Book Review – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” by Lisa Abend

By Greg B.  I have to be honest, I enjoy book reviews.  They give me an excuse to sit down and read.  There’s a well known statistic (though often debated and likely untrue) that states the number of books the average American reads after they reach their final educational degree: 42.  Thankfully, I have opportunities to go beyond this!  For this review, I’ll be writing about The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, by Lisa Abend; a book that is as much about the world renowned chef, Adrian Ferran, as it is about the daily workings of his restaurant, the lives of the people who work there (some for free) and the foods they create (maybe I used the wrong language here, the foods that monotonously make or plate parts of, rather than ‘create’).

I’d like to begin with a quote from the book that I find particularly fitting for this book review on Food and Wine Blog (if not slightly ironic):

  “Juan Mari begins to opine on what he calls “those damn bloggers.” “But what the F— do they think they’re doing?” he asks indignantly.  “Doesn’t anyone just come to a restaurant to eat anymore?”

My short reply is no, he can lament the change in spirit and style of the restaurant business, but the truth is, bloggers and other media folks really enhance the mystique and help spread the name of restaurants and local chefs.  But, I digress.

The book itself is extremely well written and very engrossing.  I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when starting to read, as I wondered if the book was going to be all about Adrian Ferran and his ‘genius’ abilities in creating avant gard cuisine.  But truthfully, the book includes a lot of drama and philosophy as well.  Most of the stories and focus of the book surround the 2009 group of stagiares, men and women from around the world who work in the kitchen learning the ropes and learning techniques from the greatest chef in the world.  Except that they don’t learn these things…. There’s a lot of drama and conflict that is both written about and imagined, where some of these creative young minds are put to work at the most menial of tasks, for hours a day for month after month, like dropping precise quantities of liquids into cold water to make ‘lentils’ for a lentil soup (Why Adrian didn’t just invest in an old school chemistry style titrator? I’ll never know, but there’s some free science knowledge coming your way, Adrian!).  But the book draws you in, and lets you imagine the thoughts and feelings of these people, slaving in the kitchen, for the best restaurant in the world’s dishes to come out superb.

But it likely is because of this machinistic approach in the kitchen that elBulli was able to claim that they were the best restaurant in the world, 5 times crowned, by Restaurant magazine.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentices provides you with a sense of what it is like to work there, occasionally stopping to remind people about the stagiares lives outside of the kitchen, what drives them and how they cope living in cramped quarters outside the kitchen, and working elbow to elbow in the kitchen the rest of the time.

Truthfully, a lot of the processes in the kitchen sounded like laboratory procedures.  And I personally feel that Adrian could benefit greatly from hosting a few actual scientists in his kitchen, to observe the organization, the goals, the procedures, and then to have them recommend ways of automating as many as possible.  It’s one thing to push liquid out of a syringe at precise quantities, separating those that are too large from those that are too small, but it’s another to waste a human’s time for 4 hours straight doing this, when it could be automated.

I actually enjoyed this book very much.  The author, Lisa Abend, is an extremely insightful woman and I certainly appreciated her insights into the kitchen, the chef or the kitchen staff’s lives, the approach to food and use of molecular gastronomy and the way the world perceives this whole process.  They bring a color to what could have been a very dull book that I’m sure someone has already written about the ‘greatest’ restaurant in the world.  Instead, she humanized that title, delved into the inner workings of the restaurant, and wrote an engaging book about the whole thing.  It’s a good book, and one of my only regrets about it is that it’s a relatively quick read!

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