Cook's Shelf

Okay, so the big man may not have granted all the Christmas wishes I outlined in this space two weeks ago (although I've heard there's some interest in the pros' market idea), but I don't mind -- because someone gave me the massive, two-volume set of cookbooks from El Bulli titled El Bulli 2003-2004.

I don't want to say that this is the best Christmas present I've ever gotten, because that would diminish some of the other gifts I've loved over the years: my first BB gun (not a Red Ryder, but still); a game where you looked through a replica bomb sight and tried to drop little lead bombs on little representations of towns (which I broke almost immediately); my first PS2; an original WWII-era leather pilot's jacket. But the books are definitely in the top ten.

For those of you who've lived in a cave for the past decade, El Bulli is the restaurant on the Costa Brava in Spain where chef Ferran Adria works (and which he has partly owned since 1990). Adria is the evil genius who introduced the world to the unquestionable brilliance and dubious joy of molecular gastronomy, chem-lab cookery and culinary deconstructionism -- a contribution for which he has been equally lauded and reviled for years. And the El Bulli cookbooks are his attempt (aided by partner and longtime El Bulli manager Julie Soler and Albert Adria) to both record the path he's taken since he began experimenting back in the '80s and to index pretty much every recipe, theory, process and gastronomic digression he came up with along the way. He started with El Bulli 1983-1993, then did 1994-1997, followed that with '98-2002, and now this most recent 2003-2004 (English) edition, which:

: Weighs in at about forty pounds.

: Spans more than 600 pages of achingly beautiful photography, scientific notes, essays, recipes and explanations of such things as how to make a pine-cone infusion.

: Costs a lot. It retails at $350, and I know guys who paid as much as $700 for it.

But like Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook, any of Michael Ruhlman's food books, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, those early books by Julia Child and James Beard, and anything by Harold McGee, Adria's cookbooks are seminal. They describe not only the inner and outer workings of the industry's premier mad scientist and explain (in often insanely stultifying technical detail) exactly how you might go about freezing mangosteen for jus, frying a rabbit ear or aerating a red snapper in your own kitchen, but they also provide proof that no high-school science geek, no freak for jeroboams and condensing coils, need ever go without gainful employment. The books are groundbreaking in that they represent the documentation of a paradigm shift in gastronomy -- a turning away from the notion of food as sustenance and toward the crackpot view of food as theater and Dadaist expression. They're the kind of books you read (well, skim, really) once -- and then you never look at food the same way again. I've heard rumors of restaurant openings and big deals being contingent on the possession of Adria's sacred texts, single editions passed around hand to hand through entire foodie communities.

And now that I have my copy, I get it. I understand why these volumes -- even before their initial American publication -- became the hottest (and hardest to get) gastronaut accessories of the year. I may never make it to El Bulli myself, may never be able to afford both the plane tickets and the final restaurant tab, but I have the portable porno version of the experience, my own window into the inner workings of one of the most contentious food revolutions on record. Adria started it all, and love him or hate him for it, now he's pulled back the curtain and shown everyone who cares exactly how things really work in Oz.

So to the person who procured the books for me (you know who you are), thank you. You blew my mind better than two tabs of blotter and a fifth of Jim Beam. And to all the rest of you cooking in Hotcakesland, I expect to see some ham-wrapped cherries dangling from trapezes, gel "caviars" and sugar balls full of crème brûlée dust immediately. If you need to borrow the books to see how it's done, you know where to find me.

Leftovers: By tradition in the restaurant industry, the week between Christmas and New Year's Day is the quietest of the year. That's how it seems, anyway, from the outside looking in.

Truth is, it's one of the weirdest, most foreboding times. The Christmas season is officially over, as are all those pre-holiday hopes and dreams, the anticipation, the over-ordering. Many restaurateurs already know that the end is in sight. If the holiday season didn't save them, it killed them -- and the double-barreled blizzard may have been the final blow. So now all those servers, all those cooks on the line, all those dishwashers and busboys (not to mention suppliers) are anxiously waiting to see what happens next. Are the checks going to start bouncing? Will the marshals show up at the door?

I've been through a fair amount of these scenes myself and understand that any place that hasn't already closed (like Istanbul Grill, one of the places I'd loved in 2006, whose former space at 10009 East Hampden Avenue is under construction) -- or announced an imminent closure (like Sambuca, which closed after New Year's Eve) -- will keep quiet until the accountants determine just how bad last year really was. And about the time everyone has recovered from their hangovers, there'll be more action than anyone wants to see.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan