Competitiveness is a basic human trait that has been around for as long as history has been recorded and likely well before that too. At its basest level, competition can bring out the worst in human nature, but at its most elevated levels, it can elicit marvelous achievements and be just plain fun. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that something as inherently human as cooking should become subject to competition. In fact, cooking (and eating) competitions have become standard television fare, some of it base and some interesting and worthwhile. No cooking competition that I’m aware of, however, approaches the Bocuse d’Or, which takes place biannually in Lyon France, in grandeur, skill, pressure, prestige and excitement. It has become an international competition that is to cooking what the Olympics are to athletics. Countries around the world and especially in Europe take this competition very seriously. It has only been within the past ten years, however, that the United States has begun in earnest to harness and apply the resources necessary to compete at this level. The closest this country has been to a Top three finish and a place on the podium has been 6th place. With people like Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jerome Bocuse, the son of Paul Bocuse himself, behind the American efforts, it has become a matter of culinary pride and respect for the United States to find a place at the podium. We have come a long way with very respectable efforts, but the easy fruit has been reached. To take that last large leap to get to the top requires a lot more work and the need for ever-increasing resources. (See here for a compilation of my reports on previous Bocuse d’Or competitions in the US and in Lyon)
For the past three competitions in Lyon, the American candidates have been chosen via a competition in the United States set up to mimic the one in Lyon. These competitions, while entertaining and instructive, devoured much in the way of financial resources, energy and time, all of which, the prestigious group that comprises the Chefs Council and the members of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, felt would ultimately be better applied to actually developing the candidate. As a result this year’s candidate, Philip Tessier, was chosen not through a Bocuse d’Or like cooking competition, but by an application, the same application that would in the past, place people in the American competition.
In order to raise the money necessary to be competitive and have a chance for the podium, the Bocuse d’Or Foundation relies on industry sponsors and American chefs to donate money, products and time for the effort. Happy offshoots of this endeavor are benefit dinners featuring high profile American chefs at high profile restaurants and venues. I had the great fortune of having recently been invited to attend the first one featuring Candidate Philip Tessier. It was held at a location that I had been hoping to get to visit for some time – The Culinary Vegetable Institute at The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio. The Chef’s Garden, owned and operated by the Jones Family with Farmer Lee Jones as the family’s most visible and well known representative, has become the leader in growing top quality bespoke vegetables, herbs, edible flowers and micro-greens for many of the country’s top restaurants as well as for discerning home consumption. It is a veritable Garden of Eden in what I would have mistakenly thought a very unlikely location.
The Culinary Vegetable Institute, an offshoot of The Chef’s Garden is uniquely situated to host an event like this benefit for the Bocuse d’Or USA. It has its own building designed with a state of the art open kitchen and a large dining room amongst other amenities with a mission to educate and inspire advances in the culinary arts. They commonly hold events with guest chefs and promote an exchange of ideas between chefs, farmers and interested diners. In addition to the space, they also have the most wonderful ingredients ready to be pulled, plucked, cut or picked right out of the ground or off the plant. This luxury became well evident throughout the amazing meal that followed.
It was an all-star culinary cast that came out to tiny Huron on the banks of Lake Erie to cook for this worthy cause. Led by former Bocuse d’OR USA candidate and the current coach of the Bocuse d’Or USA team, Chef Gavin Kaysen of Café Boulud in NYC, the evenings culinary team also consisted of the current candidate Philip Tessier, the Executive Sous Chef of The French Laundry in Yountville, California; Eli Kaimeh of The French Laundry’s NYC sister, Per Se; current James Beard nominees for Best Chef – Great Lakes, Curtis Duffy of Grace in Chicago and Jonathan Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern in nearby Cleveland; former Bocuse d’Or USA competitor Jennifer Petrusky, formerly of Yusho in Chicago and now working front of the house at Quince in San Francisco while developing a new project for the Napa Valley: Michael Rotondo of Parallel 47 in San Francisco and Thomas Raquel, the pastry chef of Acadia in Chicago. Chef Jamie Simpson, the in-house Chef-Liaison of The Culinary Vegetable Institute, put the team together. A strong supporting cast of chefs and cooks from the CVI as well as their own restaurants further assisted this team.
Earlier in the day, it appeared that the evening might be derailed even before it started. The three chefs coming from the west coast all came in on the same flight the evening prior. While they made it, their luggage, including much of the food that they planned to serve did not. Fortunately, it did arrive late the morning of, none the worse for wear – disaster averted.
The evening began with the dapper crowd milling about, sipping wine and eating canapés from Jamie Simpson and Jonathan Sawyer. Simpson offered a deliciously bright yuzu curd augmented with sliced baby cucumbers and cucumber flowers.
Chef Sawyer served three canapes, all well integrated works of multiple textures and deep flavors. Ciccioli were crisps made from pasta that were stuffed with spiced cultured cream, lardo and caviar.
He also prepared crusti di polenta to emulate the crispy bits from a pot of polenta. The polenta had been flattened, crisped and smeared with five year old anchovy sauce, two year old beef fat and Côte Rôtie vinegar before they were topped with micro-greens from The Chefs Garden and some house-cured bottarga.
Sawyer’s final canapé was one that he called Gold Cold Duck. This was a gel of compressed whole duck stew with foie gras and gold leaf. It was rich and elegant as befitted the evening.
The formal part of the meal started with a dish from Chef Curtis Duffy of the two Michelin starred Chicago restaurant, Grace. Duffy’s dish, nearly vegan, utilized the wealth of material to be had at the farm supplemented with a few select items. This delicious dish was well-balanced, beautiful and complex.
Jennifer Petrusky created a dish that she wantded to be emblamatic of spring and she achieved it with a light and flavorful Spanish- tinged garlic consommé adorned with Iberico ham chips and black garlic.
The very talented resident chef, Jamie Simpson, originally from Charleston, S.C., donned a Go-Pro camera on his forehead to film the eevent, and created a spectacularly beautiful dish that combined Santa Barbara se urchin with sweet potato and crême fraiche in a creamy base with barley, nasturtium and other delights.
During the weekend I discovered that chef Eli Kaimeh of Per Se and I went to the same high school in Brooklyn, albeit not at the same time. I had graduated a few years prior to his arrival (and likely his birth). He has, despite that, achieved great success in the culinary world as Chef de Cuisine of a Michelin Three Star restaurant. The skill needed for that was apparent in his marvelous Sauterne Poached Foie Gras.
The chef that most in the audience were most curious about was the candidate – Philip Tessier. He was the one, who until recently, was essentially known only to the cognescenti of the world of The French Laundry. What the patrons discovered was a thoughtful, charming and very talented cook, who maintained his cool and his smile throughout the day (even when his supplies had not yet arrived) and the evening. His dish, monkfish wrapped in bacon, served with Pommes Maxim’s, petite pois a la Francaise and red wine braised escargots demonstrated a well-versed familiarity with classic French cooking along with a strong aesthetic and a finely tempered palate. This was a dish both beautiful and delicious that seemed geared from the outset to impress the actual judges of the Bocuse d’Or.
Michael Rotondo, also a former contestant to represent the USA at the Bocuse d’Or (2008), spent the better part of his career so far working in Chicago at Charlie Trotter’s befoe heading out to San Francisco in January of 2013 to become Chef de Cuisine at Parallel 37, formerly the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton. His dish centered on Grimaud Farms Guinea Hen, which was served with a tempura fried Chef’s Garden turnip, a reduction of nettles and a bit of jalapeño. Once again, the dish was both beautifully presented and delicious. One of the most enjoyable aspects of a dinner like this was watching the interplay of all of the cooks in the kitchen.. They were all in their element and worked cohesively together as if they had been a long-standing team.
Fittingly, the final savory course of the dinner fell to chef Gavin Kaysen, the Executive Chef of Cafe Boulud in NYC, 2007 Bocuse d’Or USA Candidate in Lyon and the Head Coach of Bocuse d’Or USA. His dish featured a gorgeous mosaic of lamb with classic French accompaniments presented artfully and packing tons of exquisitely delicious flavor. It was a true show-stopper.
Luckily, though, the dinner continued. There may be some who bemoan the state of the art of contemporary restaurant pastry creativity, but those people must not have had the good fortune of having sampled the work of Thomas Raquel of Acadia in Chicago, amongst others. Raquel combined dazzling artistry and a superb balance of outstanding flavors in both his formal dessert and his mignardes. The former revealed a strong Asian influence using a delicious Matcha custard along with puffed wild rice, toasted rice sorbet and other Asian flavors. This was a finesse dish that no matter how full I might be, would tempt me. Isn’t that what dessert should be?
Throughout the evening the attendees enjoyed fine wines donated and paired by Master Sommelier, Joseph Spellman of Justin Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles, California. These wines were abetted by some additional wines from the prodigious personal cellar of Bocuse d’Or USA supporter, Ray Harris. All proceeds from the event went to further the cause of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation.
His mignarde was equally lovely. This was the golden egg to symbolize what the Bocuse d’Or USA is striving for. The object is not solely to win or do well in a competition, but to state beyond a shadow of a doubt that the United States has arrived on the world culinary stage. With creativity and delicious dishes like those evidenced on this night, that should be a foregone conclusion, yet the reputation of the United States in world gastronomic circles is not yet as strong as it could be or should be. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of preparation to do well in the Bocuse d’Or. It was clearly evident to me on this evening that this year’s Candidate, Philip Tessier has the skill and the personality to compete and with his position under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, should have the appropriate preparation under his belt. It would appear to me that given these necessities, the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation is in good hands with Chef Philip Tessier. Of course there is yet another ingredient that any winner must have to succeed and that is luck. Without the prerequisites of skill, personality and preparation, there is no chance.. but no matter how well those criteria apply, luck remains important. To this end, I wish Chef Tessier all the luck in the world to help him achieve his and the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation’s goals for success in Lyon in 2015.
For these and many more photos from this glorious event please click here.