Review: The Sorcerer’s Apprentices

How famous and important a restaurant is El Bulli?  When preparing for this assignment I typed “el b” into a google search field and El Bulli was the first thing that came up.  That’s impressive.  If you have dining there on your bucket list but you don’t yet have a reservation then you need to replace it with something else because in just over two months the most famous restaurant in the world is closing it’s doors.

From the El Bulli web site:

First of all we would like to thank everybody who has shown an interest in visiting us to enjoy the El Bulli experience during these fifty years as a restaurant. Also to all the professionals who have been part of the team and helped make it happen.

On July 30th 2011 El Bulli will have completed its journey as a restaurant. We will transform into a creativity center, opening in 2014. Its main objective is to be a think-tank for creative cuisine and gastronomy and will managed by a private foundation.

The Sorcerer's Apprentices by Lisa AbendIn 2009 Lisa Abend, Time magazine’s Spain correspondent for the past several years, spent an entire season in the kitchen of the little restaurant in Roses, Spain.  She was the proverbial fly on the wall as a staff of 40 sum odd cooks developed the 31 course extravaganza  that has made Ferran Adrià the most famous and revered chef on the planet.  The result was the newly released The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli.

She watched as a team of 32 stagiaires (apprentice chefs who work for no pay) invest six months of their lives just for the invaluable line on their resume, “worked for Ferran Adrià at El Bulli.”  It is the culinary equivalent of walking on the moon.

What Abend captures extremely well are the emotions of the stagiaires as they discover that their tenure in Roses is nothing like they imagined.  The El Bulli kitchen is unlike any they will work in the rest of their careers.  At some point or another every single one of them will be vastly disappointed in the experience and rewarded by it.

Some will get angry.  Some will be frustrated.  Some will get laid.  All of them, at one time or another will be bored.  The most exciting dining experience known to man is quite possibly the most boring kitchen a chef could work in.  That is but one of the ironies revealed in Abend’s book.

The author introduces the reader to many of the stagiaires who are gleaned each year from thousands of applicants.  Another testament to the legend of Adrià, that each year 3000 chefs from around the world volunteer to work for him for free for six months.  Their only compensation is sharing a small room with their co-workers and one meal a day.

If you are looking for the scandalous tales made famous in chef memoirs like Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen or Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential you’ll be disappointed.  But that does not mean the book is devoid of scandalous revelations.

For all of Adrià’s unquestionable creativity and skill and vision and genius and artistry he is apparently not a very good businessman.  With 32 chefs working for free, a large number of servers who also work with out pay and an average cost of $350 a head for dinner at a restaurant with a reservations wait list years long, El Bulli is not exactly a profitable endeavor.

If you are a foodie or a chef you will find this book engaging and eye opening.  It is well written by an author who smiths words that are eloquently lucid.  It is a must read.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so either:

“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.” Leah Douglas, SeriousEats.com.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into a culinary rite of passage, and the incomparable genius behind it.”  Dan Barber, chef/owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

“This is a worthy addition to the literature of the professional kitchen and a pleasure to read.” Michael Ruhlman, author of Ratio and The Making of a Chef.

Abend and I have Tweeted back and forth since I received my review copy and I have told her that she is the envy of every food writer in the world.  She assured me that is not the first time she has heard that and that the experience was a once in a life time event.

Color me green.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less
Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards
2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up
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