Thanks to an amazing group of people, whom I thank below, I was afforded a rare, behind the scenes look at the final days of Team U.S.A.’s year-long journey to the Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon, France.
Although I arrived a spectator, with hope of little more, I was unexpectedly welcomed and included by the American team and one of their sponsors (All-Clad) to the point of embarrassment. Treating me like a member of the family, they threw open their doors, inviting me into the kitchen during their final trial runs, giving me press privileges, and more. I’m truly humbled by the access and opportunities they offered.
In the spirit of their generosity and hospitality, I share this incredible experience with you.
* * *
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Bocuse d’Or, here’s a brief primer:
This international culinary competition was founded in 1987 by Paul Bocuse, the legendary French chef whose eponymous restaurant in Pont de Collonges is the longest-reigning Michelin three-starred restaurant in the world.*
The competition has taken place biennially since, and, together with the Coupe du Monde (an international pastry competition), it serves as the centerpiece and highpoint of Sirha, a food exposition that finds Lyon the epicenter of the food world for one amazing week.
The Bocuse d’Or is limited to twenty-four countries, most of which have to qualify in their regional “baby Bocuse” competitions. Each country sends one candidate and one commis (an assistant). The commis must be under the age of twenty-three.
Each candidate has five and a half hours to prepare a fish platter and a meat platter, both of which are presented to an international jury comprised of one chef from each of the twenty-four countries. The twenty-four jury chefs draw lots; half of them judge the fish plates, the other half judge the meat plates.
In addition, there are two honorary jury members – the Honorary President of the Bocuse d’Or (this year, Yannick Alleno, a past candidate for France and the current chef of le Meurice in Paris),** and the Honorary President of the International Jury, who is the last winner of the Bocuse d’Or (this year, Geir Skeie of Norway). These two honorary jury members are the only two people who get to taste both the fish and the meat plates, though neither of them have a voting voice.
The twenty-four jury members score each country’s presentation on a scale of sixty possible points. Forty points are allotted to taste. The remaining twenty points are allotted to presentation. The highest and lowest scores for each candidate are struck, along with the score from their own country’s jury member.
The competition spans two days (twelve countries compete each day) and culminates in an award ceremony at the end of the second day. Six awards are given out: one for the highest fish presentation score, one for the highest meat presentation score, one for the “Best Commis,” and the three grand prizes for the highest composite scores (bronze, silver, and gold).
This year, the Bocuse d’Or took place on Tuesday, January 25 and Wednesday, January 26. The United States competed on the second day.
France has topped the podium the most, having won nine trophies, six of which have been gold.
Norway follows closely with eight trophies, four of which have been gold.
Both Belgium and Sweden have now been to the podium five times each. Belgium has never won gold. Mattias Dahlgren won a gold trophy for Sweden in 1997.
In 1989, Léa Linster became the first (and only) woman to win the Bocuse d’Or. She is also remains the only Luxembourgeois to visit the podium.
The United States has never made it to the podium. Its highest placement has been sixth: once in 2003 by Harmut Handke, and the second time in 2009 by Timothy Hollingsworth, who is currently the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry.
* * *
At a competition held at the Culinary Institute of America in February of 2010, a panel of American chefs selected James Kent, sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, to represent the United States at the 2011 Bocuse d’Or. Kent tapped 22 year-old Tom Allan, also a cook at Eleven Madison Park, as his commis.
In the following year, the two trained in special kitchens configured to replicate the competition kitchen at the Bocuse d’Or (Bouley in New York and The French Laundry in California).
Coaching Kent and Allan were the last two American candidates to the Bocuse d’Or: Gavin Kaysen, currently, the executive chef of Cafe Boulud in New York; and Timothy Hollingsworth, currently, the chef de cuisine at The French Laundry.
Team U.S.A. also included two assistants – Mark Erickson, a dean at the Culinary Institute of America, and Dan Catinella, a stagier and student at the French Culinary Institute – both of whom traveled to Lyon to help Kent and Allan prepare for the competition.
This year, the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation was chaired by Daniel Boulud. The president of the foundation was Thomas Keller, who also represented the United States to the international jury table at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon (he judged the meat presentations).
* * *
Day 1: Monday, January 24
Team U.S.A. had already been in Lyon for a week and a half by the time I arrived from Paris.
Paul Bocuse had opened his kitchen at l’Abbaye de Collonges to Team U.S.A. for their final days of training and preparation. This “abbey” is a restaurant and event space built around the Bocuse family homestead. Situated along an idyllic stretch of the River Saône, about three miles outside of the Lyon, it’s just down the road from Bocuse’s more well-known restaurant, Restaurant Paul Bocuse.
Far on the other side of the city is Eurexpo, a mammoth convention center and home to Sihra and the Bocuse d’Or. Getting there was a schlep. Those who didn’t have cars had to take the underground train to Vaulx-en-Velin la Soie and then transfer to a shuttle to get to the convention site.
The city, saturated with nearly a quarter-million Sihra attendees, was overwhelmed with traffic. Getting to and from Eurexpo during rush hour, whether by car or shuttle, was a crawl. I understand that Lyon is currently building a dedicated train line from the city to Eurexpo, slated to open in time for the next Sihra and Bocuse d’Or in 2013. If they successfully meet that deadline, I hope it will significantly streamline the commute.
I arrived at Eurexpo just in time to watch the award ceremony for the Coupe du Monde (Spain, Italy, and Belgium – in that order). Shortly thereafter, I made a quick sprint through the newly built Paul Bocuse Hall with Team U.S.A. before being whisked off to dinner.
We all piled out of our taxis and into l’Est, one of Paul Bocuse’s four compass brasseries in Lyon. There, we had Serrano ham and salad, steak and cod, and a host of desserts, including a wonderfully spongy baba soaked with a boozy lime syrup, and a pile of buttery gaufrettes served with hot chocolate, whipped cream, and apple sauce.
* * *
Day 2: Tuesday, January 25
As the first day of the Bocuse d’Or commenced, Team U.S.A. finished their preparations in a quiet kitchen on the other side of the city.
L’Abbaye de Collonges is beautiful.
It’s a meeting of old and new, a preservationist’s dream. Inside is Paul Bocuse’s grandmother’s kitchen, intact and untouched. There is also a grand dining hall, flamboyantly dressed with a fairground motif to complement an amazing Gaudin mechanical organ from 1915 (you can read about this organ’s history on the abbey’s website). Every hour, it would pipe up in a rousing round of song and dance, whirring and clicking at the direction of Paul Bocuse in effigy, a whisk in one hand, a wooden spoon in the other. It was high culinary camp. Great chefs around the world, including Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, were celebrated on plaques posted high on the walls above the dining room.
I arrived in the earlier hours of the morning to find Kaysen labeling and organizing a heap of boxes and supplies.
In the kitchen, Kent and Allan worked calmly and quietly, with Erickson and Catinella by their side. I was humbled by the respect and collegiality amongst them. Despite the focus and intensity, they remained relaxed and limber, stopping every so often for a laugh and a spoof.
Arriving a little later, with cameramen in tow, were Heidi Hanson and Chris Warner, the Emmy -nominated and James Beard Award-winning documentary team best known for their series, “Chefs A’Field.” They had been hired by the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation to document the American team’s year-long journey to Lyon.
Heidi and Chris generously adopted me into their crew, putting up with my amateur ways and letting me ride along with them.
Around noon, I decided to get out of the team’s hair and headed up the road to Restaurant Paul Bocuse for a long lunch (that post to come).
I returned to the abbey in the afternoon to find the team wrapping up their prep work and running through their checklists. A moment of Christmas visited the abbey kitchen in the late afternoon when a courier arrived with a box of herbs and vegetables from faraway Huron, Ohio, an anxiously anticipated delivery of produce from The Chef’s Garden.
Around five o’clock, with speed racks filled and safely stored, we sped off towards Eurexpo, hoping to make a publicity group shot of all of the chefs, coaches, and jury members. It was a truly epic assembly of toques.
The kitchens having been cleared and cleaned from the first day of competition, the twelve remaining teams were allowed into their assigned “boxes” for the first time to check their equipment and configure their spaces as needed.
Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud came by to part last-minute notes and good wishes before heading off with the international jury members and other esteemed chefs, like Jean-Georges Klein of l’Arnsbourg and the perennially hatted Marc Veyrat, to the Hotel de Ville to attend a grand gala hosted by the mayor of Lyon.
Team U.S.A. headed off to another one of Bocuse’s brasseries for dinner, this time, with the compass pointing to l’Ouest.
There, Daniel Humm, executive chef of Eleven Madison Park, and Will Guidara, the general manager of Eleven Madison Park, both of whom arrived from New York earlier that day, joined the team to host and toast their colleagues.
While the team carb-loaded on pasta, I had a beautifully cooked filet of salmon coated with a rich cream sauce threaded with fresh dill and sorrel. And before that, a patch of mâche, ringed by meaty artichoke hearts and skinned tomato wedges.
Early to bed, early to rise.
* * *
Day 3: Wednesday, January 26
It was dark and snowing when we arrived at the abbey at 4:30 a.m.
I’ll never forget the sight and sound of Kent walking into the kitchen that morning, wearing an ”NYPD Homicide Squad” t-shirt under a Ralph Lauren fleece and blasting “Gonna Fly Now” (a.k.a. the “Rocky” theme song) on his iPhone.
While the boys loaded their prep work onto the truck, Catinella made the team breakfast: scrambled eggs; home fries; and delicious, bespoke bacon that Kaysen had brought from the U.S., glazed with honey from Mrs. Obama’s White House apiary.
Most of the teams arrived at the Paul Bocuse Hall at the same time, around 6:30 a.m.
In the two hours before the competition, the hall filled with bullhorns and cow bells (I’m looking a you, Switzerland), and flags of all different colors.
Newly built and inaugurated for this year’s Bocuse d’Or, the Paul Bocuse Hall seated 2,400 spectators at this event. At the very front of the seating area, with the best view of the action, was a narrow trench reserved for the press. Behind it were the sponsor boxes, spacious and comfortable. Behind the sponsor boxes was a stretch of VIP seating, and on the upper deck, general admission.
Team U.S.A. was assigned to box 8, between the teams from the United Kingdom and Malaysia, the latter of which was the only all-female team in the competition’s history.
The stands facing the American kitchen filled with families and friends from all over our country, including a corps of notable chefs, among whom were Roland Passot of La Folie, Paul Bartolotta, Alain Sailhac of the French Culinary Institute, Scott Boswell of Stella!, and, Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park.
* * *
* * *
At 8:30 a.m., Tommy Myllymaki of Sweden, in box 1, began cooking, followed by the rest of the teams in ten-minute intervals.
Around ten o’clock, I kicked off to grab an early lunch at a special presentation by Christian LeSquer in the Nespresso VIP suite.
I returned to the Paul Bocuse Hall shortly before noon, when all of the members of the press were forced into that narrow pen, immobilized for the next three hours. To show you how insanely crowded it was, I took this photo of Heidi Hanson a few yards down from me. I was smashed between Joshua David Stein, then-senior editor of Eater National, and a surly television cameraman from Poland, who made my head the subject of a malevolent round of Whac-a-Mole every time he swung his camera to the right.
This year’s Bocuse d’Or featured products from Scotland. For the fish presentation, each candidate was given two Scottish monkfish (each weighing 5 kg), four crabs, and 20 langoustines. For the meat presentation, each candidate was required to prepare two Scottish lamb saddles (each weighing 3 kg), lamb kidneys, and a shoulder of lamb. Additionally, the candidates had rice and lamb tongue at their disposal.
At 1:30 p.m., Sweden presented the first fish platter, followed by the rest of the countries at ten-minute intervals. The order was repeated at 2:05 with the meat platters.
Each platter was carried by a couple of MOFs (Meilleurs Ouvriers de France***), first paraded in front of the judges, then passed by the press. The platter was then taken to a side table, where the presenting chef, having come out of his/her box, plated fourteen individual portions – one for each of the twelve jury members, and one for each of the two honorary jury members. Another plate was assembled and walked by the press. This process was repeated with each platter.
Despite a couple of minor traffic jams, the timing was surprisingly smooth, with platters coming at a manageable pace.
The platters, all of which were custom-made for this event, ranged from the Philistine to the refined.**** Understandably, polished chrome was a popular material, as was glass. The Scandinavians, I noticed, seemed especially keen on using mirrors and liquid nitrogen.
Visually, the most memorable platters included the Danish fish presentation, which was a dazzling display of smoke and mirrors (literally). Flooded with flashes from the press, it appeared like a diamond necklace, glittering, brilliant. His meat platter was equally stunning.
The German fish platter was absurd and arresting at once, a curved, double-decker piece of metal with rows of forks and cylindrical placeholders.
The Swedish lamb platter was a creative take on a rotisserie, with a strip of lamb “turning” above a box of “fire.”
The Norwegian lamb platter walked a fine line between primal and prissy. The saddles rested in rib cages above a beautiful garden of greens, as orderly as Diane de Poitier’s garden.
Unfortunately, only the international jury members can compare the presentations by taste.
On Team U.S.A.’s platters, Kent and Allan tried to convey their American culinary heritage, taking the international jury to New England with a clambake and oysters Rockefeller, and to a steakhouse with creamed spinach and baked potatoes.
The American platters were designed by BMW, with “New York” as inspiration. The fish platter, for example, was designed to evoke the shores of Sag Harbor, home of James Kent, with a curving row of pier poles lined with fresh seaweed.
* * *
* * *
Of course, we all know that the United States didn’t make it to the podium this year (I’ve listed the final standings HERE). Scandinavia swept the trophies, with Denmark, Sweden, and Norway finishing in that order.
Rusmus Kofoed, this year’s winner had competed twice before. In 2005, he took the bronze statue home. In 2007, he won the silver trophy. Skipping the 2009 Bocuse d’Or, he opened Geranium, a restaurant in Copenhagen, and gained his first Michelin star. He returned to the competition circuit in 2010, winning the Bocuse d’Or Europe and became the first chef to enter the Bocuse d’Or for a third time. He arrived in Lyon vowing to complete his family of statutes. He left successful.
In what was, to me, the most touching moment of the entire event, Maiko Imazawa, young and petite, was named the “Best Commis,” a woman in a sea of men. It took her a few minutes to get to the podium, the crowd tearing up with her. Her prize was a ceramic goose, nearly her equal in size.
Although I was disappointed to see the United States miss the podium, I’m buoyed by the spirit and attitude of our team. Having spent a couple of days with Kent and co., both inside and outside the kitchen, I can confidently say that the United States could not have assembled a more positive and professional group of chefs to represent them on the international stage. I congratulate them on their accomplishments, not the least of which was making me proud to be an American.
I am confident that Mssrs. Kent’s and Allan’s names will not rest with this post. I look forward to their bright futures.
In the meantime, I turn to 2013 and hope to see our starred and spangled on that podium in Lyon.
* * *
My time in Lyon would not have been possible without the help and support of: Tom Allan, Monica Bhambhani, Scott Boswell, Tanya Boswell, Jerome Bocuse, Daniel Boulud, Lisa Callaghan, Wilman Colmanares, David Paul DeArmey, Heidi Hanson, Daniel Humm, Gavin Kaysen, Thomas Keller, Jamal James Kent, John Sconzo, Lucy Vanal, Bruno Verjus, Magdelena Walhoff, and Chris Warner.
* Restaurant Paul Bocuse received its third star in 1965 and has held that honor every year since.
** In 2009, the Honorary President of the Bocuse d’Or was Daniel Boulud.
*** The bid for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France was the subject of a recent documentary called “Kings of Pastry.” I highly recommend it.
PHOTOS (from top to bottom): Tom Allan, Gavin Kaysen, and James Kent in the foggy window at l’Abbaye de Collonges; Chef Paul Bocuse at the Bocuse d’Or 2011; Thomas Keller and James Kent at Brasserie l’Est in Lyon; James Kent, through a window in the morning light at l’Abbaye de Collonges; Tommy Myllymaki (Sweden, silver), Rasmus Kofoed (Denmark, gold), and Gunnar Hvarnes (Norway, bronze) atop the podium at the Bocuse d’Or. To see all of the photos I took at the Bocuse d’Or, CLICK HERE.