This week, in a fantastic cultural convergence, America’s favorite cooking competition program, Top Chef, will meet the world’s most prestigious cooking competition, the Bocuse d’Or. You’ll need to tune in Wednesday night to learn just how they come together, but rest assured it’s a popcorn-worthy occasion—you might even want to toss some molten foie gras over those kernels and break out the vintage bubbly so you feel at home while watching the guest judges—including The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, Bocuse d'Or USA Vice President Jerome Bocuse (both in their Top Chef debuts), and Top Chef veteran Daniel Boulud—render
Because I just authored a new book about the Bocuse d’Or (Knives at Dawn), the good folks at Bravo asked me to help set the table for Wednesday night’s festivities with a few words about the competition, and a few thoughts from the Chairman of the Bocuse d’Or USA, the great Daniel Boulud.
The Bocuse d’Or (the name translates to “Golden Bocuse”) was founded by the iconic French chef Paul Bocuse in 1987 and it’s the world’s preeminent cooking competition—an international culinary showdown that pits two-person teams (a chef plus a commis, or assistant) from twenty-four nations against each other every other year in Lyon, France. The Bocuse d’Or assigns the proteins (meats and fish) and the candidates pick their own supporting ingredients. Each team cooks for five and a half hours, then presents two eye-popping old-school-style platters (one fish and one meat; each usually features a centerpiece and a virtual army of garnishes) that are paraded before an international jury, then plated and served to the individual judges.
A platter being paraded before the judges in Lyon at the 2009 Bocuse d’Or. Photo credit: © 2009 Owen Franken.
In many ways, the Bocuse d’Or is a sporting event: raucous fans pack a specially constructed stadium to root for their home country. And the competitors, not unlike Olympic athletes, prepare for months, sometimes years, to perfect the cooking and presentation of their food. The appeal and terror of the Bocuse d’Or is that they get just one precious chance to cook their food and have it judged. There are no elimination rounds, no chances to ease into the rigors of competition. Just as an athlete’s preparation can be fatally undone by a snapped tendon or bad landing off the parallel bars, a cook’s rigorous training can be dashed by overcooking a tenderloin by just a few seconds, or tossing a pinch too much salt into a sauce.
In 2008, the Bocuse d’Or USA—which orchestrates the search for a U.S. candidate and oversees his or her training—came under the wings of Boulud, Keller, and Jerome Bocuse, who are currently seeking contenders to represent the United States at the 2011 Bocuse d’Or. The U.S. has never won a medal at the Bocuse d’Or, but we came in sixth in 2009, and hopes
are high for an even better showing in 2011.
2009 US candidate Timothy Hollingsworth, of The French Laundry, plates from his fish platter at the 2009 Bocuse d’Or. Photo credit: © 2009 Owen Franken.
Team USA (Timothy Hollingsworth and Adina Guest) and their coach Roland Henin, moments after finishing the competition in Lyon.
In anticipation of this week’s episode, I caught up with Daniel Boulud to ask him some questions about the Bocuse d’Or and Top Chef:
Can you explain to Americans who Paul Bocuse is? In many ways, he was the first celebrity chef, no?
Boulud: Paul Bocuse understood that in order for cuisine to evolve and chefs to become better, it had to be supported in the media. He was one of the first chefs to really create a platform of communication and marketing that went beyond just cooking. He is also is the greatest figure of French cuisine for his classicism and his rigor.
You've been a guest judge on a number of Top Chef episodes. What are the unique
pressures of judging? It must be difficult to pass judgment on fellow chefs, especially late in the season when we're so close to the finals.
It’s most difficult to judge the weak one. When I arrive I have no idea who are the competitors; who is strong or not strong. They don’t give me the résumé or the background. And one’s gong to have to go home. he hardest is when they pair them [in teams of two to four], and one of them has to go... .
Top Chef Season Three winner Hung Hyunh made it to the American finals in Orlando last year (and won Best Fish there) and here you are on a Bocuse d'Or themed episode of Top Chef—do you think Top Chef and Bocuse d'Or reward similar traits in a chef?
No, no, no. In Bocuse d’Or, we give you the proteins. It might take three months [to devise your concept]. On Top Chef, they give you three minutes. The Bocuse d’Or is like an Olympic competition where you know your opponent is going to be ten times better than you based on their track record so you never know how to gauge yourself [during training]. The unknown is huge....
Then there’s the fact that the Bocuse d’Or is a public and live competition ... in a way, it’s a form of entertainment, they look like gladiators, and there’s a little of that gladiator thing to it, the noise the pressure, the tension, the frustration, the isolation...
What is the preparation like for the candidates who go to the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon?
For the American [team selection event], the most important is to have a good plan of attack. Good technique, good sense of the dish in terms of flavor and presentation. If it’s well-organized on paper, that person can win. You don’t have to do the dish fifty times. But to do it in Lyon, you have to be able to do it blindfolded. Maybe do it 50 times in order to be completely ready.
Many people compare the Bocuse d'Or to a sporting event; what's the atmosphere like?
I think it’s like the Davis Cup [an international tennis competition], when you are in a small stadium, and there are two countries competing together, and it’s amazing the ambience, the compact ambience. A tournament like the U.S. Open is one thing, but when two countries compete together it’s a whole other thing. The Bocuse d’Or is basically a twelve-ring act, instead of a two-ring act. It’s really fans who are there to pump up their team and are very, very proud of their chef and their culinary heritage. or example, Japan is far from Lyon and yet there were one hundred people from Japan there making noise like 500. The United States will be making a lot of noise in 2011.
The Bocuse d'Or USA is gearing up for its 2011 effort. Pretend I'm a young American chef; convince me to apply.
Every day at work young chefs are asked to be consistent, precise. They are learning to be very disciplined. They are working very hard. They can handle the pressure, and they have talent. They make people happy with their food, with their cooking. There is a resonance of excellence in their work. But no one will know his limits unless he tries the Bocuse d’Or. No restaurant can challenge you to your limit like the Bocuse d’Or. You will never know, unless you try.
If you’re a chef, and think you have the right stuff, the application for the American team-selection is available here. The deadline is November 30.
If you’re a viewer and want to know more—well, then you know where to be Wednesday night at 10 p.m.
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.
Other Photo Credit: Photo of Andrew Friedman© 2009 by Luca Pioltelli