We Cook Pretty One Day
Would It Kill America to Watch the Bocuse d’Or?
America won its first-ever medal at the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France, last week. Perhaps you missed it.
Chef Philip Tessier and his assistant, Skylar Stover, took second place in the 24-team competition. Team USA had 1662 points. Norway won the gold medal with just 7 points more. Honorary President Grant Achatz did a doubletake on announcing the silver-medal winner. Much toque-tilting jubilation ensued. In the decades since the event began, America had never gotten above sixth, and no non-European country had ever won the silver medal.
A few days later, Achatz tweeted, “Why doesn’t mainstream media care about Bocuse?”
Is it because we’re not chefs?
To be correct, neither are the winners of the Bocuse d’Or. The vast majority of entrants are working sous chefs from hotels, restaurants, and other private hospitality venues. The competition gives them a chance to define their personal vision and brand, on a world stage.
Though serious as a truth-commission hearing, the Bocuse d’Or is above all a show. It goes down in a convention center on the outskirts of Lyon, in a trade-show space filled stadium-style with more than 2,500 fans from 24 countries blasting vuvuzelas, shaking rattles, and chanting to exhort their team of three – a chef, a commis (or assistant), and a coach – laboring below in a row of side-by-side kitchen “boxes.” Think dinner service at a raucous casino:
Each team has 5 hours and 35 minutes to prepare two themed platters – one meat, one fish – plus a 14-plate service of the meat offering and present them to a 24-judge, 24-nation panel. Prep and parading of plates and platters included, the live spectacle takes two days. Behind that? Two years of preparation, from selection to setup.
Into each 194-square-foot stall, a team arrays the same kit of major equipment: a Convotherm combi oven specially designed for the Bocuse, two induction cooktops, a fridge and a freezer (quaintly termed “positive” and “negative” refrigeration in the English translation of the 45-page rulebook), a blast chiller, some sous-vide equipment, a KitchenAid mixer, and more.
By far the bulk of the hardware in the stall, however, is each team’s own prep, service, and storage equipment, and above all, the platter. Where the humblest piece of equipment can cause a team to lose, its meat platter alone can make the difference for a win.
It is common practice for the platter’s fabricator to design the whole presentation kit: molds, tools, serveware – which makes sense until you consider that said conveyance is typically only slightly less practical than the food it supports. A team once commissioned flatware just for the judges that featured Paul Bocuse’s silhouette between the tines of the forks. This year, Team USA took care to share winning accolades with Crucial Detail, the Chicago company that crafted their rig with six 12-volt circuits and 36 elements heating each garnish individually, for a result that, if gaspworthy, still seems relatively understated.
All the team’s gear must be curated down to the tweezer along the principles of familiarity and fit. The goal is to replicate the kitchens where the teams have trained and built the muscle memory needed for flawless execution. But every stock pot, Vitamix blender, dehydrator, plancha, and thermometer is subject to the capacity constraints of shipping containers, rented vans, and storage units overseas. (Cha-ching!)
All that fundraising and preparation makes for some rich backstory indeed – as do America’s repeated attempts to get to the podium. In 2007, Paul Bocuse himself suggested to Daniel Boulud that the US get serious, prompting Boulud, Thomas Keller, and others to create an organization called Ment’or and a funding stream for the training and support of American competitors. That year, Chef Gavin Kaysen lost epically. As he told Serious Eats in a 2013 interview, “It was a very Ben Stiller moment where we were supposed to put ’14th Place’ on our refrigerator!” As it happened, some chicken wings missing from Kaysen’s meat platter were found to have been “mistakenly” eaten by a French dishwasher – a man, mind you; not a Miele.
Live drama? Check. Great backstory? You bet. Self-renewing cast of young heroes? Oui, chef! Our mainstream audiences love us some Iron Chef, NASCAR, Super Bowl, and many another highly contrived display of endurance, control, and greed. Again, why is it that the Bocuse d’Or can’t get the benefit the American media gives the Westminster Dog show?
Is it because we hate good food?
Lest chicken wings give the wrong impression, here is Team USA’s meat platter for 2015.
What arrives on the platters and plates counts for only about a third of the score for each of the team’s dishes. The judges break that down into points for complexity, originality, and knife skills. Then there’s kitchen organization: special “kitchen judges” spend hours eyeballing each stall for hygiene and tidiness, efficiency, and the comportment of the assistant. Leftovers lose you points.
Taste is judged on texture and suitable doneness, harmony of flavors, and sophistication and creativity. Oh—and regionalism. “In addition of presenting the Free Range Guinea Fowl Les Landes Label Rouge whole or recomposed,” read the 2015 announcement of the meat theme, “candidates will express their regional culinary culture, and will be given a mark for that aspect.”
Now, competitors may bring peeled vegetables, stocks, cured meats, and raw pastry, but not cut veggies, finished sauces, cooked meats, or baked pastry. Non-Europeans, who have to import ingredients from thousands of miles away, have struggled for years with this disadvantage. In a literal concession to those from outside Lyon, the Bocuse set up a farmer’s market a while back. A market of French farmers. Who grow French vegetables.
Curve balls are the stock in trade of the Bocuse d’Or — not to say of the French themselves — and are often thrown in the name of cultural and national terroir — not to say terror. But the resulting controversy, heroic adaptations of contestants, and polarized public opinion actually stimulate worldwide interest in the Bocuse d’Or. So, is it all just too, too French for the American media?
Is it because we’re American?
Although the Bocuse d’Or has made minor allowances for the spontaneous style and modernist techniques of American cuisine, these don’t diminish the overwhelming freak value of what gets paraded before the judges. It’s a funny race, and watching young Americans from the French Laundry extrude corn into a filament nest can add to the eccentricity of the spectacle if you remember that their boss also serves fried chicken at restaurants back in their own country.
What has changed as a result of Bocuse’s vision is the strength of the US team — and possibly much more, if that strength represents and leads to growing enthusiasm for the pursuit of higher standards in American culinary education and training. In this sense, America stands to benefit more from striving to execute hotel-catering frankenfeasts at the Bocuse d’Or than the European competition does from US participation.
The truth is, the Bocuse only just got interesting to America. Until we proved last week that we were capable of winning, the competition narrative couldn’t hold general interest. Stories like “Team USA Uses White House Honey” won’t capture audience for an international cookoff, no matter how delicious and rare the offering. A gold medal, on the other hand….
At the very least, Team USA now has a standing to defend, and with that, the appetite of American sponsors, audiences, and the media for victory at Bocuse d’Or 2017 has a chance to grow at last.