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
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The Independent Culture

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.