At the Foot of the World's Throne of Haute Cuisine
"Granted more access to Adrià and the ElBulli kitchen than any other writer in the restaurant's history," the dust jacket for Lisa Abend's The Sorcerer's Apprentices proclaims. And in a unique manner that has given her an experience of a lifetime — following the 35 stagiares who make the 30-course dinners at El Bulli happen. Here, in this interview about her book, we asked the writer for some insights into the world's most influential chef.
The book jacket says that in a previous life you were a professor of European history at Oberlin. Professor to correspondent for Time, that's a dramatic transition. How did your interest in Spain and the Spanish language start?
I studied Spanish a bit in college, but my relationship with Spain really began when I studied abroad in Córdoba. Córdoba is, for my money, one of the loveliest cities in Europe, and with its history — it was once the seat of the Caliphate, as well as a major center for medieval Jewish culture and learning — it’s a fascinating place to think about as well. I fell completely in love.
How did the idea to do the book come to you in the first place?
The first time I went to El Bulli was for a story about Ferran. I walked into the kitchen and was struck by the sight of 15 or so young cooks in two straight lines removing pine nuts from pine cones. When I walked back in about an hour or so later, after interviewing Ferran, they were still at it. It made me wonder, “Who are these people, willing to do this kind of tedious labor?” And that was the seed. At first I thought it would just be an article, but later I realized there were so many stories there that it required a book.
What does a book about Ferran's stagiares tell us about the most storied chef in the world?
First, I hope that it reminds us that Ferran is human, with all the foibles that implies. He may be one of the most influential chefs in history, but he is not always the perfect mentor or boss. There’s a tendency to mythologize him, but I think his achievement as a chef and artist is better understood when we remember that he’s a real person. Second, by focusing on the stories of the stagiaires, I hoped to shed light on why people, including Ferran, choose to cook professionally in this day and age — what they get out of it, the different meanings that it holds.
How did the stagiares deal with the pressure?
One or two of them had a really hard time with it and ended up leaving before the season was over. But most of them put their heads down, and handled the stress with grace. Of course, there was plenty of blowing off steam during their off hours. There’s a bar in Roses, called L’Hort, that for years now has basically been the El Bulli bar.
Perhaps more than any other American journalist, you've had a front seat to watching the rise of Spanish avant garde cuisine. Did you have any idea in the early days of just how important and influential Ferran was going to be?
I’d love to be able to say yes, but I wasn’t really focused on cuisine when Ferran began experimenting with its possibilities (which was in the 1990s).
Do you see any connection between Ferran and traditional Catalan cooking?
There have been points in his career where Ferran famously deconstructed classic Spanish or Catalan dishes — his pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato) comes to mind. But he told me that he now finds that kind of literal deconstruction a bit limiting. Certainly, though, he continues to feature Catalan ingredients. Espardenyes (sea cucumbers), for example, were big the season I was there — he paired them with a piece of rhubarb turned to match the way they look.
What about cooking and food do you wish you'd known before going in to observe everything?
I wish I had spent time in a classic French kitchen; it would have made easier the process of distinguishing what is different about how El Bulli runs.
What's the most shockingly normal thing about the El Bulli kitchen?
I don’t know if this is normal, but it surprised me with its banality: they use children’s modeling clay to create mock ups of the various dishes. It’s a way for the stagiaires to learn the proper size of that say, a piece of turned rhubarb or a spherified gnocco.
What's the one skill that's indispensable in the El Bulli kitchen?
The ability to master boredom. Much of the work — squeezing the germ from corn, for example — is remarkably tedious.
What's one tip for working for the most influential chef in the world?
Same as for any great chef: work hard.
What part of the experience described in The Sorcerer's Apprentices is being fictionalized in the script for the movie?
I don’t know yet. The script is still in development.