Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Inspiration from Ferran Adriá and elBulli at the Wisconsin Restaurant Show, A Review of The Sorcerer's Apprentices.

It's the third day of the Wisconsin Restaurant Show. It's a lot of work running in place, and unlike the writing conference, there's no downtime. Another weird thing about convention centers--there are no outlets for a laptop or even recharging our credit card processor. Everything is a la carte. And you have to keep watching, to make sure somebody doesn't think the books at the table are free, or that they spill coffee on them.

OK, you booksellers out there, sympathize with me. Some schmo walking down the aisle with a small cup of ice cream that is seemingly unable to be finished, comes to the booth, and proceeds to grab every book worth more than forty dollars, pulling it out, pawing through it, and squeezing it back onto the table, smashing the book next to it. I had to leave for a while--fortunately Stacie is working with me today.

After the first day, there were enough breaks in the crowds that I felt comfortable enough reading (yeeks). The problem is that I am not getting into either of the books I brought along. Both for upcoming events (and you'll never know I had issues), I did the unthinkable. I picked up a book that is neither for an upcoming event or book club. And it's not even a galley with a deadline for a quote to make the Indie Next list. No, this book is for me!

The book in question is The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen with Ferran Adriá's elBulli. There have been plenty of other books on elBulli over the years, including cookbooks, Phaidon's lush A Day at elBulli and a recent biography called Ferran. But I was more interested in elBulli than in the past, as it played a pivotal role in Grant Achatz's career, and having just finished our event with Achatz and Kokonas for Life, on the Line, I was intrigued to learn about the experience from an apprentice's level.

The book is a fascinating look at a unique restaurant that has been at the forefront of what I think is now referred to as modernist cuisine. Like modernist architecture and art, it sort of sweeps away cultural traditions. Like now, you don't have to build on the basic sauces. Many of these restaurants were grouped in the molecular gastronomy movement, and earlier on, Ferran Adriá (I have just re-figured out how to add accents using the alt-plus-code formula so I should be better about this) embraced his scientific connections. Now he has moved away from this, and gravitated towards the art world.

Author Lisa Abend divides the book into chapters, coinciding with the seven months that the restaurant is open per season, focusing on one or two fragiaires per chapter. Some are couples (six of the 32 are women, which is considered a high number), many are Catalan, with the rest coming from all over the world, though none are pointedly French. One man, an ex-Korean solidier, camps on the grounds outside until he is finally taken on. I was surprised how well the author captures the lives of these folk; I didn't expect to really come to empathize with the eight or so folks who are the focus of the stories.

And they are incredibly talented, coming from restaurants at the level of The French Laundry and yes, Alinea. But at elBulli, it's back to square one. The stagiaire (apprentice) program is historical tradition. Chefs work unpaid, gaining experience and insight to use in their career. But it becomes clear that the program at Adriá's restaurant is different from many others, mostly in that it doesn't really have an educational component. And even though chefs are referred to by their first names, and there is no yelling allowed, it turns out the hierarchy is as rigid as in any army. And it also becomes clear that without the stagiaire program, elBulli would not exist. So what really is the program about--preparation for a career or indentured servitude?

And yet, while many of the chefs are frustrated by the experience, most of them come out of the experience grateful for the experience. Well, at least on paper. And for some reason, I identified with the stagiaires while working this show. Working it was like making the neverending faux lentils.

All this, and a lot of detail involved in how so many of these creations happen. Lentils that aren't lentils, artichokes that aren't artichokes, nuts that aren't nuts. How to make foam (which Ferran has now left for other restaurants), the magic of agar, the liquid nirtogen, and the details behind spherification. That alone is fascinating. Add to the triumph of The Sorcerer's Apprentice that Abend was able to structure a satisfying narrative for the story and you've got a great addition to any serious food library. I bought my copy today.

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