Though the book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli has just been published, it is already slated to be the basis for a Hollywood movie and why not? Lisa Abend’s story focuses on the largely unsung, but truly remarkable backbone of what has become the most remarkable and most famous restaurant the world has ever known, elBulli. Many are familiar with the near impossibility of securing a reservation at this Spanish institution and just about anyone who has an interest in food has heard about Ferran Adria and his brother, Albert, and rightly so. The fame of elBulli partner, Juli Soler and fellow front of the house master, Luis Garcia, is also widely known as are the names of many of the permanent kitchen staff of elBulli such as Oriol Castro and Eduard Xatruch, but far fewer are familiar with the behind the scenes stories of the people who drop everything to come to elBulli each season for the opportunity to soak up its culture, learn what they can and prepare the incredible dishes that spring forth from the kitchen without earning even a Euro. It is these people along with the permanent staff that have enabled elBulli to function and grow as it has. It is these people who have enabled the extraordinary creativity of the Adria brothers and their team to flourish and capture the world’s imagination. Now Lisa Abend has told their story and no, I’m not surprised that Hollywood has taken notice, a point that Ferran announced to the world yesterday at a reception at the King Juan Carlos 1 of Spain Center at New York University.
The reception, billed as A Celebration of Ferran Adria’s Legacy, was held to coincide with the publication of Abend’s book. It proved to be a remarkable mingling of people including a wealth of Spanish dignitaries, a trove of former stagieres who came from far and wide and a bounty of New York and American notables. Amongst the former stagieres who traveled to be there were Will Goldfarb, who now lives in Bali, Jeremiah Bullfrog the chef/owner of Gastropod food truck from Miami, Josean Martinez Alija the chef of The Guggenheim Museum Restaurant in Bilbao, Spain and Katie Button, chef/ owner of the newly opened Spanish restaurant Curaté in Asheville, NC. One who didn’t have to travel so far was Robert Truitt, the pastry chef of Ai Fiori in NYC. Amongst the native notables were Nathan Myhrvold, the man behind the awesome new tome Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, restaurateur Drew Nieporent, Marion Nestle, Colman Andrews, author of the recent Ferran Adria biography, Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, Spanish food and wine writer extraordinaire, Gerry Dawes, WD-50 chef Wylie Dufresne, Starchefs Managing Editor Will Blunt and many more. The room was overflowing.
After a brief introduction from The Spanish Minister of Industry, Tourism and Commerce, Miguel Sebastián, in which he highlighted the importance of gastronomy on the Spanish economy, pointing out that Spain is the third most widely visited country in the world behind France and the United States and the gastronomic industry is the leading Spanish industrial sector and accounts for 17% of all Spanish industrial jobs. Minister Sebastián went on to introduce the new website for Foods From Spain, the trade organization responsible for promoting Spain’s gastronomic products, www.foodsfromspain.com.
Lisa Abend took the podium to give a little background on the genesis of her book. She got the idea for the book the very first time she visited the restaurant to do an interview with Ferran. She was ushered into elBulli’s impressive kitchen and was most fascinated by the two neat lines of stagieres in the center of the kitchen removing the pine nuts from pine cones. She left to do her interview with Ferran only to return about an hour later to find them still removing pine nuts from the green pine cones. Prior to that, she said, she had never considered what it takes to get the pine nuts that she always previously found in jars. From watching this rather tedious job, she began to wonder about the people who would be there actually doing that. Now having written the book, she can talk a little about these people. Each year, elBulli takes approximately 35 stagieres from around the world, a selection process, “even more difficult than getting a reservation ” at the restaurant. Most of the stagieres come from many of the world’s top restaurants, most are under 30 years old and most, but not nearly all are men. Abend told several stories of the lengths some of the stagieres have gone through to gain this job that provides 14 hour days for six months, a bed in a crowded apartment, one meal a day and no pay. Luke Jang from South Korea, for example, actually camped out in the gardens of elBulli in the middle of the season until they gave him a job. As bad as picking the pine nuts was, that was not the worst or most tedious job the stagieres would have. Each year, the kitchen of elBulli prepares a risotto with each year featuring a different ingredient as the base of the risotto. Perhaps the most difficult and tedious was the risotto made from the inner hearts of corn kernels, that needed to be individually harvested from the kernels. As difficult as these jobs were, the benefits of working there were indeed significant. For Rene Redzepi, working there “gave me the freedom to become myself.” Given that the restaurant is getting set to close from its current iteration, Abend closed with an assurance, showing a map of the world with locations marked where elBulli alumni are now working. The stars were distributed extensively around the globe assuring the continued legacy of elBulli.
Next to speak were two former elBulli stagieres, both winners of special ICEX (The Spanish Institute fro Foreign Trade) scholarships. The first was Momofuku alum Paras Shah, who spoke about his scholarship. As part of that scholarship, Shah got to travel around Spain and eat at some of the country’s finest restaurants and then ultimately to work at elBulli. He said “the part that took the most getting used to when I first got there (in Spain)… was the siesta…in the middle of the day I was told to go home at 4 o’clock and I thought I was fired…until they told me to come back for evening service around 7 o’clock.” Shah remains inspired the quality of the products he encountered in Spain and the passion of the people he worked with. From elBulli he learned “a sense of detail and connection, where what I do, as not only as a cook, but also as a stage really effects not only the food itself, but the overall experience that a customer will have when they come over to elBulli to have the greatest meal of their life.” The second stagiere was Kim Floresca, currently of The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, California. Abend introduced her saying how she so quickly distinguished herself as a stagiere becoming a chef de partie after only a month on the job. Floresca was particularly impressed with the way everything is used in Spain, saying, “for them to use everything, from nose to tail and the blood to make morcilla – incredible.” Regarding elBulli, she and her boyfriend, Daniel, had been trying to get a stage there for about four years before finally getting theirs – together. Floresca was particularly impressed with “the organization and discipline that Ferran commanded through Oriol and Edo and Mateo.” On a lighter note, Floresca admitted that she will “never eat another pine nut again, because I know how much work goes into it… and the corn as well!”
The program finished with Ferran who opened with praise for Abend and her book then segued into a discussion on the importance of the stagieres, which then led into a timeline on the history of elBulli including the fact that they originally closed the restaurant for 6 months in the winter because there were no customers since they were situated in a summer resort community. However, the restaurant continued to evolve with a new kitchen built in the early 1990’s ultimately leading to today’s elBulli and the need for a transformation to the elBulli Foundation. Ferran continued showing representations for some of the new buildings being planned for the site in Cala Montjoi utilizing a pre-eminent green architect so that the buildings would have a minimal impact environmentally and have a maximal impact on creativity for those lucky enough to attend and those who will follow the daily online reports. Adriá finished by announcing the plan for the film about the lives of these stagieres based on Abend’s book stating that the probability of this coming to fruition is about 90%.
After Ferran’s address and Lisa Abend having those who had been elBulli stagieres stand for recognition, the crowd disbursed into the next room for a reception featuring, what else? – foods and wines from Spain. Much mingling ensued with lots of nibbling on such things as lomo and Jamón Iberico de Bellota, fava bean puree with mint and serrano ham, anchovies and red pepper stuffed olives, Galician style octopus with pimentón de la vera, L’Escala marinated anchovies, piquillo peppers stuffed with vegetables, ox-tail croquetas, crunchy potato cakes with brandade of bacalao, black rice, saffron rice, sardines rolled in grilled vegetables, scallop and shrimp brochettes with Sherry vinegar vinaigrette and chocolate “croutons” with olive oil. Beverages included a variety of Spanish wines, Estrella Damm beer and Fuensanta water. I was thrilled and honored to be there.