the world”?

There’s a flip-side, of course: Despite el Bulli’s reputation, the truth is that much of the stagiaires’ work is back-breaking rather than groundbreaking.  While the working conditions there seem quite a bit better than most restaurants (ample space to move, workspaces that don’t get overly hot, no reed to run or shout, tightly-regulated reservations that takes much of the chaos out of the evening rush), a six-month season at el Bulli involves living in a small rural Spanish city far from their families, with long hours, mindless repetitive work and not much in terms of pay.  Abend structures her book around the experiences of roughly a dozen of the stagiaires, exploring their backgrounds, the frequent sacrifices required to get the job and then keep it throughout the year.  A number of stagiaires drop out, sometimes happily (getting a job at a prestigious restaurant) and sometimes less so.

Despite spending a long time at the restaurant during the 2009 season, Abend herself remains a discrete presence behind the scenes as she describe the daily rhythm of el Bulli.  She presents the stagiaires’ stories simply, doesn’t shy away from delving into their fears and moments of doubt, and in doing so humanizes the el Bulli mythology.  Adrià himself remains a formidable presence, but the book wisely shies away from too lengthy contacts with him.  This is about the apprentices, not the sorcerer: It’s about the reality of el Bulli rather the mythology… even if the mythology ends up reinforced by the reality.

It does amount to an absorbing read, no matter one’s membership level in the ranks of foodies.  There’s some amazing material here in describing how some meals are put together (the crown going to a rose/artichoke plate that’s really roses masquerading as artichokes), and one of the few ways the book could have been better would have been with a stronger visual component to illustrate its subject matter.  It’s a well-constructed book with a fascinated subject, and its execution is well above mere competence.  What’s not to like?  Now that el Bulli has closed, perhaps for good, it’s essential to keep capsule reminders of the way things happened at the restaurant during its heyday.

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