Tom Colicchio

Tom Colicchio provides insight into the culinary competition.

on Nov 18, 2009

With only five chefs left, you wouldn’t imagine we’d give them an easy challenge, would you?  Neither would they, though I believe this week’s – in which we staged our own mini-Bocuse d’Or – surpassed their wildest expectations.

The Bocuse d’Or. It’s an incredible competition. To date, it’s not as well-known in the U.S. as abroad, though I think that it will become better known here in the next few years, as the U.S. develops a stronger presence at it. But to give you information about the competition, I first need to give you some background on famed chef Paul Bocuse, who founded the competition and for whom it is named…and to do that, I first should say a word or two about nouvelle cuisine, a term which was used as far back as the 1740s, but which Paul Bocuse helped put into the spotlight in its most modern iteration.

In its modern usage, the term was a reaction to and departure from French cuisine classique, the traditional way of cooking French food. For one thing, it is credited with the plating of dishes prior to service, as opposed to tableside after their presentation to the diners on platters (so, yes, it is interesting that the Bocuse d’Or went back to platters). This led, in turn, to smaller portions and to attention to and development of presentation styles on the plate. It also led to exploration of the cooking itself. Cuisine classique was standardized; nouvelle cuisine led chefs to go outside traditional boundaries, bringing new, often regional fare into the mix, using fresh vegetables and fruits, relying less on the traditional heavy sauces. Because the food was plated, the personalities of the individual chefs began to show, which led to food writers wanting to know more about the chefs themselves, which led in turn to Paul Bocuse coming out of the kitchen and becoming a personality. He made no bones about it. When he started opening restaurants in Japan (he has six) and at Disney World, as well as a cooking school, he was asked, “who cooks when you are not here?” and he famously answered, “the same people who cook when I am here.”

And so Paul Bocuse, one of the original proponents of nouvelle cuisine, was the first celebrity chef of sorts. He created the Bocuse d’Or in his search for absolute exceptionalism in cooking.  He wanted to discover chefs who could elevate culinary art by creating a competition that whole nations could get behind. It’s become a huge international competition, approached like an international sporting event, often with state sponsorship of the participants (can you imagine going to Congress to ask for a line-item for this…?) It’s a spectator event, and rowdy attendees make noise for their nation’s participants. And it’s a pressure-cooker of a competition, cooking metaphor intended. The competitors begin preparations months in advance, first planning and figuring out their dishes over a period of months, down to the most minute details, then ascertaining how to make the most complex dishes in the shortest amount of time, then practicing for yet more months, over and over again, until they can execute the dishes like clockwork, with precision, down to the moment. The Norwegian team actually travels in a trailer with the exact proportions of the kitchen they’ll be cooking in. A documentary was made a few years ago about that year’s Spanish team, and it’s highly dramatic.

Of course, our five cheftestants had twelve hours, not several months. They had no chance to hone the dish before it went into practice. Before I say another word about their individual dishes, I want to say that what they accomplished in this small period of time was nothing short of amazing, even if our judges went on to judge them as critically as had they been competing in the actual Bocuse d’Or.