All the chefs present, myself included, are on the advisory board of the American team. To clarify something that was not made express in the episode (though we’d made it clear to Kevin), Kevin did not win the spot itself, to cook for America in the next Bocuse d’Or. He won one of the coveted few spots to compete for that spot. So part of our goal in judging this challenge was to ascertain, based on the dishes we’d been given, which of our five chefs would be best suited to go into the competition; by structuring the competition as a mini-Bocuse d’Or and knowing about this extra prize for the first place dish, this was a tacit part of the criteria of the win. This is why I was careful to ask Timothy Hollingsworth, a sous-chef at the French Laundry, for his valued input – he’d been to the 2009 competition as the American representative and had placed sixth. I’ll explain, below, why, of our five chefs, Kevin well deserved the win.
Timothy knows the drill very well: Once we have our finalists, they spend two or three months in Napa in a kitchen on Thomas Keller’s property, practicing with a coach and working with some members of the advisory team. It is only in the past couple of years that we’ve really begun to focus on winning the competition. We feel that we have world-class chefs here in the US cooking cutting-edge cuisine, and they should be able to compete right alongside the French and the others. Unlike competitors from other countries, ours are not state-sponsored or backed by an organization. Occasionally, a chef has emerged from a hotel to compete and has received some support from that hotel, but not financial backing per se. We recognized that we needed the money to support the extensive training and preparation, and we needed our competitor to attend accompanied by a strong group of people so that the U.S. contestant is taken seriously. We also recognize that the competition is quite a political event. The year that Gavin competed in Bocuse d’Or, the winner was announced before Gavin had finished plating his final dish.
This week’s mini-competition was very fair. The kitchen was good to work in, the product was as fine as one could ask for, the chefs were afforded whole fish and whole saddles of lamb to work with and given a fair choice between the two. Four hours in which to cook is generally a decent length of time, though I concede that for this challenge, the chefs certainly could have used more. We saw this in particular with Bryan, who needed more time to best complete the various complex components of his dish.
What each chef presented was very representative of what each of them does as a chef, with the exception of Kevin, who went outside of his norm with the sous-vide. A side note about sous vide: It has nothing whatsoever to do with “molecular gastronomy”; though unfamiliar to Kevin, it is every bit as much of a cooking technique as are roasting, braising, etc. Kevin asked for help and got it, and did fairly well with it. While his lamb was slightly overcooked, the others were so badly undercooked that his was clearly the best of the lambs by a wide margin. Eli’s was uniformly horribly undercooked. It was raw, in fact. He was messing around with a technique with which he doesn’t have experience, and unlike Kevin, he didn’t manage to master it. And his garnishes were clunky, not at all impressive. Had he presented a beautiful little hollowed-out eggplant, maybe. But his topping was even bigger than the toast, and the garnish in general didn’t work. This is not to say that Eli isn’t a good cook, but his work to date has not been geared toward this much precision, and he couldn’t pull it off. And oh, again, that raw lamb. It was inedible; no one could touch it. Bryan’s lamb, while not as terrible as Eli’s, was still pretty bad. Had it been better cooked, Bryan just may have won this challenge, as his dish was very sophisticated.