bookshelf: the sorcerer’s apprentices

When The Sorcerer’s Apprentices was first published last year the book was heaped with praise on all sides. The New York Times and The Huffington Post both declared it one of the best food books fo the year. Now available in paperback, I finally got around to reading Lisa Abend’s peek into the kitchen at el Bulli. Named best restaurant in the world an amazing five times by Restaurant magazine before it caused international headlines by closing in 2011, el Bulli was the hugely popular, site of Chef Ferran Adria’s innovative culinary creations, which have now entered the popular lexicon as “molecular gastronomy.” Yet few people know that behind each of the thirty or more courses that comprised a meal at el Bulli, an army of stagiares or apprentice chefs labored at the precise, exhausting work of executing Adria’s vision. Abend’s behind-the-scenes look into el Bulli’s kitchen explores the remarkable system that Adria used to run his restaurant and, in the process, train the next generation of culinary stars. And there’s the rub: Abend’s book details the quotidian grunt work when it should  be investigating the mysteriously creative mind of one the world’s most influential chefs. Focused strictly on what’s tangible, the writer leaves no room to ponder what’s unobservable. That’s not to say the book is unenjoyable. Au contraire, it’s as dishy as they come. Abend brings to life the stagiares’ stories, following them over the course of a season at el Bulli as they struggle to master the long hours, cutting-edge techniques, and interpersonal tensions that come from working at the most famous restaurant on the planet. Taken together, the stories form a portrait of the international team that helped to make a meal at el Bulli so unforgettable. But Abend is no food writer. Her descriptions of the gastronomic efforts are so remarkably antiseptic that I have the sneaking suspicion she doesn’t really care for food at all. This could have just as easily been a book about a season in the offices of Norman Foster. Or the studio of Jeff Koons. It’s about teamwork – the men and women behind the genius but not about the mad rush of genius itself.  That book remains to be written.


nothing to be sniffed at

There aren’t many powdered substances you can buy by the gram and sniff for pleasure. While staying within the law, that is. Columbian Asparagus, an avant-garde – and tongue-in-cheek – creation from the culinary wunderkinds at London’s Bubble Food, is one of them. Although the recipe remains a closely guarded secret, Bubble Food´s Michael Collins will admit to putting the vegetable through a variety of scientific processes in order to concoct a product that confuses the senses and ignites the imagination in true molecular gastronomy style. “Once inhaled, it delivers a unique sensory experience,” is all Collins would say, giving away little. The low acidity of asparagus makes it one of the few foods suited to this type of treatment. And while the team discovered that it could work a similar magic on both peas and beans, someone wisely decided that a toot of Bean Blow didn’t have quite the same cache as white stalks of Snow White. Yet another uncanny coincidence: Colombian Asparagus costs around $80 per gram. No word, however, on what all those lines of asparagus will do to your septum.


la gastroteca

Lest you think Madrid has little more to offer in the way of gastronomic delights than tapas, cod balls, and the House of Ham, remember, please, that the Spanish are responsible for the whole molecular gastronomy craze.  The city has its fair share of fine – and experimental – dining; it’s just that – to a New Yorker anyway – it’s not nearly as engaging as Spanish comfort food. In the open kitchen of Córdoba-born chef Juan Carlos Ramos, however, those two concepts enjoy a felicitous liaison. La Gastroteca de Santiago deploys the freshest ingredients in homage to traditional Spanish cooking with experimental twists and international influences along the way. It’s an exemplary combination served up in an intimate and bijoux designer space on the Plaza de Santiago: pate with warm toast and olive oil, seafood paella, roast suckling pig, chocolate mousse.  Plus, you can make it a relative bargain and bypass the pricey a la carte blackboard specials in favor of the equally adventurous prix fixe.


memorable meals: playa del carmen

I can count on one hand the number of truly great sit-down meals I’ve had in Mexico.  (Street food doesn’t count, natch.)  When it comes to what we call Continental dining, they just don’t get it.  (Even more bizarre, nobody but nobody thinks the native cuisine deserves to be elevated and treated with respect; it’s almost like Mexico is embarrassed by Mexican food in the presence of strangers.)  There’s an odd disconnect where quality local ingredients are paired and embellished in the most revolting ways at even some of the higher ends restaurants and hotels.   Think of freshly-made pasta topped with canned peas and coagulated cheese passing as a carbonara or sushi-grade fish cut against the grain and slathered in mayo and enough wasabi to choke a horse.  So it comes as a relief to share that  I discovered some impressive gastronomy coming out of the kitchen last week at Las Ventanas, the fine dining restaurant at Royal Hideaway Playacar in Playa del Carmen.

Florian & RaulUnder the guiding hand of Spaniard Raul Vaquerizo (r), who cut his teeth at La Saranda and Monastrel in Alicante, and sous chef Florian Durre, the chef’s table “experience” is a playground for molecular gastronomy, adventurous flavors, and a live video feed.

Chefs table view into kitchenThe concept of dining within the chef’s domain is not new, of course; however, a camera that zooms in to the plating area and beams the detailed feed to a television in the dining area is.  This is food as theater – all that’s missing is a running commentary:  “What on earth is chef Raul going to do with that huitlacoche foam?  Come back after the break to find out, diners!”

It can be distracting, if you let it.  But for the most part it’s an entertaining divertissement watching two sure hands layer a complex series of flavor profiles moments before you assemble them in your mouth.

Each chef’s table is sui generis, never to be repeated, and breaks down into six distinct courses.  Don’t let the interesting grammar and capitalization of the menu fool you – this kitchen knows what it’s doing when it comes to tickling the tastebuds.

Here’s the unexpurgated menu from last week:

Snacks Scallops with Mole and Coconut foam, Thigh and sweet potato emulsion, Foie and Olive Oil

Green Sensations Pickled lamb tenderloin, chips and salad

Movement Soft creamy risotto

Go on refreshing with Cold Cassis Water

The Land Confit Piglet, bread cylinder and apple, spice potato

Our dessert green tea soup with refreshing ginger and peach, black sesame crispy


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