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

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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