Elected best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine an unprecedented five times, elBulli is where chef Ferran Adrià’s remarkable cuisine comes to life—with dragon cocktails that make the drinker breathe smoke and caviar made from tiny spheres of olive oil. elBulli is also the object of culinary pilgrimage—millions clamor every year for a reservation at one of its tables.
Yet few people know that, behind each of the thirtyor more courses that make up a meal at elBulli, a small army of stagiaires—apprentice chefs—labor at the precise, exhausting work of executing Adrià’s astonishing vision. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchenat Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, Lisa Abend explores the remarkable system that Adrià uses to run his restaurant and, in the process, train the next generation of culinary stars.
Granted more access to Adrià and the elBulli kitchen than any other writer in the restaurant’s history, Abend follows thirty-five young men and women as they struggle to master the cutting-edge techniques, grueling hours, furious creativity, and interpersonal tensions that come with working at this celebrated institution. Her lively narrative captures a great cast, including a young Korean cook who camps on the doorstep of elBulli until he is allowed to work in the kitchen; an ambitious chef from one of Switzerland’s top restaurants struggling to create his own artistic vision of cuisine; and an American couple whose relationship may not withstand the unique pressures of the restaurant. What emerges is an irresistible tale of aspiring young talents caught, for good or ill, in the opportunity of a lifetime.
Taken together, their stories form a portrait of the international team that helps make a meal at elBulli so memorable. They also reveal a Ferran Adrià few ever see, one who is not only a genius chef and artist but also a boss, teacher, taskmaster, businessman, and sometimes- flawed human being. Today, food has become the focus of unprecedented attention, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentices also explores the strange evolution—in less than two decades—of a once-maligned profession into a source of celebrity.
Lisa Abend is journalist based in Madrid. For the past three years, she has been Time magazine’s correspondent in Spain, where she writes about everything from international terrorism, to climate change, to immigration, to costumed debt collectors (with, needless to say, a fair number of bullfighting stories thrown in for good measure.) As a freelancer, she has written on learning the Basque language for The Atlantic; on volunteer bit torrent translators for Wired; on the plight of Roma women for Ms., on prime minister Zapatero’s republican upbringing for The American Prospect; on the recovery of the Iberian lynx for National Wildlife; and on the situation in Western Sahara for The Economist. Her real love, though, is food writing. She contributes regularly to all the major American food magazines, and has written features on a Marrakech cooking school (Bon Appetit); on culinary travels through Extremadura (Gourmet); on a collective of grandmothers in Catalonia who preserve traditional cuisine (Saveur) and on learning to love pig face (Food and Wine). Her food writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, and the Christian Science Monitor. She hosts an upcoming episode on Andalusia in the third season of PBS’ Diary of a Foodie. In a previous life (that is, about 5 years ago) she was a professor of Spanish history at Oberlin College.