I have now attended each of the past four Bocuse d’Or competitions in Lyon starting in 2009 and each has been special in its own way, filled with hope and promise. This last one was best of all as the hope and promise translated into success and standing on the podium with the United States earning the Bocuse d’Argent (2nd Place silver), the very first medal and podium stand ever for the United States. Couple that with a thrilling third place for the United States team in the Coupe du Monde de Patisserie, the pastry equivalent of the Bocuse and the United States has a lot to be proud of and excited about for its culinary future.
Why was success at the Bocuse d’Or important for the United States? Despite a growing international respect for American restaurants and cuisine, the image of the United States in the food world tends to be one of earned derision, with our cuisine seen as one of fast food as reflected by the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks and other purveyors of mass produced mediocrity. Finally, we have shown that we can perform, create and compete at the highest levels of gastronomy. With the United States result of second place, a scant 9 points behind perennial powerhouse Norway, the United States now stands tall, with a legitimate claim as a gastronomic and culinary force. No longer can the rest of the world simply view us through the lens of corporate food, though that image will undoubtedly continue for the foreseeable future as well.
The Bocuse d’Or is the centerpiece of The SIRHA, a huge trade show devoted to all aspects of the world of restaurants. The show provides a dizzying array of products from the foods of the world to the ability to totally outfit both the front and back houses of restaurants of all ilks. It is easy to get lost within the sprawling caverns of the exposition center, but what fun it is to get lost amongst wheels of cheese, stacks of chocolate and legs of jamon Ibérico with plenty of samples of all!
SIRHA is a multi-day event with a number of competitions in addition to the Bocuse d’Or, which closes the show. The Bocuse, itself, covers the final two days of the event with 24 qualifying teams from around the world split into 12 teams competing per day. Historically, it appears to have been a disadvantage for teams to compete on the first day with a podium finish happening only once before. That was not necessarily surprising, however, as the daily placement had, in the past, generally been weighted towards perceived strength of the teams with the second day typically reserved for what were likely to be the stronger teams. The United States had always competed on that second day. The result of that imbalance was problematic for the event, as it typically left that first day under-attended and lacking in the energy of the second. This year, though, in an attempt to balance attendance the teams were mixed up with a number of strong teams competing on day one, including the United States, France, Iceland, Switzerland and others.
The selection for this year’s United States team departed from the process for choosing previous teams. In the past a lot of money was spent on high profile competition in the United States to choose the Candidate. The previous two Bocuse d’Or teams were taken from competitions held at The Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park, N.Y. and the one before that at Disney World with excellent candidates emerging from the field including Timothy Hollingsworth, the former Chef de Cuisine of The French Laundry, Jamal James Kent, the current Executive Chef of NoMad in NYC, who was then a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park and most recently, Richard Rosendale CMC, who was then the Executive Chef of The Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. The process took time in addition to money, leaving relatively scant time for the teams to gel before the main competition in Lyon. Ultimately, the squads fell short, despite their enormous talent and potential.
For this year’s team, the United States program led by Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Jerome Bocuse and Coach Gavin Kaysen in addition to a team of “Ment’Or” chefs, took a different tack. Early on, they identified and recruited a candidate from within the kitchen of The French Laundry. As that location was also the main training ground for the team, it made sense to get the ball rolling early with a strong candidate and save money as well as time. The candidate, as it turned out, was very well chosen indeed.
I first met Philip Tessier, a mild mannered, friendly, soft spoken, but intense young chef at a benefit dinner for the team and Ment’Or program held at The Culinary Vegetable Institute of The Chef’s Garden in Ohio this past March. Accompanied by an all-star team of chefs, Tessier cooked some stellar dishes that demonstrated his extraordinary kitchen skills and culinary mind. In addition, his quiet intensity and humble confidence boded well for his ability to prepare and compete in what is likely the most pressure-packed culinary competition on the planet.
Fitting Tessier’s quiet demeanor, the Ment’Or team took a more restrained approach to promoting the event and encouraging supporters to travel for the competition. While the last few Bocuse competitions had quite a few notable chefs amongst the team’s entourage of supporters, this year, relatively few outside of the inner circle attended. Chef Dave Beran of Next and Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail, who designs tools for Alinea and other restaurants attended as part of the team, while Richard Rosendale was there for support and Grant Achatz was the Honorary President of the jury. As it turned out, the contributions of Kastner and the team at Crucial Detail was critical to the success of the United States squad.
To allow for a continuous and orderly flow of dishes and platters from the candidates, the competition starts in a staggered fashion with the first team underway at 8AM. The United States was positioned in the ninth (of twelve) spot between Spain and Estonia, a good location without too many extra distractions.
The Bocuse d’Or program made some changes to the competition this year in addition to mixing up the teams on the different days. There have always been a particular meat and a particular fish that every team had to use as the central components of their dishes. This year, they delayed announcing the main ingredients until a month or two before the competition and then to complicate matters further, each day had an additional requirement of a specific vegetable to be used as a major part of the fish dishes. Oh, and the kicker was that they didn’t know what that particular vegetable would be until they visited “the Market” to select their products the evening before the completion! For those competing on Day One, the featured vegetable was celery. For all of the candidates, the featured meat was guinea fowl, while the fish was brown fario trout. These were available fresh for selection the morning of the competition.
With the competition underway for eight teams, Tessier and his Commis, Skylar Stover were smiling and excited to begin. The final pre-start inspection by the judges done, the time was now to start. The United States team with Coach and previous Candidate Gavin Kaysen looking on from in front of their kitchen booth, jumped into action. But it was apparent from the get-go, that this team had achieved a tremendous efficiency of movement and communication. No actions were undertaken in haste or with a sense of desperation. Instead, the movements were quick, assured and precise. This was a well-oiled machine, who knew what they were doing, had confidence and proceeded without wasting energy, time or product. Tessier had laser focus and maintained single-minded concentration, able to tune out the raucous noises from the crowd, the announcers and the crowd of press and VIP’s constantly circulating around the kitchen booth.
The United States team also had a secret weapon – Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail. Kastner is the engineering genius who transforms Grant Achatz’ visions of serving pieces and other kitchen tools into reality at Alinea, Aviary and elsewhere. He designed and built a number of tools to help expedite the preparation and elegance of presentation of the dishes including wooden molds to recreate the shape of a guinea fowl and allow for precise cutting and portion consistency. He also designed the astounding service pieces that ultimately helped put the United States over the top. His work allowed for greater efficiency and precision, two crucial details to help set the winners apart from everyone else.
During the morning’s cooking, the press (including myself) is allowed on the main floor to circulate just outside all of the kitchens, but at noon, everyone is asked to leave that area to allow for the preparation of the judge’s tables. Each participating country’s team President sits at a table of either meat or fish to taste and score the dishes from the candidates presented in order of start. The fish dishes start first with half of the judges trying every fish dish presented over the two days of competition. The other judges, including the President of the United States team, Thomas Keller, would try every meat dish. All of the judges would score the appearance of the platters and the dishes. In addition, floor judges, mostly well known French chefs, would score on such elements as kitchen efficiency, waste, skills and neatness. Time was important, but so was the general conduct of the kitchen. As an observer, all I could personally comment on is what I saw in the kitchens and on the plates and platters that were passed around. While I could not correlate exactly with the overall scores, it was often apparent, which teams worked well and produced precise, beautiful presentations and which teams were less precise or advanced in theirs. I could not personally determine the taste of anything, but by all accounts, the United States submissions were truly delicious as well as beautiful and precise with one judge from a very competitive country relating that Tessier’s fish dish was so outstanding that he finished his plate.
The excitement of the parade of plates and platters was palpable with plenty of rooting and noise coming from the nationalist stands and a continual witty banter in English and French from the event’s hosts, Angela May and Vincent Ferniot. The more I have attended this event the more impressed I have become with how difficult their job is and how well they do it.
The American fish plate came out after eight other fish plates and a few meat platters and it was a stunner! The presentation style of the Bocuse has evolved from a very formal classic French to a more modern French style. Any techniques can be used so long as it does not involve anything prepared prior to the competition, but the ultimate presentation style is one that is more Baroque than Minimalist. Flights of fancy are welcome so long as they can be pulled off successfully. To win, a team must take chances and those chances have to work. It is a gamble, but playing safe is guaranteed to fall short.
The meat platter from the United States team was another stunner. Kastner designed a true beauty that was inventive with what appeared to be two whole guinea fowls suspended over the center of the platter and surrounded by n array of colorful and elegant supporting elements. If the United States was going to lose, it was not going to be because of the appearance or lack of originality of their presentations. In contrast, a number of teams built their platters around similar themes, constructing their meats in the shape of eggs. At the end of the day, there was cause for hope. The United States had performed and by the looks of things hd performed very well indeed.
Day Two has always been and still was a pressure cooker. It is the last day of SIRHA and at the end of the day, the results are tabulated and announced. It was no different this year with plenty of perennial heavyweights including competition favorite Sweden, Norway, rising star Japan, Canada and others in the mix. With trumpets and air horns blaring all day and the morning floor packed with people, the intensity level started early and kept going. It was apparent early on that the competition would be fierce indeed and the United States would have its work cut out for them. All the team could do was wait and hope, knowing that whtever the result they had done their job as well s they could.
The parade of plates and platters was another impressive spectacle, but it seemed to me that as impressive as they were, none blew away the American effort, at least in looks. By the time all was done, the thought occurred to me that the United States really had a shot at the podium.
The kitchen stadium was packed for the awards ceremony, but somehow, I managed to stake out a one foot by one foot spot front and center in the photographer’s pit amidst a crush of television cameras and other photographers – some helpful and some not. It was a relief when the stage lit up with dignitaries, judges and then the teams marching out to great fanfare with flags waving. Skylar Stover carried the American flag staunchly and with pride. It wasn’t too long before the various awards started flowing from Best Poster to Best Commis to Best Fish and Best Meat. The latter two are typically consolation prizes with the winners unlikely to ascend the podium. I held my breathe on both announcements, especially for Best Fish given the comment I heard from one of the judges, but in neither case was the “winner” the United States – relief!
Next up was the Bronze. Third place meant standing on the podium. It was still a possibility, but I had seen the same thing happen three previous times, each minus the hoped-for result. If my fingers had not been poised on my camera, they would have been crossed. Instead – a true shocker! Third place went to Sweden and the heavy favorite, Tommy Myllymaki! They had come expecting gold and their glum faces betrayed their extreme disappointment. With one giant out of the way, my heart started beating faster.
Grant Achatz, the Honorary President of the jury, was presented to announce the winner of the Bocuse d’Argent. The moment was priceless! Finally! The United States would be on the podium of the Bocuse d’Or and with a silver! Although it was personally anticlimactic for me, with Candidate Orjan Johannessen leading it, Team Norway was once again awarded the Bocuse d’Or. The place was truly electric for everyone but the disappointed Swedish team and their fans, who expected more. The US team was ecstatic, as was I and much of the crowd, who appeared to be pulling for the team or at least not unhappy with their success. It was a success well and truly earned.
See here for my thorough and complete personal Flick’r set from the competition including detailed kitchen shots from Team USA and others and here for the official Bocuse D’Or Flick’r photoset with composed shots of the actual plates and platters.
 The Commis is a young cook below age 22. In addition, each tem is supplied with another commis from the local Institut DePaul Bocuse cooking school in Lyon. These young cooking students can make a huge difference in the outcome. One with skills and a good attitude can be a huge help, while a lesser one can be a problem. For this year’s competition, the United States lucked out. Their French commis had excellent skills, spoke English and had a great attitude. The USA has not always been so fortunate. From Wikipedia, in 2007, then Candidate, Gavin Kaysen, suffered a major setback due to the school supplied commis, “The U.S. effort also was impeded in the 2007 finals, with the unfortunate experience of the candidate Gavin Kaysen. Upon presenting his second platter, a wheel-shaped ballotine of chicken, with chicken liver, foie gras and Louisiana crayfish, it was discovered that a French dishwasher had eaten two of the intended garnishes in the belief the food was rejected. Kaysen finished in fourteenth place.”
 This is a perfect time to grab lunch and my wife and I met up at a special booth from Hungary to promote the next European Championships to be held there in 2016. WE had a wonderful lunch of Hungarian dishes and cocktails.
 Fish is prepared as a restaurant style plate with one plate prepared for each dining judge and another for display. Consistency of plating is important as the judges eating the fish are all sitting next to each other and seeing the other plates. Meat is prepared as n elaborate presentation platter, from which, the team portions out plates for the meat judges. Once again, uniformity is important for the same reasons.
 Swedish candidate Tommy Myllymaki had already won a silver Bocuse in 2011 and won the European championship the previous spring. He entered the competition as a heavy favorite for the gold. All of the Scandinavian countries are perpetually strong in this event.