Friday, November 20, 2009

More About The Bocuse d’Or

Kevin earned the right to compete for the 2011 Bocuse D’Or, but that doesn’t assure him a place at the table in Lyons. He still has to compete with other American chefs.

The Bocuse D’Or evolved from a professional cooking exhibition and trade fair that took place in Lyons, France. Paul Bocuse, as honorary chairman of that event, came up with the idea to have a cooking competition component in front of a live audience. The first Bocuse D’Or was held in 1987.

First prize is 20,000 euros and a gold statue of Paul Bocuse in Chef’s garb, second prize is 15,000 euros and third is 10,000 euros.

It was a pretty brilliant idea. Remember the Food Network didn’t even start broadcasting until 1993. There were no nightly televised food competitions. There were not the number of food-centric shows that there are now.

This unique idea started out calmly enough until 1997, when the Mexican team engendered support from the audience with mariachi bands and cowbells, which now is a staple at the bi-annual competition. (The cowbells, not the mariachi bands.)

There are 24 teams composed of a lead chef and young (22 years old) commis chef. They have 5 hours and 35 minutes (I’m guessing they are extremely grateful for that extra 5 minutes) to to make one meat and one fish dish, each surrounded by three imaginative, complicated garnishes, executed with precision.

The teams work in side by side stadium style kitchens. No cooking in advance is permitted, except for stock and measuring out of certain ingredients. Each ingredient, including intricately turned vegetables, is prepared within the allotted time. They know which proteins they’ll be cooking well in advance.

In 2007, after Gavin Kaysen came back from his chance to win gold in Lyons, he said he wished he had had some of the same support that the other teams (many European ones) had with their budgets in the realm of 1 million dollars (for training). These chefs take months off to do nothing but train in specially designed replica kitchens, which gives them a tremendous advantage.

Gavin had to buy his own equipment and had nowhere near the same time to prepare as his competing chefs did. He placed 14th in part because, during the competition, a FRENCH dishwasher ATE one or two of his garnishes! How much of an accident could THAT have been?

Paul Bocuse, himself, was interested in upping the US’s presence. His son, Jerome Bocuse, presides over the Chefs de France restaurant at the Epcot Center and is on the board of Bocuse d’Or USA.

Chef Paul Bocuse recruited Thomas Keller, to be President of the Bocuse d'Or U.S. team and Daniel Boulud to be its chairman. They met the challenge.

A test kitchen was built next to Keller’s French Laundry. Timothy Hollingsworth, the US chef chosen to compete at the next Bocuse d’Or, was given a 3 month paid hiatus from his job behind the stove at the French Laundry to train with a coach. He came in 6th, which tied the previous highest showing for an American. There was disappointment, though, because of all the resources that had been thrown his way (although still not as many as the Europeans).

When I’ve watched the Bocuse D’Or, it’s been absolutely fascinating. I sat there open mouthed at the phenomenal complexity, the fastidious execution, holding my breath at the final products, miraculously standing tall, defying every law of gravity.

But the Bocuse D’Or is a competition, not a television show, although it is televised in excerpted form. We see only a tiny part of what goes on during the competition. We hear nothing of the judges’ deliberations. We just see sweat and strain and toil and then the top three winners are announced and a lot of flag waving and anthem playing ensues. It’s mysterious and magical.

Of all the chefs this season, I think Bryan would be the most likely to succeed in a Bocuse d’Or type competition. But Kevin is the one that got a shot. He’ll need a lot of coaching and probably some divine intervention to do well, but he could pull it out just like he has so many challenges this season.

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