Simon & Schuster £18.99

The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season at El Bulli, By Lisa Abend

Waiter! Waiter! There's the blood, sweat and tears of a 'stagiaire' in my soup

Interns are often given mundane tasks during the first days of a placement – photocopying, perhaps, or making tea – but how many have to dismantle the company's car park, wash all the stones therein, then reassemble them in an aesthetically pleasing manner?

This is what happens at the three-Michelin-starred El Bulli in Catalonia, the five-time best restaurant in the world where chef novitiates are put through the mill at the whim of the wildly inventive Ferran Adrià, the man who has made foams, spherification and liquid nitrogen key components of a modernist chef's arsenal. It might seem unnecessary, but the car-park washing lays the foundation for their six-month stint at the establishment, teaching discipline in the face of crushingly dull tasks – the sort they'll be seeing a lot of over the following 196 days.

So much has been written about El Bulli that it's to the immense credit of Lisa Abend, The New York Times's Spain correspondent, that she's found a fresh angle. The Sorcerer's Apprentices offers intimate details and an absorbing overview in equal measure while focusing on the lives of the stagiaires (kitchen interns) who worked there from June to December 2009.

About 3,000 people apply for a position as an El Bulli stagiaire every year, and only 30 to 35 will be granted their dream. It's an odd dream, admittedly: back-breaking 14-hour days for no pay and having to ask the chef if they can go to the loo. But the prestige of completing a stage here can open up a world of opportunity – even to those "apprentices" who have already worked in such celebrated establishments as Per Se in New York and The French Laundry in California.

Abend explains: "There is so much talent concentrated at the very top, and the system those talented chefs have created for production is so tightly controlled, that as long as the lower levels simply do what they're told, the kitchen more or less runs itself." Thus, while Adrià and his immediate cohorts go about creating outrageous dishes for the restaurant's legendary 30-course meals, the stagiaires are blue-collar workers in a factory assembly line, completing the specific, migraine-inducing task with which they have been charged. Not that it will help them in their future careers: Emma, for instance, is, according to Adrià, the best in the world at cooking his roses – plucking, blanching and straining the edible petals – but in no other restaurant would she be required to do it.

Such ironies abound: though many of the stagiaires were drawn to El Bulli by the lure of working with Adrià, he gives them little time. And while they might be excited about the food, they are never allowed a single taste. (Think of the cost, is Adrià's logic – not unreasonably, given the restaurant loses ¤500,000 a year: surely also a good reason why it is shutting its doors for a final time this year, to reconstitute itself as a culinary think-tank.)

Then there is the "creative session", when the stagiaires are asked for novel ideas. Tomato meringue, suggests one; horse milk, shouts another. Adrià is gently reassuring during the session but later confides in Abend: "We do [it] for them because it's important for them to understand how creativity works. And because they want it so badly. But is it worth it for us? Nah, we never get any ideas from it."

It is such snippets that make The Sorcerer's Apprentice a terrific read. And because it's just as interested in the people as the recipes, it's fascinating whether you're a foodie or not.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future