travel: one day more…

The Les Mis moment of this year's Bocuse d'Or

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In January of 2011, I went to Lyon a spectator, expecting little more than a fun detour on a two-week break from life. It turned out to be the start of the most incredible adventure I’ve known yet.

It’s hard to believe, but one more day and one day more has turned into two years.

I returned to Lyon this past January not only with Team USA, but as a part of Team USA, to photograph the American candidate, Richard Rosendale, and his commis, Corey Siegel, at the 2013 Bocuse d’Or.

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Institut Paul Bocuse

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I’ve never known Lyon to be anything but unbearably hot (in the summer) or painfully cold (in the winter). So I was surprised how mild the temperature was when I arrived at the Gare Perrache via the TGV from Paris.

In the last competition cycle, the American candidate, James Kent, and his commis, Tom Allan, had trained in the beautiful kitchen of the storied l’Abbaye de Collonges, one of Paul Bocuse’s many restaurants in Lyon. This time, Team USA (which included head coach Gavin Kaysen; assistant coach Gabriel Kreuther; Monica Bhambhani, director of events; Dan Scannell, one of Rosendale’s mentors; and Christopher Kocsis, an apprentice at The Greenbrier who flew over on his own dime to assist the team) rented a kitchen at Paul Bocuse’s culinary school, the Institut Paul Bocuse, in the outlying suburb of Ecully.

By the time they arrived in Lyon a week in advance of the Bocuse d’Or, Rosendale and Siegel had already completed all of their practice runs. So, they were able to devote their time in the bright and spacious corner kitchen (outfitted with multiple Molteni suites – all vintage, and all immaculate – and the only source of heat in the kitchen) at the Institut Paul Bocuse to wrangling last-minute logistics in preparation for the competition.

Considering the strict rules of the competition, the Bocuse d’Or, in many ways, is more about strategy and logistics than it is about cooking. The number of moving parts that Team USA had to coordinate was staggering.

Unlike many of the other competitors, some of whom drove their equipment to Lyon from neighboring countries, almost everything that Team USA needed for the competition had to be pre-packed and freighted overseas. Simply unpacking and taking inventory of every item that had been shipped from the United States took a couple of days. And then, there was produce to be received, ingredients to be organized, and a platter to be assembled and polished.

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1st Course: Lentil Salad

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Lunches during these pre-competition days were usually quick and simple – a makeshift sandwich buffet in the practice kitchen, for example, or an efficient three-course prix-fixe at F&B, the cleverly named student-run restaurant inside the culinary school. The meal I had there was a parade of French classics, like saucisson brioché, and roasted dorade with saffroned potatoes fondant and rouille. It was surprisingly good.

One day, I escaped into the city and met up with some friends for lunch at Le Bouchon des Filles, a tiny bouchon serving wine in thick-bottomed pots Lyonnais, and a three-course prix-fixe menu of comforting, local favorites like quenelles de brochet in a creamy bath of crayfish sauce, and steaming lengths of andouillette smothered in red gravy. As good as those main courses were, what I remember the most were the fried curls of intestines that they put out for us at the beginning of our meal. They looked like palmiers, and were just as buttery. I loved them.

No, the food in Lyon is not slimming.

And for that reason, I particularly welcomed the salads at Le Bouchon des Filles, which included a wonderful bowl of lentils topped with strips of gently salted fish, and another of diced beets with thinly sliced head cheese that had gone ruby-red in the mix. There was also a salad of mixed greens tossed with gougères (yes, the cheesy choux pastry puffs). All of these were served family-style.

One day, we skipped lunch altogether and went to Lyon’s famous chocolaterie, Bernachon, for sweets. I bought some orangettes (I’ve written about them before), chocolate-covered candied ginger, and a couple of “tablettes” of chocolate, including one studded with fat, boozy rum raisins.

Next door at Bernachon’s sit-down café, my friends indulged in ice cream while I revisited the “Kilimanjaro,” a sundae of vanilla ice cream and candied chestnuts capped, generously, with whipped cream, candied almonds, and curls of dark chocolate. It was just as I remembered it.

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MOF at the pass.

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While we were pretty efficient at lunchtime, dinners ran long. I am accustomed to sitting through lengthy meals. And most of the time – especially when in good company – I relish the unhurried pace. But, the slowness of restaurant service in Lyon is something altogether different. If it weren’t for the fact that there was wine and water to be sold and poured, on numerous occasions, I was sure that we had been abandoned.

By the end of my week in Lyon, I had resigned myself to the fact that dinner in this city was a four-hour commitment.

Team USA rode the Bocuse circuit of brasseries; dinner at a different one each night (most of them are named after compass points): le Nord, l’Ouest, l’Est, and le Sud. We also ate at l’Auberge du Fond Rose, the newest addition to Paul Bocuse’s Lyonnais empire. The menus at all of them are, more or less, the same – a host of familiar French classics with a few daily specials thrown in for variety. The cooking at all of them is reliably good, which explains their popularity.

I ordered a different main course every night. Among them was a fat fist of roasted sweetbreads, tender kidneys swimming in mustard sauce, and a steaming pot of choucroute garni, which I shared with a few others. But I always bookended my Bocuse brasserie meals with the same two dishes: a simple salad aux fines herbes to start, and baba au rhum to end. I love baba.

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Lyon at night.

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Exhausted by the long dinners, the team members opted to spend a couple of quiet nights at the hotel.

I took the opportunity to slip away into the city with friends.

One night, Roland Passot, chef of the Michelin one-starred La Folie in San Francisco and a Lyonnais by birth, joined my friend Mango and me at Le Centre, Georges Blanc’s new steakhouse. The interior of this restaurant looked as as if Mickey Mouse had graffitied the bright red walls of a bougie wine bar with his happy, loopy scrawl (the font was identical to Walt Disney’s). We had sardine rillette (I’ve never seen this before), patted into a shiny sardine tin, and a super-tender and flavorful Australian Wagyu onglet with a boat of morels swimming in vin jaune sauce. That was a great piece of meat.

For dessert, we shared some cheese and a creamy café Liégeois (a sundae of coffee ice cream, coffee, and whipped cream).

Afterward, Passot drove us up to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière for a midnight lookout over the sparkling city.

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Cheese Cart

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Christian Têtedoie, one of the M.O.F.s who paraded platters for the Bocuse d’Or that weekend, has a Michelin one-starred restaurant in Lyon. I had dinner there with Dave Beran, who had flown to Lyon with TeethBracelet to do some recon for the upcoming Bocuse d’Or menu at Next, where he is the executive chef.

From its perch high above the city, near the basilica, Restaurant Têtedoie offers an unobstructed, panoramic view of Lyon. We watched the ferris wheel down in the Place Bellecour blink and turn, blink and turn, blink and turn, until it blinked and turned no more. Our dinner, as usual, ran long and late.

By the time we finished our three-course dinner, there was only one other table left. But even at that late hour, the staff seemed to be in no hurry for us to leave, enticing us to stay a little longer with a round of cognac and armagnac on the house.

The menu at Têtedoie rambles a bit. In addition to an à la carte menu, there are four different tasting menus. The food here shows promising underpinnings of hearty, classical cooking – suckling pig, head to tail; whole lobster with calf’s head and roasted salsify; and rump of veal roasted over hay, carved table-side – done with some care. But, there is an attempt at modernization that gets in the way of what otherwise could be simple and delicious food. Plating was fussy and busy, and sometimes, a bit sloppy – they needed to be edited down. And a few dishes seemed to reach beyond the creative capacity of the kitchen – a gritty clam dish with quenelles of mushroom mousse comes to mind. It was cold and clammy (excuse the pun), and together, it made no sense whatsoever.

The cheese cart at Têtedoie, however, offered a nice selection beyond the usual suspects. And there was a lovely chestnut soufflé at the very end.

Otherwise, I say: go for the view.

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Gavin Kaysen

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But one doesn’t go to Lyon (considered the capital of French gastronomy) for a taste of modernity. One goes there for fatty, saucy reminders of yesteryear.

And you’ll find it in places like Denise et Daniel, one of Lyon’s more well-known bouchons. Chef Daniel Boulud, one of the three board members of the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation (the other two are Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse) organized a team dinner for the American coaches and supporting crew here. It was my favorite meal in Lyon.

While the rain pattered outside, we feasted family-style, passing around oversized portions of regional dishes like a cold, creamy salad of shredded lamb trotter collagen (salade de clapeton d’agneau), and squares of breaded and fried tripe served with sauce gribiche (tablier de sapeur). There was salade Lyonnaise, much more lardon than frisée; fluffy quenelles au brochet, more fat than fish; and large crocks of duck liver mousse under a jiggly skin of cognac. Pithiviers stuffed with oxtail; pâté en croute with a wide avenue of foie gras running through its mosaic middle; glazed slices of pork belly; boudin noir; macaroni and cheese, a rich blonde with golden-brown highlights: we had them all, and more. And at the end, each of us got a roasted apple that was thickly coated with hot, buttery caramel at the table.

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Au marché.

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As you probably know by now, Team USA did not make it to the podium this year. Richard Rosendale and Corey Siegel placed seventh, behind Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Japan (bronze), Denmark (silver), and France (gold). So, the United States continues its quest for a statute at the Bocuse d’Or competition. (The highest placing U.S. competitors to date have been Hartmut Handke in 2003, and Timothy Hollingsworth in 2009. Both took sixth place.)

The internet is a rich resource. You will find almost everything you want to know about this year’s Bocuse d’Or online. But, I wish to add a few of my own thoughts about the competition here:

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MOF secrets.

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This year, the committee changed some of the rules of the competition. I suspect that this was prompted by growing criticism that the Bocuse d’Or had become an antiquated exercise.

In the past, both the competition meat and fish were announced early in the cycle, giving competitors quite a long time to plan and practice their presentations. This year, the meat (beef) was announced early in the cycle, as it had been before. But the fish was not announced until November of last year – just two months before the Bocuse d’Or. This leveled the playing field, slightly, for the competitors who were unable to train full-time for the competition.

Also, in the past, competitors presented both meat and fish on grand platters that were paraded around the stadium before the food was portioned and plated individually for the judges. This year, candidates were instructed to plate the fish directly onto individual plates for service.  There would no longer be a fish platter.

The committee also announced that two of the garnishes for the fish plates had to be cooked from ingredients that the competitors would find in a “pop-up” marketplace the day before the competition.

While it was never verbalized, these new rules regarding the fish dish suggested to me that the Bocuse d’Or committee realized that the nature of the competition had changed, and that it needed to evolve the competition in order for it to remain relevant. More than before, competitors are cooking for cameras, and not just for the judges. It has become a spectator sport.

So, the new rules added an element of spontaneity, making the competition a more dynamic and exciting event to watch unfold – especially with the marketplace component (the marketplace also brought on additional sponsorship from produce vendors). Instead of waiting for candidates to assemble their pre-fab platters as in years past, we now actually get to see them work through a dish, from market to table.

But, the committee was smart to leave the meat platter untouched. It remains an opportunity for candidates to showcase their technical prowess and grandstand the crowds with their precision and style. The fish dish now gives candidates the added opportunity to prove to the judges (and audience) that they can actually cook. The ideal result, of course, is a more well-rounded winner.

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Bocuse d'Or Meat Platter: Japan

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Yet, it surprised me that most of the fish dishes this year looked just as practiced and manipulated as in years past. Although the rules changed, the candidates’ approach, largely, did not.

In my opinion, this was a tremendous opportunity wasted.

But I can sympathize with the candidates. If you look at the presentations of the past winners, they are, more or less, the same in style and form. The platters are shiny and bright, and the food has been transformed into colorful, geometric figures. To deviate from this is a risk. Who would be a pioneer and wade into uncharted territory and dare to write a new, winning formula?

Noriyuki Hamada.

Not only did his presentations detour from the norm, but this year, the Japanese candidate’s meat and fish presentations also displayed a level of thinking and meaning that few others achieved.

Hamada’s meat platter came in the form of an open book, with the gutter bifurcating the surface and the food arranged on the two open pages. When he plated the food, he unfurled a rolled-up ribbon of radish onto the plates, as if unrolling a scroll. In that one instant, captured by the cameras and projected onto the monitors in the stadium for all to see, he bridged the gap between the East and West, a storyteller worthy of his international audience. The crowd went silent. It was brilliant.

Whereas all of the other candidates presented their fish on white china, Hamada presented his fish dish inside of a bento box. He also instructed the servers to face the judges when presenting the bento boxes. All of the other candidates had their plates served to the judges from behind. He also instructed the serves to bow to the judges after opening the bento boxes. There was something lovely and thoughtful about the sight of twelve, young culinary students bowing to a row of their elders. It was very Asian, and very different.

Noriyuki Hamada became the first Japanese candidate to stand on the podium in Lyon. I didn’t get to taste his food, of course. But, for opening a door to new possibilities for future candidates, I thought Hamada was very deserving of his award.

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Bocuse d'Or Meat Platter: France

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The French meat platter was stunning. I can’t not write about it, even if just to mention its title “Versailles 2013,” stenciled to one side. That caption captured its grandeur and elegance wonderfully. It was a haute couture sketch of those famous palatial gardens of the Louises, with rows of perfectly trimmed hedges and pretty little fountains topped with egg shells.

All of this was gilded in gold (I can’t recall a candidate ever using a golden platter). The paleron was presented en croute, the beautiful tube of pastry stenciled on the outside with a flower pattern in gold. That same pattern was mimicked on a gorgeous dome of puff pastry – just as golden in color as that platter – that came galloping behind.

In this one presentation, Thibaut Ruggeri paid tribute to the two thrones of France: the crown in Versailles and the toque in Lyon. That dome of pastry was a reference to Paul Bocuse’s famous “Soupe aux Truffes Noirs ‘V.G.E.,'” which Bocuse created in 1978 for then-president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Thibaut Ruggeri became the seventh French candidate to win the Bocuse d’Or. Again, I didn’t taste his food. But based on his presentations alone, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, as soon as Ruggeri’s platter was presented, I turned to the members of the French press beside me and congratulated them. Just as I was certain that Kofoed would win in 2011 based on his presentations, I was certain that Ruggeri had bagged the golden Bocuse this year.

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The viper pit.

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Photographing the Bocuse d’Or is not as glamorous or easy as it may seem.

For the first half of each day of the two-day competition, members of the press are given access to the floor, where they can get close-up shots of the candidates in their competition boxes. This is, by far, the best part of photographing the competition.

But, when the judges are seated, the press is pushed back into a narrow corridor that runs the width of the stadium.

Once in the pit, there is no leaving (you can leave, but you won’t be able to get back in). Packed like sardines, we were smashed boob-to-back – no bathroom break, no food, no water – until the competition ended.

The international press corps is a ruthless lot. Everyone is out for themselves. There are no rules, and very little ethics. Photographers and cameramen will cut throats to get their glory shots. They will move your tripod, camera bag, or belongings when you’re not looking to steal your space. They will elbow and jab, and step on your feet repeatedly in hopes that you’ll move aside. They’ll swing their huge television cameras side-to-side, hoping to take out at least one or two competitors in their way.

Having to tolerate the abusive practices of the press is the one aspect of the Bocuse d’Or that I loathe (and sadly for me, it is the only aspect of the Bocuse d’Or with which I must deal). Part of the problem is that the event coordinators don’t screen the press (for example, asking for credentials or a photography portfolio). Practically, anyone with a camera or notepad, claiming to be a member of the press, can get in. And so, you have way too many bodies pinned in a very small space, with no food, no drink, and no break. Naturally, egos run high, emotions run hot, and tempers will flare. Reducing the number of people in the press pit, alone, would alleviate some of the nastiness.

Then there’s getting the shot. The platters and plates are paraded the length of the press pit, usually at a speed that is too fast to get a decent shot. Some of the M.O.F.s are pretty good about pausing every step to allow photographers to get their clicks in. But a few fly by, only pausing every ten or fifteen feet. So, depending on where you’re standing in the pit, you may not get a shot of every platter.

I hope the event coordinators can improve this aspect of the event. Two days of fighting for space in the pit – especially after the awards ceremony on the last day, when it floods with a dangerous amount of people (the crush of the press trying to get back into the pit right before the awards ceremony got very scary at one point) – will dispirit even the most upbeat person.

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Bocuse d'Or

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It has been a privilege and pleasure serving as the official photographer for Team USA in the 2013 cycle. Not only was I granted access to some incredible events and given the opportunity to capture some amazing moments, but I forged some very important friendships along the way. For me, that was the best part of it all.

I look forward to the next competition cycle and hope to see an American on the podium in Lyon in 2015.

The day after the competition, I got on a plane to Copenhagen. I’ll account for that trip under a separate post. In the meantime, here are photos of the meals I ate during my week in Lyon:

Auberge du Fond Rose (Lyon)
Brasserie le Nord (Lyon)
Brasserie l’Ouest (Lyon)
Daniel et Denise (Lyon)
F&B (Ecully)
Le Bouchon des Filles (Lyon)
Le Caro de Lyon (Lyon)
Le Centre (Lyon)
Têtedoie (Lyon)

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Photos: A Frenchman waving the French flag at the Bocuse d’Or, Lyon, France; a portrait of Paul Bocuse at the Institut Paul Bocuse in Ecully, France; a cold lentil salad with salted fish at le Bouchon des Filles in Lyon, France; an M.O.F. at the pass at Auberge du Fond Rose in Lyon, France; with Roland Passot and Monica Bhambhani at the Notre Dame de Fourvière, Lyon, France; cheese cart at Têtedoie in Lyon, France; Gavin Kaysen at Daniel et Denise in Lyon, France; Corey Seigel, Gavin Kaysen, and Richard Rosendale at the pop-up marketplace at Eurexpo, Lyon, France; M.O.F.s telling secrets at the Eurexpo in Lyon, France; the Japanese meat platter at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France; a giant puff pastry, a part of the French meat platter, at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France; Davy Tissot, M.O.F., parades a plate in front of the press pit at the Bocuse d’Or, Lyon, France; Thibaut Ruggeri, the seventh French candidate to win the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France.

~ by ulterior epicure on March 14, 2013.

4 Responses to “travel: one day more…”

  1. Wow – what an amazing experience! Kudos to you for jamming in with all those other photographers!

  2. link not working

  3. @Andrea: Which one?

  4. The “Brasserie le Nord” link at the end doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

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