The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A season at elBulli
by Lisa Abend
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Country: US
ISBN: 9781439175552, Year: 2011
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Review

Author Lisa Abend went behind the scenes at elBulli, the most famous restaurant of the past decade, to observe the stagiaires – the unpaid apprentice chefs – working in the kitchen of famed Catalan avant garde chef Ferran Adrià. She watched the stagiaires and staff work and relax, learned their stories, and heard their reactions to work in the unconventional kitchen.

Now that elBulli has closed forever (in July 2011) in its familiar form, all that can feed the fascination and quest for insight into the phenomenon that was elBulli is the various books from and about the restaurant and Adrià.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentices is the only reasonably unvarnished account of what it was like to work at elBulli. Alongside descriptions of the creative process involving Adrià and his key chefs, the dining experience and other incidentals, the book’s main focus is on the apprentices, providing a window on a world where stagiaires might spend almost an entire season doing one cold, technical task thousands of times. Perhaps the most striking fact in this book is that most of the stagiaires would have no idea what the final dish served to customers would taste like – a very strange idea in the world of chefs, and food for thought (so to speak) when this cuisine has been described as playing with expectation, experience, taste and texture to stimulate the eater. Adrià’s “technoemocional” cuisine suddenly seems much less about passion for food if the chefs preparing it can’t even understand what the result is.

Although The Sorcerer’s Apprentices introduces the readers to this somewhat different understanding of elBulli and Adrià’s cuisine, the reader must spend most of his or her time working through long accounts of the tedium the stagiaires experience, long accounts of the stagiaires’ backgrounds and dreams, repeated examples of how disenchanted many become, and more than a little gossip about who dislikes whom, who is pairing up with whom, etc. For some readers, this might all be welcome “human angle” stuff, but I found it long, dry and largely humourless. The author is without doubt a competent writer, but this work could have been markedly shorter and livelier. Clearly, the book should be about the people, but it could have been achieved differently. In fact, if Abend had managed to infuse a sense of humour into her prose, it might have saved it from being one of the least enjoyable books I’ve reviewed.

In trying to cover the stories of so many stagiaires, the number of names that the reader needs to keep track of is considerable (stagiaires, chefs, staff, etc), especially considering the interpersonal threads that form so much of the description. Adding to the burden is necessary repetition because of all those threads and the fact that stories of the day-to-day routine are interspersed with instalments of the personal-story stuff. The author could also have been more careful in defining some new concepts earlier in the book for readers unfamiliar with the paraphernalia and terminology of modernist cuisine.

Opinions will most likely vary considerably about The Sorcerer’s Apprentices. If you enjoy projecting into the experience of the characters regardless of the prose, this book might still be for you. Similarly, if the simple facts that come through are enough for you to enjoy the book, you might not mind the heavy narrative. For this reviewer, however, by about half way through the book I just wanted it to be over.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 2 stars. No strong recommendation
Visual appeal: Unimpressive
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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