To make an el Bulli mojito, mix equal amounts of rum and lime juice, and set aside. Take a piece of fresh sugar cane about the height of a grown woman, saw into manageable lengths, then hack away the tough outer skin. Trim the remaining cane into slices, and cut those slices into sticks. Take out a ruler and trim until the sticks are precisely 7cm long. Yes, you must measure every stick. Macerate sticks overnight in the rum solution, then stick into mounds of ice you have crushed by hand. Select mint leaves that are all exactly the same size, and set into the end of each stick. Serve. Repeat. A lot.
A young chef in training comes to Spain’s el Bulli restaurant because of the reputation of its wildly innovative chef, Ferran Adrià. This is the man who revolutionised haute cuisine by bringing both scientific technique and an artist’s determined creativity to the task of cooking, inventing, for example, “dragon” cocktails that make the imbiber breathe smoke. So you can imagine the disappointment some apprentices feel when they arrive at el Bulli and learn they will not be spending their days inventing new ways to top liquid nitroginised foie gras ice cream with ortolan foam.
Instead, the apprentice chefs, called stagiaires, spend hours holding mandarin sections served in the ice salad up to the light, checking for seeds. They will spend hours more squeezing batter through a syringe, drop by drop, to make el Bulli’s “lentils”, then go back to scoop out any drops that look less than perfectly legume-like, and start again. They will learn to hold their hand in a special way so that when they add the line of powdered shiso to the waterlily-pond dish, the tiny line flares slightly at its base. They will be taught that the drops of vinegar that adorn the oyster leaf must be exactly equidistant from each other.
The discipline doesn’t extend only to the food. Apprentice chefs learn that they must place the piece of tape labelling a Tupperware container precisely in the centre of the exposed side. Rolls of paper towels have an exact location beneath the countertop, and rubbish bins must be centred beneath them. They may turn through the kitchen only at right angles, no meandering, and must wash their hands according to a prescribed method. One day each summer, they must even rearrange the piles of rocks outside the restaurant to ensure they neatly overlap.
Some of the stagiaires will find six months of this strictly regimented labour insufferably tedious, and will strain against the boredom and rigidity. Some may even leave partway through the season. But for those open to the experience, a surprise awaits. Months, even years, after their time at el Bulli, they will realise there was a reason why tablecloths are rolled in one direction only and cloves of garlic sorted by size. Referring to the profound freedom to think that is the wellspring of his ideas, Adrià once told me, “Creativity requires discipline.” And then he pulled out a ruler, and checked the length of a piece of sugar cane.
‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season at elBulli’ by Lisa Abend is published on April 14 (Simon & Schuster, £17.99)