Can you imagine volunteering for a job with 13-hour shifts, no coffee breaks and one meal a day - all for no pay?
This is what the apprentices at world famous restaurant elBulli sign up for at the beginning of their six month training. The problem is, it’s not exactly training. The head chef Ferran Adria - the innovator, magician and inventor - hardly even knows they are there. The group of 35 stagiaires, as they are called, are unknown to him by name, employed for no wages to complete onerous and repetitive tasks. The 100 new recipes dreamed up by Adria every year form part of the 30-course menu at elBulli. Yet none of the stagiaires ever gets to taste a finished dish. They may scoop out the rabbit brains to go with the sea anemones, but ‘It’s like trying to play the violin wearing mittens' says one of the apprentices.
The restaurant closed in 2011. At the height of it’s fame (and reputation as the world’s No. 1), a million diners applied to get a table. Lisa Abend has written a book that hints at the appeal of such a temple of gastronomy, while exposing what goes on in the lives of the young kitchen hands who toil there.
The book should have been divided into two distinct parts: the first hundred pages are filled with fascinating snippets of information: how they clean the plates with gin (it leaves no smell and gets rid of fingerprints), and the meticulous attention to detail - even when cutting tiny dice of carrot that will eventually blend into a sauce for the staff meal. Part two is an account of the lives of six or seven apprentices: where they came from and where they hope to be going. But at the end we are left wondering why some already qualified and talented chefs are prepared to go through such an experience when only a few ever succeed in becoming top restaurant owners themselves.
The story is riveting; the writing could be tighter. The character of the man behind it all remains obscure. However, Adria is to be commended for his willingness to allow the author into his kitchen and for the resulting exposé of an organisation that doesn’t always do him credit.
Anyone with a deep interest in food and creativity will enjoy The Sorcerer’s Apprentices. (Click on the photo to read more about it and order a copy).
(This is a shortened version of a piece which appears in The Huffington Post. You can find it here: http://huff.to/19ap9wa)