It is well documented that the pilgrimage to the otherwise unremarkable town of Roses in Spain to dine at elBulli requires fanatical dedication: each year up to two million apply for a magical 30-course meal, and the available 8,000 spots are allocated in a single day. But even more zealous than these foodies are the apprentices who toil under chef Ferran Adrià.
Take Myungsun Jang—known as “Luke”—who discovered his passion for food while working as an army cook. After deciding he needs to leave South Korea for a culinary education, he saves $15,000 to eat at the finest restaurants of Europe and Asia, sleeping rough and hitchhiking (with a backpack containing a suit for fine dining). Instead of applying for the six-month elBulli internship (32 of 3,000 get in), he shows up and begs for a job. Rejection doesn’t deter him: Luke pitches a tent near Adrià’s house until the chef can no longer refuse. Like all apprentices, he works 14-hour days in exchange for one meal, no pay, and a bed. These young people perform the dullest tasks: squeezing germ from thousands of kernels of corn, moulding slippery balls of Gorgonzola foam that behave like mercury, forming impeccable sheets of yuba from the skin at the top of a pot of boiling milk. “This is the paradox of elBulli,” Abend writes, “that the most exciting dining experience in the world depends on the most extreme absence of excitement.”
Indeed, there’s no room for Alice Waters sex romps or Anthony Bourdain-esque benders. In clean, spare prose, Abend documents the inner workings of the kitchen—all the more precious since Adrià has said 2011 will be his last season. He and his brigade continually emphasize “the importance of a kind of universal precision.” While impressive, this can sometimes make for a dull read. “Writing everything down is monotonous,” says one of Adrià’s right-hand men of meticulously recording every recipe and morsel of food in the kitchen. “It’s incredibly boring. But like Ferran says, you have to have monotony to have anarchy.”