The Sorcerer’s Apprentices Contest: Honoring the style of El Bulli

This is the dish that I made when my friend David recently told me about this contest. When I say recently, I mean like yesterday… He casually posted a link on my Facebook wall and said, "I saw this and thought of you! You should enter…" I didn’t just read this post and bang this dish out in my kitchen, there’s a bit more story behind it.


Don’t care about the story, creative process, or instructions? Jump to the end of the post for a video! Everyone else, read on:)


I clicked on the contest link, and read the blurb about the book "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" which chronicles a season of stages (think Padawan Learner to Ferran Adria’s Yoda) in the El Bulli kitchen.


Now, I should go back and tell you about my friendship with David. We met under unusual circumstances. He’s only seen me cook once — but we’ve recently been trading food porn and ideas. And he’s never tasted my food… Ever. How flattering that he would think that I was worthy of an El Bulli inspired contest.


So my first thought was that "eh… cooking contests aren’t really my thing…" But, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the challenge: can I (a self-taught home cook) create a dish that would garner the respect of people who have worked in the best kitchen in the world?


My pantry is very post modern containing a wide variety of Hydrocolloids, modified starches, powdered acids, and Ph Buffers. I even built my own immersion circulator to learn Sous Vide cooking. I have a iSi cream whipper, a Polyscience Smoking Gun, and have experimented in creating dishes using Modernist techniques. But could I create the ultimate dish that represented the spirit of El Bulli? I had to give it a shot — to prove to myself that my culinary mind has significant potential.


After reading the judging criteria I began to brainstorm… What is El Bulli about? Experimentation. Inspiration. Emotions. Textures. Senses. Dramatics. Theater… all balanced with one thing: Perfection.


None of what El Bulli does (or any Modernist restaurant for that matter) works without perfectly executed technique and flavor. I knew I had my work cut out for me.


I had a few ideas for new dishes that I had been thinking about for weeks. I quickly realized they were more WD-50 than El Bulli. No, that’s not a knock against Dufresne… but the dishes I was thinking of would be more at home on a five course tasting menu than the epic 25+ course gastronomic journey that El Bulli was known for. I needed something that would work on a petite scale.


My favorite modernist dishes are those that reinvent a familiar classic: Jose Andres‘ Spanish tortilla,  Wylie Dufresne‘s bagel and lox, Grant Achatz‘s beef with elements of A1 Sauce… that was the direction I wanted to go…


After crossing off a few ideas, I came up with one of my all time favorite dishes: Cedar Plank Salmon. This Pacific Northwest classic would be the inspiration for my humble tribute to the spirit of El Bulli.


I used a technique that Alinea‘s Grant Achatz describes as flavor bouncing. Starting with salmon as the centerpiece of the dish, I came up with flavors that would complement the fish. Here is a snapshot of my creative process.


The course would be five bites or less. Seasonal ingredients, and explosive with flavors. Each component of the dish would be perfectly executed. I would go into my modernist pantry and pull out some of the techniques that gave El Bulli its notoriety… "Caviar" made with Sodium Alginate and Calcium Lactate Gluconate, "Air" created with Lecithin, Sous Vide cooking, and the use of my polyscience smoking gun to encourage diner interaction and create some dining room drama all while flavoring the dish.


Like many of the creations at Alinea, the service piece would become an integral part of the experience of eating my Cedar Plank Salmon. The bottom of the glassware would hold a cloud of cedar smoke. As the inner glass is lifted, the smoke would escape and perfume the air with the scent of burning cedar.

Here is the process that led to the finished dish:


Cooking the next day started with gathering the ingredients…


For the Salmon

~2oz Salmon

1/2 Sheet Cedar Paper

1 tblspn Grape seed oil

Salt to taste


For the Asparagus Fettuccini

1 pc Green Asparagus

1/2 tspn rice wine vinegar

Salt to taste


For the Smoked Lemon Air

114g Fresh Lemon Juice (about 5 lemons)

3g Lemon zest

1/4 sheet cedar paper torn into small pieces

0.68g Lecithin


For the Aioli

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 tspn salt

~1/3 Cup SPANISH Olive Oil — Ferran would not have it any other way!


For the Couscous

60g Israeli Style Couscous

Large pot of boiling salted water

Lemon Zest

More SPANISH Olive Oil

~2 tspn Salmon Roe


For the Dill-Chive "Caviar"

34g Fresh Dill

24g Fresh Chive

212g Purified Water

1.1g Sodium Alginate


For the Alginate Setting Bath

500g Purified Water

10g Calcium Lactate Gluconate


For Presentation

1/4 Sheet Cedar Paper torn into 6" strips

Specialty glassware


The process started with making the base for the dill-chive "caviar". I combined the herbs and water in a blender and blended for about 5 minutes until very smooth.


When you open the top of the blender it should smell very herbaceous… it did! Next step was to strain the puree and remove excess solids. Before doing this I calibrated my scale and the cup I would use.


I strained the liquid through a fine mesh strainer into the tall cup.


The remaining solids in the strainer:


The strained puree weighed in at 244 grams, so I calculated 0.45% of the base liquid and came up with 1.1 grams of alginate to add to the herb water.


I blended this in thoroughly with a hand blender and transferred the mix into a squeeze bottle for later.


Next I started with 500 grams of bottled water and added 2% Calcium Lactate Gluconate, 10 grams, blended this in with a hand blender, and reserved it in the fridge.


What we have just created here is one of the most amazing things to come out of the El Bulli kitchen…specification. Sodium Alginate is a gelling agent that is extracted from brown seaweed. You’re familiar with gelling agents, right… think about "Jell-o". The gelling agent in Bill Cosby’s favorite dessert, gelatin, gels when it goes below a certain temperature, about 15 Celsius, or 59 Fahrenheit. Well alginate does the same thing, kind of… Alginate gels when it comes in contact with calcium ions. It gels instantly, and by using it in solutions, we can create anything from a bead sized caviar to an egg yolk sized "ravioli".


Okay, step two- zest and juice the lemons for the lemon air, easy.


Make sure you strain out any seeds from the juice.


Next, we weigh out the juice and calculate 0.6%. for the 114 grams of juice that my lemons yielded, I added 0.68 grams of Lecithin. I added the lecithin and 3 grams of lemon zest to the juice.


Enter another great El Bulli development: "Air". The flavored air, or light bubbles, that Ferran Adria and the team at El Bulli invented are a culinary breakthrough. They as the complete essence of a flavor almost devoid of any texture. They are most often created by adding Lecithin, a natural emulsifier to liquids. The lecithin makes bubbles formed with the liquid to remain stable for up to a half hour or more.


In my dish, this lemon [and smoke] flavored air would replace the squeeze of lemon that you might put on a piece of grilled fish. Did I say, smoke flavored?  Why yes I did… How do you smoke lemon juice? With your smoking gun of course!

One of the famous El Bulli dishes uses tobacco smoke as a flavoring for dessert courses… I’m not a tobacco smoker but when I do traditional cedar plank salmon, I always place thinly sliced lemons on top of the fish as it’s cooking… But this dish was for El Bulli… I must re-invent tradition… enter the smoking gun!


The smoking gun is a great way to add smoke flavor to any food. I tore up some of the cedar paper and placed it into the bowl of the gun. Then covered the lemon juice with plastic, turned the smoking gun on and light the cedar paper. When smoke stared to escape, I turned the gun off and let the lemon juice sit covered for about 15 minutes. I did this twice. The second time, I also bubbled some of the smoke through the liquid… Smokey lemon juice, DONE.


Step 3: Make a traditional Spanish Aioli. Traditional… aioli… easy right? I didn’t reach for the stick blender, like this recipe suggests (although next time I might!). I drove to two stores to find a mortar and pestal. With the contest deadline looming, I had to settle for this (not an authentic molcajete y tejolote)  but it would have to do for tonight…Sorry Lou.


A traditional Spanish Aioli is made by crushing garlic and salt in the bottom of the mortar into a very fine paste. Then slowly drizzling SPANISH olive oil to form an emulsion… This is hard work. I got tired of documenting it, so if you want to see a pro make aioli… check out this video.


Okay, we’re almost half way done… you’re definitely not going to see this recipe on Rachel Ray’s thirty minute meals! Step four is easy… cook the salmon.


My fish monger almost laughed when I asked for this piece of salmon out of the fish case…but I was making a dish that might fit on an El Bulli tasting menu, not an entree at Chili’s… Anyway, I skinned the salmon and removed all excess flesh/fat from the skin.



I moistened a half sheet of cedar paper with cold water and wrapped my tiny salmon in it.


Vacuum seal in the food saver bag, and drop into a circulator set at 41 Celsius.


Swim fishy, Swim!


That was easy, right? Next I toasted and boiled the couscous.


Toast in a dry pan until it smells nutty and turns light brown. Boil for about 6 minutes until Al Dente. Reserve.


One of the most amazing things that Ferran Adria does is also the simplest… transforming vegetables into new foods. El Bulli has created "couscous" out of cauliflower by shaving it on a micro plane and blanching it. They slice fruits so thin that the slices can be used as ravioli wrappers to encase fillings of all kinds… My dish would utilize asparagus both because it is in peak season and pairs well with salmon. I used a vegetable peeler to make "Fettuccini" out of a single stalk of asparagus. After the "noodles" were created, I seasoned them lightly with salt and a splash of rice wine vinegar.


Next, I fried the salmon skin (seasoned liberally with salt) until it was a crispy bit of "Salmon bacon" as I like to call it.


Mmmmmmmmm, salmon bacon….Next, I used the stick blender to make the smoked lemon air. This is done by holding the blade of the blender right at the surface of the liquid… but you knew that because you watched that video, right?


Smoked lemon air made…


Now, with the Mise En Place, we’re ready to plate.


Carefully lay the asparagus in the bottom of the martini glass. Create a nest with the asparagus.


Making the dill-chive "caviar" by gently squeezing drops of the herb/alginate water into the calcium bath. after about 45 seconds, remove the newly formed spheres and combine with the couscous, lemon zest, olive oil, and salmon roe to make a CC&C salad (Couscous, caviar, and "caviar")


Place about two table spoons of the couscous, caviar, and "caviar" salad in the middle of the asparagus nest. Next, place three thin slices of salmon on top of the salad. Place a bit of aioli on top of the salmon as well as a dollop of the smoked lemon air. Just before service, light the cedar paper and place it in the bottom portion of the glass. Suffocate the flames by placing the martini glass inside the mouth of the base glass. Allow the base glass to fill with smoke and serve. Instruct diner to lift the martini glass and eat the course while holding the top portion of the service piece so that the smoke perfumes the food and dining area.


Check out me plating this dish "live" here:


Warning: Graphic food porn follows:








<After taste testing>

Thanks for reading!

Note: This is my submission to the Simon and Schuster sponsored contest for the new book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices. Please take a moment to find out more about El Bulli, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices book, the contest, the judges, and the authors by clicking here.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentices is available in hardcover and for your e-reader at and other fine retailers.







3 thoughts on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices Contest: Honoring the style of El Bulli

  1. Pingback: Kino Lorber Buys Ferran Adria Doc “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” For Theatrical Release | barbie cooking games

  2. Thanks so much for your submission and for putting so much thought and effort into your recipe. This was a fascinating read–I’m so impressed that you built your own immersion circulator!

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