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.
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.
The Norwegian who won the Bocuse d’Or 2009 had dreamt of winning since he was twelve-years old. Do you think a lifelong desire is essential to Bocuse d’Or success?
I’m not sure. I think you can find different sources of motivation to win the Bocuse d’Or. Whether being challenged for years, or [spontaneously] challenging Kevin, as we are now, to go to Hyde Park. [His attitude should be,] ‘They’re giving me that opportunity and I’m going to show them what I can do.” I’m sure there are different ways. I’m sure that all the previous winners didn’t win because of lifelong inspiration. You could ask them why they did the Bocuse d’Or, or why they participated in Top Chef, and get different answers. Ultimately, it’s the challenge.
This is the second year running that a Top Chef candidate will appear in the U.S. team selection event. (Top Chef Season 3 winner Hung Hyunh competed in 2008.) Does the ability to do well on Top Chef offer some indication of the ability to do well in the Bocuse d’Or?
It’s about the pressure, and at the end of the day if you’re a good chef on television you can be a good chef in the Bocuse d’Or competition. You’re performing in front of an audience, but you’re still cooking. It’s all about cooking and how well you can cook under that pressure.
Andrew Friedman is the author of the soon-to-be-released Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d’Or Competition, which details the story of the 2009 American team.