Melanie McDonagh has written the Bookend column in this week's issue of the Spectator. Here it is for readers of this blog.
In July, the world’s most famous restaurant, elBulli, closes, to reopen in 2014 as a ‘creative centre’. Rough luck on the million-odd people who try for one of 8,000 reservations a year. It’s also a blow for the eponymous young cooks of Lisa Abend’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, the 45 stagiaires who labour in Ferran Adria’s kitchen for a season in the hope of sharing in the magic. Ferran, you see, is no mere cook. With him, ‘hot turns into cold, sweet into savoury, solid into liquid or air’.
The stagiaires have a dog’s life by this riveting account: tedious, repetitive work for no pay. They rarely talk to the great man. They don’t taste the dishes. The playfulness on the elBulli plate isn’t reflected backstage. But by dint of working for free, they make Ferran’s labour-intensive fancies economically feasible.
You know the way warm milk gets a skin? Well, elBulli trainees have to make that skin again and again, to provide the casing for a yoghurt foam. They peel rabbits’ ears and tear out their little tongues, debone pigs’ tails (Ferran scorns the bits others cook) and torture rose petals into something meant to look like an artichoke pretending to be a rose. They develop skills they will never use again, like creating spheres of sesame masquerading as lentils.
The results make diners laugh outright. Curiously though, we rarely learn whether the dishes the apprentices slave over are good to eat as well as exquisite gastronomic practical jokes. Which is, you might think, what cooking is about.