Burning Questions

Jerome Bocuse has some thoughts and advice for the cheftestant.

Nov 19, 2009

Having such a seasoned Bocuse d’Or presence as juror made it all the more impressive that Kevin was able to navigate the waters of this week’s challenge. Banking on the fundamental fairness of the judges, he decided to deliver, in his words, “complex flavor wrapped up in a very nice, neat, simple buckle.” In short, his food would be pretty, but not spectacular and—he hoped—simply taste better than the rest. (“My angle the entire time was that if I was going to do it simply, I had to do it perfectly,” he said at the party.) Even in the actual Bocuse d’Or, flavor counts for two-thirds of the score, against just one-third for presentation, so there was sound reasoning behind this strategy.

At the viewing party, I caught up to Jerome Bocuse to ask him about the episode and his thoughts on Kevin’s preparation for the Bocuse d’Or USA team-selection event, which takes place in February at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, NY.

You and your colleagues have made a lot of progress in explaining the Bocuse d’Or to Americans over the past year, how much do you think Top Chef helped in that effort?
Bocuse: It’s a great exposure to the general public. I think today the Bocuse d’Or is known among all the [culinary] professionals, but I’m not sure the general public has a great sense of awareness of it. The fact that we were on national television was great exposure and very useful in explaining what the Bocuse d’Or is all about.  It was the biggest exposure we’ve ever had here in America for sure.

People train for years for the real Bocuse d’Or.  Were you impressed by how well the cheftestants did with this challenge, given the very short time frame they had in which to create and serve their platters?
What mattered the most with those candidates was the fact that they have to adapt to any situation whether it’s the Bocuse d’Or, or any challenge. It puts them on the spot and they cannot think twice and have to just go for it. If we ever get a Bocuse d’Or candidate from Top Chef, I think the fact that he went through a season of experiencing that diversity of scenarios will give him a great in advantage in not only how to handle the pressure, but also how to adapt to different scenarios. There’s a lot of preparation for the Bocuse d’Or, but a lot can go wrong and you have to adapt quickly. Top Chef is great training, not only from a strictly culinary point of view but also for the experience. 

What did you think of Kevin’s approach of making his food look just enough and banking on the flavor to carry the day?
I think that was very smart and that’s where he won last night. At the end, what are we looking for? First of all, that the fundamentals of cooking are there:  the right amount of cooking, the right seasoning. Then you can extrapolate, and work on the details. But if you don’t have a solid foundation you can’t go any farther.  It’s like a house; if the foundation is weak, everything will collapse after two weeks.  In cooking it’s the same thing. Before you add the seasoning, push the envelope, go to molecular cuisine, or whatever, you have to be sure your base, your foundation, is strong, that the meat is going to be cooked to the proper temperature and so on. 

Kevin is a very proudly regional American chef.  Do you think he needs to adjust his palate to compete in the Bocuse d’Or?
It’s a tricky question. I don’t think for the American competition he should adjust it.  He should cook with his heart, cook what he believes in.  If you try to go against what you’re feeling, it won’t come natural to you. If you don’t, somehow it’s not going to be as good as it would as if you went with the inspiration in what you believe in. After [the American team selection event], when you go to the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, it’s a new story.  Here in the U.S., the judging panel will understand what American food is all about. When you go and compete in Lyon, you are being judged by twenty-four judges from twenty-four countries. One or two might understand what American food is about, but the other nations won’t. The approach is slightly different there.