I spent three days and three nights with my father in Lyon, France, to experience the Bocuse d’Or. In case you’re not familiar, here’s a brief history: The legendary Paul Bocuse started the Bocuse d’Or in 1987 as a sort of culinary Olympics. Every other year 24 national teams compete in the final round, held over two hectic days at the massive Sirha Food Exposition in Lyon.
Each team features some of its country’s top culinary talent. Although they are frequently not big-name celebrity chefs, these men and women who work their whole lives for a shot at the podium draw impressive, lively crowds from their home countries. In the stands, it felt like watching an Olympic competition – fueled by national pride, fans rowdily supported their teams with airhorns, flags, facepaint, and even a British marching whose repertoire featured “God Save the Queen” and that favorite victory song, “Winter Wonderland”.
Much to the chagrin of gourmands and gastronomes around the country, Team USA has never made it onto the podium in any of the 14 instances of the Bocuse d’Or. This year, Chef Richard Rosendale and his talented crew including Commis Corey Siegel from his West Virginia resort (The Greenbrier) arrived ready to compete. Chef Rosendale has a great deal of experience in competitive cooking, unlike many American contenders from years past. With that experience, talent, and comprehensive knowledge of American products and French technique, it was thought that this year we would see our first medal. Facing stiff competition, Team USA finished in a respectable but disappointing 7th place out of 24.
The video gives a taste of the atmosphere in the competition area as well as the arena during the early part of the event.
Team Japan, with Chef Noriyuki Hamada finished in third place, winning the Bocuse Bronze. In doing so, they became the second Asian nation to take home a medal (after Singapore in 1989) for its beautiful, playful presentation and umami-rich preparations.
Team Denmark stood on the podium for the fourth time in four competitions, this time earning the Bocuse d’Argent.
Team France, took home the Bocuse d’Or, and from their presentation alone they were an early favorite. Their fish looked pristine and fantastic all at once, but the meat platter stole the show. Beside the taste, which chef Thomas Keller stated was “the best, by far,” the gilded platter and cross-hatched tenderloin revealed attention to the littlest detail and also hearkened back to the days where classic French luxury was king.
Truffle soup, enclosed in a buttoned pastry dome, paraded behind the meat platter as an homage to Paul Bocuse.
In the past, each team created a fish platter and a meat platter from predetermined ingredients that the Bocuse organization would reveal well before competition. This year, the rules changed. Instead of creating a fish platter that would be divvied up after its presentation, the teams were directed to plate the fish courses as they would at a restaurant.
These plates were frequently interesting and fun to look at, but nowhere near as impressive as the enormous platters. Each one required two men to bear its weight as they marched around the floor.
A panel of representative chefs from each participating country judges the process and declares winners, according to specific criteria. It might seem that taste and presentation are the only criteria by which the panel evaluates the competitors. Though important, those are not the only measures. Judges assess each team on a variety of criteria throughout the competition as they work, rating demonstrated skill, cleanliness of station, efficiency in the kitchen and they also take into account the condition of each station after final clean-up. Clearly, these criteria are subjective, but the expertise, professionalism and number of judges ensures a fair result.
This was a very exciting Bocuse, one that lives up to the competition’s international reputation. As an American, I wish I could have seen Team USA reach the podium, but it was thrilling just the same to witness this world-class competition and see people from all around the world rooting for their master chefs. Congratulations to Japan, Denmark, and France!
All photos and video by John M. Sconzo, M.D. See the Flick’r photoset for all the docsconz photos from Bocuse d’Or 2013.