It needed luck to secure a booking at the most famous restaurant on the planet. Each year up to a million hopeful diners competed for 8,000 reservations at elBulli in Spain.
The chef, Ferran Adria, was enclosed in a bubble of success with admirers suggesting that his creations would change the world of cooking forever. That bubble has been floating to the ground since the restaurant closed its doors in 2011. Now with a recent exhibition at London's Somerset House, it has finally burst, as the public was shown the dubious value of the man himself and the food that took him to the stars. The first exhibit at the show was Adria on a giant screen being fêted at his farewell party. In another room tiny screens showed hints of edible glass and foams, sorbets and spherical balls that exploded in the mouth; artful representions of food that looked like one thing, tasting of another.
On display there should also have been copies of a book that goes to the heart of Adria's operation, describing the life of the apprentices who worked for him each year, without pay, producing the plates that drew gasps from the diners in the restaurant, and spawned millions of words of praise for the man who created the 'Martian type' food.
Lisa Abend in The Sorcerer's Apprentices describes how Adria needed a handful of permanent chefs and a group of 35 stagiaires to produce the hundred new recipes added to the menu each year. While the diners left with lighter pockets and memories of a five-hour marathon meal, the team staggered back to their basic accommodation after 13-hour shifts with no coffee breaks and one hurried 30-minute meal.
At the beginning of the season the stagiaires were set to clearing the car park of rocks by hand. They learned how to produce yuba skins from vats of boiling milk or obulato, tissue-thin edible 'paper'. They cleaned plates with gin (it leaves no smell and gets rid of fingerprints) and measured carrot sticks with a ruler. Adria prided himself on the hearty Catalan cuisine served for the staff. But 'Family meal' as he named it, was no family occasion. He knew none of their names and cared even less about where they came from or where they wanted to go. After thirty minutes the group returned to scrubbing tables and floor again, in preparation for the arrangement of the 1500 plates to go out that evening, each one requiring a team of nine to achieve the perfect mise en place.
With no wages, many struggled to raise the fare from homes as far away as Korea or California. Adria never interacted with any of them. At the end-of-season staff party, they were expected to pay for their own dinner. He had no interest in their past careers or their creative ideas. Exceptional skill or devotion to duty were not rewarded with the promise of a real job. They were there to complete routine tasks - in silence - for weeks on end, never tasting anything except the one ingredient they were perfecting. One of them likened it to 'trying to play the violin wearing mittens'.
At restaurants like London's Savoy, trainee chefs (under masterchef Anton Edelman) learned classical French cuisine, spending months at different 'stations': fish, bread, pastry, meat and sauces. At elBulli stagiaires never discovered how parmesan was turned into 'glass', olive oil into exploding spherical 'olives' or rose petals boiled four times to look like artichoke 'leaves'. Busy scooping out rabbit brains, they could only imagine how eyes lit up at the finished dish of crispy stuffed rabbit ears - one of the thirty plates set down by the waiters.
Did the diners ever think of the hours of intensive labour that went into each creation? And what about the writers, who extolled the 'global icon of gastronomy'? Did they know that Ferran Adria has a record of every person who has driven the long and tortuous road to elBulli and once commented that he thought the uncertainty of that drive brought a bit of fear, which he encouraged? There is no documentation of any of his apprentices, save the few who went on to found their own restaurants. For the rest of the overworked stagiaires, their six-month stint will fade from their memory. As will the one-night experience of the diners. They may have taken a camera shot of each exquisite dish, but how ephemeral was a taste, even if it came with a promise of food transformed into magic.