On the Record with Lisa Abend OC ’86

In 2006, Lisa Abend, OC ’86, was teaching Spanish history at Oberlin College. Now, five years later, she works as TIME magazine’s Spain correspondent, covering subjects ranging from international terrorism to international cooking schools. Recently, Abend spent a season tailing head chef Ferran Adrià and his 32 stagiaires at elBulli¬— the best restaurant in the world for five years running, by Restaurant Magazine’s standards, at least. Abend’s book focuses on the incredibly challenging 2009 season at elBulli, in a kitchen that produces 1,500 dishes a night for guests who have reserved an elusive table at the world-renowned restaurant. Each year, up to two million apply for a chance to eat at elBulli; in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Abend brings us one step closer, providing readers with intimate access to the kitchen, the stagiaires and to Adrià himself.

Monica Klein, Opinions Editor

In March, B.R. Myers wrote a piece in The Atlantic (“The Moral Crusade Against Foodies”), criticizing both chefs’ and food critics’ gluttonous tendencies and reverential treatment of their subject. In your reporting, did you ever share any of Myers’s feelings while researching Ferran Adrià’s and his co-chefs’ nearly religious treatment of dinner meals? (Or, do you disagree entirely with Myers?)

First of all, I wouldn’t say that the approach of Adrià and his chefs is religious or near-religious — to me, the word implies a kind of awe that I don’t think applies here (the meal may inspire awe in the diner, but that’s a different question). At elBulli, they take a very workman-like approach not just to cooking but also to creativity and invention. That’s not to say that they don’t treat food with respect, but rather that they don’t surround it with a kind of mystical sense of awe and wonder.

But onto your larger question: I share some of Myers’s discomfort with the kind of fetishization of food that goes on today; There does, at times, seem to me to be a last-days-of-Rome quality to the endless fascination with who ate what for lunch, and where ramps are on sale, and which chef is appearing on which television show. And certainly all this focus on eating in the best restaurants before anyone else does and tracking down the best, most artisanal doughnut so that you can then go home and blog or tweet about it, can be an especially distasteful (pardon the pun) form of status assertion and conspicuous consumption (ditto).

But that’s not all it is. Out of this recent, unprecedented interest in what we eat has come an awareness of the terrible environmental and health costs of the industrial system that produces most of our food. It’s helped raise awareness about the people actually growing and harvesting the food we eat, and the often-disgraceful conditions they labor in. It’s transformed cooking into a means of artistic expression for some people. And for many people (and I count myself among them), a greater knowledge about food has allowed us to take greater pleasure in it. Those all seem like good things to me, and in fact, one of the things that I try to explore in the book is the idea that the meanings of food have multiplied — that part of the reason food holds such fascination these days is that we look to it to do more than it ever has before.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is your focus on specific stagiaires and how their life paths led them to elBulli. In the book, the stagiaires seem to divulge personal thoughts and private feelings, including some critical remarks toward Adrià and the restaurant. How did you develop your relationship with the stagiaires, and what was your process of working with them over the season?

Basically, I just didn’t go away. At first, many of them were a bit reluctant to talk with me. But I was in the kitchen so much, just watching them, that they kind of got used to having me around. I never interrupted them while they were working — I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble — but during family meals, I tried to make a habit of talking to people one-on-one, and then I would hold individual interviews in the mornings before they had to be at work. We did them at this one café that came to feel like my office.

Early in your book, you mention that “what most of us want [food] to do” is “to taste good,” though some might argue that for a different group of people, food’s main purpose is merely to nourish. How did you balance your commitment to understanding and fully grasping the elaborate world of the elBulli kitchen, while still keeping in mind the financial requirements necessary to afford such a reverential relationship to food?

Look, elBulli is expensive. A meal there in 2009 cost 230 euros and that’s without wine. Only the tiniest fraction of people in the world could ever afford to eat there. Does that make doing so, or the restaurant itself, inherently evil or wrong? I don’t think so. Of course there are many people in this world who don’t have enough to eat, and we should all be working to create a more just system that can eradicate hunger and assure everyone of wholesome, delicious, environmentally sustainable food. But that is not what this book is about.

I couldn’t help but note the similarity between college unpaid internships and thestagiaires at elBulli: financial instability, long hours of tedious grunt work and the inevitable self-questioning — will this misery pay off in the long run? Do you feel that this “internship” of sorts was worth it (financially and/or personally) in the long run for this group of stagiaires?

Like, perhaps, your average journalism interns, a lot of stagiaires are quite disillusioned by their experience at elBulli. It’s not just that the hours are long and the work tedious, but that their expectations so far exceed what they actually do. Many of them come with dreams of working side by side with Ferran, or of getting to invent new recipes or test drive new techniques, and in fact they spend most of their time shucking oysters and peeling sugar cane. But even though many of them will be glad, by the time they leave, to be rid of the place, with a little distance they almost all come to appreciate their time there. It takes a little while for them to realize, but elBulli really changes the way they think about food.

I was struck by your explanation of Adrià’s “businesslike approach to creativity.” How did the restaurant’s laborious and methodical approach to creating new dishes alter your understanding of artistic “creativity”?

At elBulli, they have cultivated a very systematic approach to creativity mostly because they have to — they can’t afford to have the culinary equivalent of writer’s bloc. And that came as quite a revelation to me. Like many people, I suffer under the illusion that creativity is this mysterious, ineffable thing born from the lightening bolt of inspiration. But at elBulli, they’ve done everything they can to ensure that they don’t have to wait around for the lightening bolt to strike. It’s a very humanistic view, and an empowering one.