Someone asked me earlier today what I would do for one night only if I could do anything in the world, with no ramifications, and if money was no obstacle.
My answer? Dinner at chef Ferran Adria's El Bulli restaurant in Spain, arguably the most famous restaurant in the world and definitely one of the most innovative. Admittedly it would involve it a little bit of magic carpetry, and I'm assuming that a booking would also be no obstacle (the restaurant receives more than 2 million enquiries for just 8000 places a season), but yes, please!
While most of my culinary fantasies centre around being a guest at one of Heston Blumenthal's Fantastical Feasts (the man is a genius and honestly, who are those simpering reality TV starlets they invite on to taste his creations? Pfft!), Ferran Adria is front and centre in my mind because I have just finished reading The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A season at el Bulli by Lisa Abend.
This book provides a behind-the-scenes account of what it's like to do "a stage" (ie. work long, back breaking hours for free, for up to to six months, for the experience) at El Bulli, following the group of 30 or so young chefs from around the globe who work in the restaurant during its 2009 "season".
Despite Adria being the drawcard for the 8000-plus chefs who apply for these positions every year, as well as the avid foodies who'll read this book, the funny thing is that he's strangely distant from this book. I suspect he was as unavailable to the author as he appears to be to the staigaires. Just because you orbit the sun doesn't mean you can look at it directly.
The thing that most strikes me about the the picture this book paints of the kitchen at El Bulli is that, for one of, if not the most, innovative restaurants in the world, it is a terrifyingly dull and regimented place. It may have reputation for creativity but if there's any place closer to a production line staffed by robots, I don't know where it is. A stagiaire - who might have come from running their own kitchen at home - might spend all day making congealed milk "skins" (like those on hot chocolate when you let it cool), six days a week, for three months at a time. And doing nothing else. Did I mention they're doing it for free??
And yet this is a restaurant that serves Artichoke Roses, "roses" which appear to be made of artichoke leaves that are in fact made of cooked edible rose petals and dressed wth artichoke and rose oils, to play up the flavours of both references the dish makes.
It seems to me that the take home message from this book is that the reason that El Bulli is able to be so creative is that they have so much free labour, all worshipping at the feet of the elusive Senor Adria.
Unbeknownest to the author or the stagiaires, it is during this period that Adria decided to close El Bulli at the end of the 2011 season, in just a few months from now, and reinvent it as a think tank for gastronomic creativity. It seems I may have missed my chance to dine at El Bulli...