For chefs, the next new thing

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.

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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).

Of course, there is also a not-insignificant ego function to many of them.

"Deep down, the professionals regarded this kind of book as a kind of consummation of a career," says Waxman. "It's a statement: If you can get a book like this, you've really arrived."

Another recent example of this -- and another hot seller to hard-core foodies -- is the new "Grand Livre de Cuisine d'Alain Ducasse" from the French superstar. It is even bigger than "El Bulli" (10 pounds, more than 1,000 pages, and desserts take up another full book) and more expensive ($275). But it is also more traditional in form, collecting every important dish from all of Ducasse's restaurants over the years and presenting them in the usual recipe/color plate format.

Indeed, after comparing the two books, the thought occurs that recipes in books like this can even be interpreted as downright demeaning. If a simple list of ingredients and a couple of paragraphs of explanation can teach you to cook like Ducasse or Adria, why do chefs waste all those years perfecting their craft?

These books stand at the opposite end of the spectrum as chef-written books designed for the general audience. And no matter how admired they are by the hard-core, they will sell only a fraction of the number of copies.

According to the restaurant, 16,000 copies were printed -- 5,000 of them in Catalan. They expect to sell half of that total in Spain. If all goes well, editions in English, French, Italian and Japanese will be published in the fall.

This is an ambitious printing for such an esoteric book. Still, it is unlikely to show up at your corner bookstore anytime in the future.

"This 'El Bulli' book is beautiful, but it was hugely expensive to produce," said Susan Friedland, the HarperCollins editor responsible for the Chez Panisse series and other cookbooks by chefs. "The color plates are gorgeous; the bindings are sewn, not glued. We have not in this country published a book of such extraordinary beauty.

"Even the slipcase is expensive. Everything is expensive in this book. It is a fabulous production job, but we would probably have to charge $200 for it. With that many color plates, we'd probably have to sell 50,000 copies and I don't think we could sell even 10,000."

Maybe the total sales would depend on how many bored chefs are around at any particular time.

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Don't try it at home

"Most of the people who buy these books are professionals," Waxman says, "and for most of them, these books exist sheerly as a source of inspiration. One of the most common comments they make when they come in is something like 'I'm feeling flat; I'm feeling stale. What have you got that's new?'"

"El Bulli" certainly fills the bill.

"Like everything Adria's done, this is an innovation," says Trotter. "It will inspire professionals everywhere. And that in turn will have a trickle-down effect to lesser professionals and then ultimately to the home cook."

Whether we will all someday be including foams and hot gels in our family dinners is arguable. But that once again Adria has created something startlingly different from the rest of the pack is not.

"Sometimes when you're operating at a very high level like that, what you're doing is beyond having any application for cooking at home or the practicality of things. But it is something deep and profound and it reaches far and wide. That is the beauty of what Ferran is trying to do."

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"El Bulli, 1998-2002" can be ordered online from the restaurant's Web site, www.elbulli.com for $125, plus shipping. It can also be ordered from Kitchen Arts and Letters at kalstaff@rcn.com for $175, plus shipping. Cook's Library, 8373 W. Third St., Los Angeles. (323) 655-3141. eGullet can be found at www.egullet.com.

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