“The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” and a Food Gal Giveaway

My favorite read of 2011.

These hectic days, I don’t get much time to just sit down for hours with a book.

So, when I do, it better be a darn good read. Or else.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” (Free Press) is just that.

It’s a riveting read — and the best non-fiction book I came across last year.

Author Lisa Abend, Time magazine’s correspondent in Spain, received unprecedented access to the fabled El Bulli restaurant in Roses, Spain before its Chef-Proprietor Ferran Adria closed it to much fanfare last year. The result is a book that immerses you in the behind-the-scenes awe, tension, strain and exhilaration experienced by the stagiares or apprentices who worked in the kitchen there.

Unlike other restaurants, where kitchen apprentices usually are culinary school students or recent graduates, the stagiares at El Bulli were the experienced cream of the crop, having already worked their way up at such stellar establishments as the French Laundry in Yountville, Per Se in New York, Alinea in Chicago and the Fat Duck in the United Kingdom.

If you thought trying to snag a reservation at El Bulli was impossible, the odds of attaining an apprenticeship there were even more astronomical. In the last years it was open, the restaurant would routinely field 3,000 applications annually for just 32 available intern positions.

And those that garnered the golden ticket that allowed them to work in what was generally regarded as the best restaurant in the world? They paid their own way to Spain to spend six months toiling 14 hours a day on their feet — for no pay.

With beautifully detailed prose, Abend really gets inside the heads of these chosen few to show exactly what it’s like to be an apprentice in this highly demanding, pioneering kitchen. Some of the revelations will definitely surprise — such as the fact that the interns, who labored day after day to create painstakingly complex components, never get to taste any of the completed dishes they work on. Or the fact that one of the first tasks these skilled and talented chefs are assigned is to clean, one by one, all the rocks that make up the pathway to the restaurant.

For anyone who has ever wanted to dine at El Bulli or wondered what it takes to work at a restaurant of that caliber, this book is a must-read that you won’t be able to put down.

Contest: The paperback version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” goes on sale Feb. 7. But one Food Gal reader will get a chance to win a free copy of the book. Entries, limited to those in the continental United States, will be accepted through midnight Feb. 4. Winner will be announced Feb. 6.

How to win?

Just tell me what chef you’d most want to apprentice with — and why. Best answer wins.

Here’s my own answer to that question:

“It almost made my head spin to pick just one. But if I had to narrow it to only one, it would be New York Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The Alsatian chef is classically French trained, but spent formidable time in Asia, which led to his inspired style of cooking. He was one of the first French chefs to really lighten his cooking for more modern palates by using reduced fruit and vegetable juices to give oomph instead of loads of butter and cream. His cookbooks are filled with recipes one can actually make at home easily with astounding results. How many big-name chefs can you say that about? Moreover, it was Vongerichten and his crew who created the first molten chocolate cake — accidentally, when they took it out of the oven too soon. You gotta love a chef whose ‘mistakes’ even end up changing the culinary landscape.”

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  • As a writer, I search out and try and read all the food-related “memoirs” I can get my hands on and this book has long intrigued me. What a great book to win! And this is such a hard question but I may just say Chef John Besh and for a few reasons. First, his selection of restaurants would really show me so many sides of this great chef as well as allowing me to experience and get to know so many aspects and levels of his food and the dishes of New Orleans. I heard him speak when I attened IFBC in NOLA and what passion! What an amazing man just bursting with love for his city and her cuisine. And as my son spent over a year helping to rebuild houses in the Lower Ninth Ward destroyed by Katrina, this would surely help me get to know this city (and through her food) and feel a part of the city’s renaissance.

  • I would choose Chef Jose Andres. Partly because he worked at El Bulli but mostly because I am so fascinated by the things he has done with molecular gastronomy. I watched a clip on TV with Anderson Cooper interviewing Jose and it was fascinating!

  • This book has been on my list to read so I would of course love to win a copy! If I had to pick just one chef to apprentice with right now I believe it would be Yotam Ottolenghi of London’s Ottolenghi and Nopi. I am currently obsessed with his cookbook Plenty. Although he is not vegetarian and neither is his restaurant, his cookbook is and it is incredible and inspirational. The experience of living in Israel (but I’m back and forth between the US so can get the book in NY if I win it!) has made me very interested in Israeli chefs abroad, and I love that he is Israeli and his chef de cuisine is Palestinian. Mainly, I would love to observe his creative process and how he incorporates Israeli flavors into a modern Mediterranean menu.

  • What a fascinating book! I’m the same, I don’t have a lot of time to read books so when I do, they have to be good! 🙂

  • Wow this book sounds awesome. I’ve always wanted to get a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchen of a prestigious restaurant!

    I’d so work with Anthony Bourdain. I know he’d be a hardasss….but I adore him.

  • Gabriella Hamilton from Prune would be my choice. Creative and innovative!
    Sounds like a wonderful book.

  • Hi Carolyn! I just got back from vacation and am catching up on my blog reading! I’m always on the lookout for a truly wonderful read and this one really looks like it fits the bill…thanks for sharing!

  • The chef I’d most want to apprentice with is Julia Child. Yes, I know she’s no longer with us…but she is in many ways. I got her first cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking shortly after college…but never used the book until much later. Now it’s in my cookbook collection-the most worn and with stained pages. But I fell in love with her on television with her unpretentious love of cooking good food. I have two signed books by her: my hubby got a parking ticket at the Cambridge Coop while waiting for a personalized signed copy of “The Way to Cook” and her last book “Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom” where as she she entered Sur La Table in Los Gatos in 2011 I had tears in my eyes…and when I told her the story about my hubby getting the parking ticket she said, “Tell him I think he’s great”. So I imagine myself with the exuberant Julia as I would work with her saying “Mon Dieu, Jeanne (my French name) and showing me the correct procedure for whatever. But we would get along fabulously for she would say “I always cook with wine…sometimes I add it to the food”. I adore Julia Child and boy, would it have been a privilege to share time in the kitchen with her.

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