Bocuse d'Or USA, part 1
21 years ago, Paul Bocuse started an international competition of the best young chefs and their interpretation of cuisine...which is a lot like saying that a while ago, the Greeks started a tradition of a competition between the very best young athletes. The Bocuse d'Or has been likened to the Olympics of the culinary arts, but in reality, it's more focused than that. It's closer to an individual sport, like figure skating or gymnastics, where the focus is on the totality of a very particular effort, from pure technical ability to inspired artistic interpretation. The USA has never placed well in the Bocuse d'Or. It can be argued that until recently, American interest has never lingered on the art of cuisine and food, at least in the mainstream. Bicycle marathons or the butterfly stroke may attract the fickle attention of the public when a talented American is involved, but the subtle elegance of oil poached cod, or the tenderness of a seven-hour short rib braise, does not seem to grab heart of a nation still publicly struggling with the pros and cons of the McDonalds menu.
This year, many of the most celebrated American chefs -- those born here, and those who have adopted America as their home -- have decided that it is time for the USA to show what it can really accomplish. They have thrown their collective weight behind Team USA to guide, challenge, and prepare the next American chef in the hopes that the USA will have a place on the winners' platform in next year's competition.
A competitor's platter is paraded before the judges. Photo by Christey Krause
Foodbuzz was kind enough to send Christey and me to the Bocuse d’Or USA, in Epcot, Walt Disney World, as part of their Foodie Correspondent Program, to write about and photograph the competition. This is our third post about our experience, and covers the competition between four of the eight competitors for Team USA. Our prior two posts were interviews with Chefs John Besh and Hung Huynh, and our final post will cover the awards ceremony.
The chefs are young. By the competition rules, the chef must be 25 or older, and the commis/sous must be 22 or younger, but the emphasis is on youth. The eight competitors span the country from culinary hotspots, recognized and regional -- New York City, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, sure, but also Columbus, Gladstone NJ, and Yosemite CA, with the almost obligatory representative from Yountville CA.
Alain Sailhac, Dean Emeritus, French Culinary Institute, peers at the entry of a finalist. Photo by Christey Krause
The advisory board is hefty, and a who's who. Some known through TV, some by reputation, some known well by only their first or last name: Batali, John Besh, Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Traci des Jardins, Rocco, Keller, Emeril, Nobu Matsuhisa, Georges Perrier, Patrick O'Connell, Jacques Pepin, Puck, Eric Ripert, Sailhac and Soltner, Trotter, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Some were involved in the strategy, some were involved in the selection of the finalists, some were deeply involved in the judging of the eight contestants. Many were present to support the finalists in any way they could.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Jean-Georges restaurant, NYC, samples the bouquet of a cod presentation. Photo by Christey Krause
The competition was timed to coincide with Epcot's annual International Food and Wine Festival, which seemed to be an inspired pair-up. Outside the competition, tourists were browsing food from Barcelona to Krakow to Wellington to Cape Town. Inside, stadium seating was packed with foodies, friends and family of the competitors, VIPs, and wandering Epcot guests. Chef John Besh, and celebrity Al Roker traded barbs, jokes, and insight as the competitors cooked in individual pre-fab kitchens.
Chef Hung Huynh, and his Commis Girair Goumroian, CIA student, prepare their cod dishes. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef John Rellah, Hamilton Farm Golf Club, Gladstone NJ, prepares side dishes. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef Rogers Powell, Instructor, French Culinary Institute, prepares a lobster roe and squid ink pasta. Photo by Christey Krause
Commis Adina Guest works on a tomato dish, with Chef Timothy Hollingsworth in the background, both of The French Laundry. Photo by Christey Krause
The crowd was pretty enthusiastic, but none more so than French Culinary Institute students, cheering on Chef Rogers Powell, an FCI instructor.
The middle stands -- VIPs (including Jean Banchet and Sirio Maccioni, first full row, center), chefs, friends, family, and fans. Photo by Christey Krause
FCI students cheer on their instructor, Chef Rogers Powell. Photo by Christey Krause
Cheering for Chef Rogers Powell. Photo by Christey Krause
The chefs were graded on more than just cod and beef. Presentation, of course, theme, consistency, taste, pairings are all expected. But judges peered into the kitchens as the chefs worked, and the revered chefs took note of the candidates' technique as well. The Bocuse d'Or is unique in that culinary skills such as cleanliness, knife skills, sanitation, and even a sense of poise are judged along with the quality of taste and texture, and appeal to eye and nose.
Judges examine their notes while observing a chef contestant. Photo by Christey Krause
When the platters were completed, each 15 minutes after the next, the crowd alternated between cheering excitement and silent awe.
I know the feeling.
I consider myself to be an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to cooking. I can make a lovely bearnaise or beurre blanc, and my sauces don't break. I can braise, I can roast, I can pan-fry. I can make fish that is tender and succulent. I can make aioli or mousse or mayonnaise by hand while keeping my eye on other courses. My knife-skills are fair-to-decent. My personal touch (and passion) is the ability to fusion different techniques and tastes from all over the world into a single dish, and pull it off so that it seems the cultures could once have been geographic neighbors.
But, when the food started coming out, I said to Christey: "I feel like I'm one of those sidewalk chalk painters in Paris, and I accidentally stumbled into the Louvre."
Now, I never deluded myself that I would be anywhere near the quality of these eight chefs; classically trained, restaurant hardened, hand picked out of hundreds of applicants and given orientation, coaching, guidance, and support from the best chefs in America. Still, the food coming out of these makeshift, boxy, prefab kitchens was simply breathtaking. It was a ringside seat into why the term "art" is continuously used when it comes to grande cuisine.
Chef John Rellah, Hamilton Farm Golf Club, Commis Vinsent Forchelli Brandt beef dish. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef Timothy Hollingsworth, The French Laundry, Commis Adina Guest Brandt beef dish. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef Rogers Powell, French Culinary Institute, Commis Kyle Fiasconaro Brandt beef dish. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef Hung Huynh, Solo, Commis Girair Goumroian Brandt beef dish. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef John Rellah, Hamilton Farm Golf Club, Commis Vinsent Forchelli cod dish. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef Timothy Hollingsworth, The French Laundry, Commis Adina Guest cod dish. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef Rogers Powell, French Culinary Institute, Commis Kyle Fiasconaro cod dish. Photo by Christey Krause
Chef Hung Huynh, Solo, Commis Girair Goumroian cod dish. Photo by Christey Krause
With fresh young culinary talent like this, why isn't the Bocuse d'Or more popular? Like the Ryder Cup in golf, it only takes place every other year, but I would guess more American foodies know about the Ryder Cup than the Bocuse d'Or.
Left-to-right: Daniel Boulud, Jerome Bocuse, Paul Bocuse. Photo by Christey Krause
It may be somewhat of a Catch-22. At the press conference after the food presentation, Paul Bocuse groped for an explanation. The Scandinavian countries almost always place a chef on the podium at the Bocuse d'Or. Yet, the entire population of Scandinavia is less than the population of New York City. Why do they succeed? Because every year, their teams are coached, trained, and supported by chefs with generations of knowledge. There hasn't necessarily been a lack of interest among American chefs in the past, but it is nothing compared to what is being attempted this year for Team USA.
Daniel Boulud, Jerome Bocuse. Photo by Christey Krause
Bocuse's son Jerome, executive chef at Epcot's Chefs de France, had a take on a slightly different paradox. With the Olympics, if an American isn't on the podium, there tends to be scarce coverage of the event. There hasn't yet been an American to place at the Bocuse d'Or, which may explain the lack of awareness in the States.
Traci des Jardins (center) and Jean Banchet. Photo by Christey Krause
Then again, there's the question of what type of media coverage should be available for an event such as this, especially for a nation becoming more enthusiastic about food, yet still hot with reality show fever. Daniel Boulud said he was approached by a network to cover the event, but he and others felt that it would send the wrong message about the quality and theme of the competition. Cameras following the chefs around as they cook, waiting to pounce on a slip, or creating tension or drama from a few minutes out of hours of footage, just does not rise to the elevated grandeur of the Bocuse d'Or. As Chef John Besh pointed out during our conversation, the subtlety of this particular drama is in the food itself. The sort of sublime artistry of this competition doesn't translate well to an American cable audience groomed to expect arguments between chefs, or the collapse of a plating arrangement.
A little snooty? Maybe to American standards -- it's certainly understood, at least subconsciously, that there is a give and take in this country when it comes to promoting a concept and exploiting it a little. On the other hand, the Bocuse d'Or wasn't created to be a competition readily accessible by anyone outside the culinary world. It is the best of young talent folded with centuries of tradition, and if outsiders can follow along with the theme, appreciate a little of the subtext, and recognize even a bit of the depth...well then, that's just the last elegant garnish on a perfect plate.
Various shots taken throughout the day. All Photos by Christey Krause.