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Lisa Abend on Her Book The Sorcerer's Apprentices, Ferran Adrià, and the Legacy of elBulli

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Photo: César Lucas Abreu

Journalist and author Lisa Abend's The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli (Amazon) tells the story of the restaurant's apprentices (stagiaires) during the 2009 season. Weaving together profiles of the stagiaires, their arduous and often monotonous experiences, and the history of the restaurant, the book also offers a deeply insightful look into the working, creative process of the chefs at elBulli. Stagiaires from seasons past form a remarkable list — Grant Achatz, Andoni Luis Aduriz, René Redzepi, and José Andrés are but a few names that have spent time working there. For more, see the interviews with past season's stagiaires on Abend's website. Here now, a conversation with Lisa Abend:

In the book, you're the proverbial fly on the wall. You only appear once, jumping out of the way. What was your intention with that?
The first thing in my mind was that for a writer to go into a kitchen — and try with no professional experience and try to fit in — that had already been done, and been done brilliantly, by Bill Buford. So I didn't feel the need to repeat his experience.

So you didn't need to stage?
I did not need to stage. Hah, no. Exactly. In this sense, I'm probably a little more of an old-school journalist. I wanted to maintain that kind of critical distance. I wanted to be outside. I didn't want the story to be about me. It really was about the stagiaires themselves. And of course it was also about elBulli and about Ferran Adrià. I really wanted it to be sort of through their eyes, and I thought that that was an important distance to maintain.

I will tell you this one story: The last day of service of 2009, it was an incredibly chaotic day for a million reasons, but one of which was that during mise en place there was a film crew that showed up to shoot this period feature film in the dining room. Because elBulli itself, the structure, was built in the 60s, it still has this very old-fashioned look. And so this film crew was there all day, and the actors were all dressed in their 50s fashions, but then they decided they wanted to shoot a scene in the kitchen.

And I was there, in my normal position taking notes, wearing my normal clothes, and they told me I had to leave because they couldn't have me showing up in the shot. And I was like, "No no no no, you don't understand, this is the last day of the season, the last day of my book, I've got to be here." And they were really insistent. So finally, we came up with a solution: That I would just put on a chef's jacket and an apron. And I'd kind of crouch in the small kitchen — and not be in the main kitchen — so that if the camera happened to pan past me or something, I wouldn't look totally out of place.

But I have to say, I felt so self-conscious wearing that. After having been through the seven months with all of these stagiaires, and seeing the work they did and how hard it was, I really felt like a chef's jacket and apron wasn't something that I had earned. I felt really uncomfortable wearing it.

And where did you stand?
Well, I moved around. In the main kitchen in elBulli there are two passes: one for the savory kitchen and one for the sweet kitchen along with what is their version of garde manger, or cuarto frio. I would generally stand on the non-kitchen side of the pass, where the servers would be during service. In part because it offered the best view, and to stand out of the way because it's a very crowded kitchen. But also because that's where Ferran and Oriole and also the stagiaire Andrea would do what they call their creativity tests — they don't even call it tests, they just call it "Creativity" — and so I would have a really close-up view of the new dishes they were developing. So I just kind of moved along the length of both passes during the day.

So you didn't stand next to the stagiaires while they were prepping and cooking?
I did, towards the end, when I started to feel I had at least a sense where anyone would be at any given time, and I [laughs] wouldn't create total chaos with my presence. I went on the other side of the pass and would stand near them as they cooked or as they prepped.

Did they ever put you to work?
No, never!

They would never tell you to run to the walk-in and get the carrots.
No, they would never do that! [Laughs] First of all, that would mean talking to me and you can't talk in that kitchen. Every now and then, a stagiaire would slip me something to taste. That was always very hush hush. Because you're not allowed to eat in that kitchen either. So we had to do it away from certain eyes.

What was your relationship with Ferran like?
It was a really good relationship in the sense that it felt very? organic. There would be days when he was busy or he wasn't in the mood to talk, and he would kind of leave me alone and I would just watch or do whatever I wanted. And then there were would be times when something would suddenly occur to him, and he would pull me over to show me something or have me taste something — that didn't happen that often — or explain something to me, that he had some thought he wanted to communicate. It was great because we didn't every really do formal, sit-down interviews. It was really just a kind of free-flowing conversation that lasted seven months.

Has he read the book yet?
Well, I think he may be reading it in Spanish for the first time as we speak. Because he's on a flight today and he told me he was going to read it. He said that he has read the original, but he doesn't really speak English, so I think either he got help from his wife Isabel who does speak some English, or he did it with Google Translate, of which he's a huge fan.

That might lead to to some mistranslations?
I know, let's not dwell on that, it could be ugly, who knows what comes up when you run my book through Google Translate. But yes, he just got the Spanish version a couple of days ago.

Have you gotten any feedback just yet?
Not yet. He's told me that he loves the book and that he thinks that it's really important and that it does things about him that other books about him have not done, but certainly there are parts in there that are not 100% flattering to him.

Because it's from the perspective of the stagiaires.
Exactly. I am, I guess, a little nervous, to know what he thinks of them. But I do hope that it's clear that my admiration, which only grew during the time I was there, I hope that is still clear.

Can you explain the book's structure, specifically how you came to decide to write it using short segments.
As for my thought process when it came to structuring the book, I knew from the beginning that I wanted each chapter to represent a month in the season — except for the first one — to focus on an individual stagiaire. And lastly, I chose the stagiaires to focus on in part by the ones that had, in my mind, the more interesting personal histories. But also that kind of represented some of the themes I was most interested in getting at, as a way of sort of thinking about the question as why food has become so significant to us. So that was the basic plan.

As far as the short segments, maybe it was almost unconscious. In kind of absorbing the environment in the kitchen there. Each task, everything that goes on in that kitchen, requires tremendous focus and attention, but it changes. And it changes fairly quickly. You'll be trimming sea anemone fringe, and you have to be totally on it, and then next thing you know, you're making skins for the parmesan ravioli. And everything in that kitchen happens so fast, everything is moving so quickly, especially during service. That you have to have really focused attention, but for a very short period of time, and then you have to move on to the next thing, and always kind of know where you're supposed to be and ready to jump into the next task. So maybe in some way it came about as a way of reflecting that environment.

The process keyed into my ADD-addled, reptilian brain —
Well, also I just think there are a lot sections in the book where I'm discussing a dish, like the origins of it, how it's made, step-by-step. And frankly, a lot of those in sequence would, I think, be kind of boring, so it makes sense to move between a dish to what I hope is a more engaging personal story, and a kind of back and forth. That's what I'm trying to do with the book too, to look at the human side of elBulli and the food that it creates. I think there's a certain kind of logic there to going back and forth between food and people.

What's your thinking behind avoiding the lush, food porn descriptions?
First of all, I hate to read that. [Laughs] I sure as hell didn't want to write it. Second of all, again I'm really trying to represent the experience of the stagiaires, and the stagiaires aren't allowed to taste anything.

Right, like how that stagiaire who asked to work in the dining room just so she could understand what it's like to actually eat the food —
But even then she didn't get to eat it! She just got to watch other people eating it. But even that was really meaningful for her. To me, this is a book about the meanings of food, it's not necessarily about the flavors of food. And of course you can't necessarily separate that out when you're talking about somebody like Ferran Adrià, but I think from the point of view of the stagiaires themselves, flavor was the great absence in their experience at elBulli.

Did you get to eat there at least?
I ate there? once during that season. But I did eat family meal with them all the time. Ferran, he had this joke, this running joke: All season, whenever a journalist or someone would come into the kitchen, and he went to introduce me, he would introduce me as the person who had eaten the most meals at elBulli in its history. But what he purposefully left out was that they were all family meals.

How where the family meals? Because there's a book coming out about that, too, right?
Right, elBulli itself is publishing a cookbook of their family meals. They're fantastic. I guess it wasn't always that way, but about four years ago, Ferran decided to put a lot of emphasis on it. The idea that, how could they be this great restaurant if they didn't feed their own staff well. And just like how he does everything else, they just started systematizing it, and so he worked with someone — in another kitchen they'd be called the sous chef — and they drew up this list of recipes, they keep them in a notebook, and they decide a year in advance what's going to be served on what day.

They keep incredibly detailed notes about things that can go wrong with the dish or how you have to time it. And they do a cost breakdown on it. It really is great food, I can't tell you how many stagiaires I've spoken to have said how impressed they were with that. They order specifically for the family meal, they're not using leftovers from the kitchen for the most part. So it's really delicious food, it's very straightforward food. It's a lot of carbs. Some Catalan dishes, so like different kinds of rice, pigs' feet, grilled fresh sardines?

Which was your favorite?
One of my very favorites, they had this spaghetti with pesto. And it was the best pesto. I don't even know what they did to it. But it was incredible. But something like that, really simple, really delicious.

There have been rumors that there's a movie in the works, based on the book?
That is the rumor, yes! It looks like, at this point, the book is being optioned and a script is being developed. It's going to be a fictionalized treatment of the book, but based on a lot of the characters that I described. And Ferran was really the motivating force behind this. He's long wanted to do a film about elBulli, and I guess he saw the book as the platform to build it on. But the idea is that they'll actually shoot it in the kitchen there while elBulli is being transformed from a restaurant to a foundation. So during that period when it's closed or there's nothing going on in the kitchen itself, they'll be able to do the shooting there.

It's like the perfect set —
It is! Of course the big question is: who plays Ferran.

Who does get to play Ferran?
I don't know, I keep thinking Johnny Depp. [Laughs] Maybe that's just because I want to meet Johnny Depp.

He already played Willy Wonka, right? So it's the logical progression, from one mad scientist to another.

Who's involved with the film?
The producer is a guy named Jeff Kleeman, who has produced and developed films for Coppola and the Sundance Institute. He was the producer on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and on The Hunt For Red October. He's a really nice guy, too. He also has trained as a chef, so he seems like the perfect person for this.

Is there an ETA?
Again, because it would have to be shot while elBulli is closed, we know that that part has to happen fairly quickly. But as to when it would possibly be release, no I don't know that.

And what are your thoughts on elBulli closing?
Personally I feel a little nostalgic about it. The last time I was up there, I was thinking that I'd probably never have the chance to dine there again. And it's not just going out to eat. It is this remarkably significant place in the history of cuisine, and for that to be changing into something else, you feel a certain amount of loss.

At the same time, this is something that I really admire Ferran for. This takes a ton of courage. He could easily live out the rest of his days — producing maybe not as many as new recipes as he normally does each year — even just coasting on the ones that they already have, and it would continue to be a packed, successful restaurant. But he's not doing that, you know? He's taking this risk to figure out a way of maintaining the same degree and intensity of creativity that he's had in the past. And this is what he's decided — at least he thinks — he needs to do that. To remove himself from the more mundane pressures of running a restaurant to devote himself entirely to creativity. And that to me is risky and really admirable.

You're not going to go back before it closes?
Well, I don't know! I want to, but of course so does everybody. I've had plenty of great meals there. The last time I was there was in December. So I feel like, it's time to let other people have that experience, too. Because I've sort of got my elBulli memories firmly locked in place.

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