Burning Questions

Jerome Bocuse has some thoughts and advice for the cheftestant.

Nov 19, 2009

While nobody knows for sure what lies ahead for Kevin Gillespie in the Top Chef season finale, one thing is for certain after this week’s episode: his cooking competition days will extend at least until February, when he competes in the trials to select the American team that will represent the United States at the next Bocuse d’Or, sometimes nicknamed the Olympics of Cooking. A spot in that competition, along with 30,000 smackers, was his prize for winning this week’s elimination challenge—not bad for four hours’ work.

Kevin, along with guest judge Jerome Bocuse, were among the culinary glitterati in attendance at a Top Chef viewing party (and Bocuse d’Or USA fundraiser) at Astor Center in New York City last night. Also there were Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Daniel Boulud, Café Boulud’s Gavin Kaysen (who competed for the US at the 2007 Bocuse d’Or), Top Chef Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg, as well as assorted food journalists and chefs including Corton’s Paul Liebrandt and Artisanal’s Terrance Brennan.

As detailed in my upcoming book Knives at Dawn, in many ways, the Bocuse d’Or is a sporting event—a 5 1/2 hour marathon for which the teams train for months under the guidance of a culinary coach. Subtly reinforcing the sports theme, Top Chef engaged in two crucial head fakes last night: the first was creating the distinct impression that Kevin would be a fish hopelessly out of water in Bocuse d’Or territory. When it was announced that the food would have to be presented on mirrored platters, Kevin’s eyes almost crossed as he processed the information—how would this suit his decidedly un-show-offy style? He then decided to try cooking sous vide, a technique he had never used before, which is a very dicey proposition.  All the ingredients were in place for one of the more shocking upsets in Top Chef history.

(At the party, Kevin commented to me that he had another challenge to face—getting past cooking for Keller: Though he has never worked for the icon, his books have been an inspiration to him: “I could never thank him for the impact on my career,” said Kevin, who didn’t find a moment to convey this to Keller personally. “Unfortunately, I froze up when he came around. I wish I had used my words to thank him the way that I could. I’ve never had the opportunity to tell him how important his books have been to me and how important his views on food are to what I do for a living.”  Kevin was also impressed that although Keller is a famously exacting chef: “He was a real nice guy, very pleasant to deal with… he has very high standards; on the other hand he understood the constraints we were under, the pressure we were under, and was very gracious about that.”)

The other head fake was that while promos for the show emphasized the first-ever presence of Bocuse d’Or USA president Thomas Keller on the program, it was Jerome Bocuse, Vice President of the Bocuse d’Or USA, who actually joined the regulars at the Judges’ Table. This made perfect sense: Keller and Boulud—who were among those at the dinner table who tasted the cheftestants’ food—are often at the center of media attention for their leadership roles in the Bocuse d’Or USA, but it’s their partner in the enterprise, Bocuse—on board from the get-go—who brings the deepest institutional knowledge of the Bocuse d’Or to the effort.  In addition to his literal relationship to the competition (his father, iconic chef Paul Bocuse is its founder), Jerome Bocuse was the English language emcee of the event in Lyon, France, for years. He knows the competition in his bones—which is the only way to truly understand the distinct and highly nuanced combination of technique, flavor, and visual punch required to medal at the event. His instincts for what will fly and what won’t will be crucial to advising the next American team.