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For chefs, the next new thing

Believe it or not, it's a cookbook. And it's causing a sensation from Los Angeles to New York.

January 29, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

ONE of the most talked-about books in the food world calls for ingredients you can't find, equipment you don't have and techniques you'll never master. It's written in Spanish, weighs more than seven pounds and costs $125, plus shipping. (Or $175 if you buy it in this country -- but there is only one store that carries it right now and it's sold out.)

Despite all of that, Ferran Adria's "El Bulli, 1998-2002" is the rage among the cooking intelligentsia. Nach Waxman, owner of the venerable Kitchen Arts and Letters bookstore in Manhattan, says he initially ordered 30 copies and sold them all immediately. He's ordered 30 more and they've been claimed even before they have arrived.

Ellen Rose, owner of Los Angeles' Cook's Library, is desperate to get her hands on a copy. "That's all I've been hearing about," she said. "I have people coming in every day asking if we carry it." She's awaiting her first shipment from Spain.

At the online foodie hangout eGullet, Steve Klc, pastry chef at Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., was practically hyperventilating: "It demonstrates what not following tradition, what daring, what innovation is all about. It should redefine what anyone thought they knew about 'interesting' food and cooking -- and no one working their way through the dishes will be able to look at whoever their favorite-admired-beloved chef may be the same way again."

"El Bulli" is the most cutting-edge example of a small but high-profile segment of the cookbook business: restaurant cookbooks that are more about the state of the chef's art than they are about actual cooking.

It may also be the most influential. Adria is one of the most talked about and controversial chefs in modern cooking. El Bulli is only a tiny restaurant hidden away in a remote corner of Spain's rocky Costa Brava, but for the last five years it has been the shrine at the end of many a foodie's holiday pilgrimage.

Adria is revered not so much for the deliciousness of his dishes, but because of his inventive, mold-breaking techniques, which seem to fly almost instantly from his mind into high-end restaurant kitchens around the world. He creates gels that hold their shape even when hot. He makes ice creams from polenta and lollipops flavored with black truffles and asparagus. This is the guy who invented foams.

The book is similarly experimental. Rather than the traditional assemblage of recipes and color pictures of finished dishes, arranged in the order of courses, "El Bulli" is vivid and impressionistic. It can be appreciated just for its physical beauty, but spend some time with it and you'll find yourself pulled in on a deeper, more intellectual, level. In a way, this is a book not about cooking, but about an extreme form of creativity.

There are pictures -- gorgeously photographed too -- but they are as likely to be of the process as of the plates and they may take some getting used to. Indeed, even the finished dishes sometimes don't look like food so much as some kind of bizarre manufactured product or maybe one of those sea creatures only found hovering around ocean steam vents 20 miles deep.

Nowhere in the 700-page book will you find a recipe. (Those are collected on a multimedia CD-ROM that is part of the slip-covered package.)

Instead, the book offers flow charts explaining how dishes came to be developed, how concepts have evolved, and philosophical statements about ingredients and techniques. The book is arranged by year, not by course, so you can track how Adria's cuisine has grown.

It more resembles something you might pick up at the MOCA gift shop than at a cookbook store -- kind of like the career retrospective of a peculiarly theoretical Italian architect, or maybe a SoHo installation artist.


Chefs swoon

"The thing is a revelation," says Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, the author of 10 cookbooks himself, including his own much-anticipated book on raw food coming out in April. "There is nothing like it. It is a truly stunning work of art. It shows how culinary figures can achieve a sort of high art."

As such, it appeals mostly to a highly specialized audience of professional cooks and their acolytes. Open the book and they come running, oohing and aahing over the photography, the composition and the inventiveness of the dishes.

"Needless to say, the audience so far has been 100% food professionals," says Waxman. "The truth is the people who buy the book are responding almost totally in the way professionals do with a book like this. It's fascinating to them. Every day I listen to people standing here in the store debating with each other about the techniques used, how the chef got from here to there."

In a way, chef books like "El Bulli" function not so much as cookbooks but as catalogs recording for posterity what is, after all, the most transient of the arts and crafts (creations are destroyed almost as soon as they are presented; the better they are, the more quickly they are ruined).

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