Last Dish at elBulli? Sorcerer Shares Secrets, Apprentices in Tow

by Jessica Dukes
March 24, 2011

Ferran Adrià speaks at NYU's
King Juan Carlos I Center

Spoiler alert: according to Ferran Adrià, the final dish to be served at El Bulli, when the restaurant closes its doors for the last time this coming July 31, will be Peach Melba. Incidentally, it will be dish number 1846, by El Bulli's catalogued count, and the Catalan chef shared that, coincidentally, this number also refers to the year of Escoffier's birth. This was the final spoonful of information divvied out to eager Ferran-fans on a day devoted to conjuring the spirit of El Bulli, hosted by Foods from Spain.

Adrià spoke twice yesterday in Manhattan about the dwindling days of El Bulli the restaurant, and the phoenix scheduled to rise in its place in 2014—that is, the as yet not-wholly-definable El Bulli Foundation. Accompanying Adrià was Time Magazine journalist and author Lisa Abend, invited to discuss her new book about a yeoman's life in the most famous kitchen in Roses, Spain, titled The Sorcerer's Apprentice: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria's ElBulli. The morning session also revealed Spain's new encyclopedic website for Spain foodies: And what would a Ferran event be without a few new announcements, including a possible Hollywood deal for Abend’s book, a new El Bulli documentary due for release this summer, and another El Bulli book to be published in the Fall?

Who Needs Spain?

At NYU’s Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, Adrià was joined by Spain's Minister of Industry, Tourism and Commerce, Miguel Sebastián. The iconic chef has just been named Spain's Tourism Ambassador, and Sebastián shared his vision of a sunny future for tourism in Spain, whose visitors in 2010 outnumbered residents, and which came in third among most visited countries after France and the United States. The tourism minister revealed a new slogan touting Spain's total package, "I Need Spain," part of a long line of Spanish national promo slogans that become instant Spanish pop-culture favorites like Made in Spain and the beloved, though much riffed-upon Spain Is Different.

The Stagiaire’s Life at El Bulli

Time Magazine journalist and author Lisa Abend

Abend, whose book on the El Bulli apprentice experience was released Tuesday, began her short presentation by detailing her first encounter, on her way to interview Adrià, with two regimented lines of blue-aproned stagiaires. The 35 apprentices were silently plucking pine nuts from sappy green pine cones in the kitchen of El Bulli. After an hour's interview, Abend passed back through the kitchen, where the same bent heads, seemingly fixed in place, continued to form two parallel lines over still more sticky green pines cones. As it turned out, the pine nuts would be used in the season's take on risotto. The "risotto" consisted of the seed of the pine tree, instead of rice (another year it was made with cucumber seeds, yet another it was made with the small seed inside a kernel of raw corn—to the agonized groans of many a stagiaire). Abend went on with a little math: enough pine nut risotto to fill a small bowl, times 50 servings (El Bulli famously only serves 50 guests per night; the restaurant is closed for lunch) … equals mucho trabajo.

Two former El Bulli stagiaires came along as back up; both were graduates of ICEX, the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade, which provides American and other international chefs scholarships to study and stage in Spain.

From 3000 to 35

Luckily for those who have been able to attend one of the 140 dinners given each season, El Bulli currently counts on about 35 unpaid volunteers—up from the much smaller number in the early 1990s, when Abend's book contends that Adrià once begged people on the street to come and work for him. Abend pointed out that the tedium is not for everybody. Even though 3000 applicants fight, borrow, beg, and steal (or at least lie about their Spanish language aptitude) for a spot in Adrià's kitchen each year, not everyone walks away glad. Though many use El Bulli as a stepping stone to great success and even fame, apparently some do just walk away at the end of their six-month stint.

Later in the afternoon, following a reception flowing with Rioja wine and Codorniu cava at NYU, the Astor Center hosted Adrià and Abend et al in a more intimate panel discussion. The panel included former El Bulli stagiaire and restaurateur Katie Button, who's just opened her own tapas place, Cúrate ("feel better” or "heal" in Spanish) in Ashville, North Carolina.

“Magic” at El Bulli

Angel Martín Acebes, Senior Trade Comissioner of Spain (ICEX), Nathan Myhrvold, Ferran Adrià, Minister of Spanish Industry, Tourism, and Commerce Miguel Sebastián

Throughout the day, so many references were made to the spirit of El Bulli that it practically seemed to materialize in the room. In sum, the El Bulli spirit seems to translate to generosity in all things, but especially in the sharing of information about the restaurant’s system and methodology. A video detailed plans for the new research and learning center, which appears to have benefited greatly from its collaboration with Spanish telecomm giant Telefónica; in short, it's an architectural knockout. Several allusions were made throughout the day to Harvard University, where Adrià often gives lectures, and whose leadership in academics he perhaps looks to as a model for his own foundation.

Watch the video for a brief discussion of the creative process at El Bulli, at a panel discussion featuring Ferran Adrià at the Astor Center, and a mention of a new documentary on the topic, due for release this summer.

New El Bulli Book

Generosity also sums up the spirit of the next El Bulli book, to be produced by the restaurant itself , The ElBulli Family Meal, on bookshelves in October 2011. The book will feature 31 menus tried and tested in the el Bulli kitchen by the lucky staff of about 45. Each menu is designed to provide tasty, top-notch, simple cuisine (Adrià insists that each menu can be prepared within one hour), and to meet a price-point of about $5 per person. Ten dollars doesn't seem so bad for two people to share a three-course meal, although, says the most important chef of our time, it was sometimes difficult to shop within the set guidelines (the task of shopping on a 6 euro budget was given to a stagiaire each day). As a result, even though Adrià would love to be able to throw himself behind the organic movement, he says he can't afford to, with a very characteristic shrug.

Can Good Chefs Be Happy?

The talk also lighted on some interesting topics presented by Adrià: for example, how can one maintain a high level of creativity and at the same time just be happy? He thinks he's found the answer in the new low-maintenance Tickets, the tapas bar he's just opened with brother Albert, in Barcelona. Adrià suggested that creativity at a higher level, such as the breakneck pace kept at El Bulli over the last decade, produces a level of stress akin to that experienced by Natalie Portman’s character in the psycho-sexual thriller The Black Swan (Adrià says he caught the flick on the flight over)—that is, a constant struggle rife with suffering. As he put it, “if you’re a chef and you’re going to take on avant-garde cuisine, get ready, because it’s going to be tough.”

Care to join the debate? We’d love to hear your thoughts on balancing happiness with creativity on Twitter and Facebook.

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