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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.
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.
As for our two salmons, I was surprised to find that Michael’s dish was ill-conceived and lacked direction. First of all, cauliflower is not a Mediterranean vegetable, and even though he made a couscous of it, it still tasted like cauliflower. And the idea of taking salmon and moving that to the Mediterranean struck me as a big mistake, as where his mistakes began. That fish just doesn’t swim in that sea. I’m not saying that you can’t take a food from one locale and apply it to another’s cuisine, but the flavors must lend themselves, and in the case of this dish, neither the cauliflower nor the salmon worked at all in the context of Mediterranean seasonings. Perhaps he was going for French-Mediterranean as opposed to true North-African-inspired Mediterranean – I don’t know. Furthermore, the tartare was interesting in theory but not well executed. Had the cucumber been hollowed out and filled with little jewels of well-seasoned salmon, it might have succeeded, but instead we were not happily surprised, with poorly seasoned salmon that had been rather unsuccessfully chopped up. Everything else was fine, good even, but the overall direction of the dish was not very cohesive.
Jen’s dish suffered from some sloppy cooking. The salmon wasn’t cut evenly. There are two parts to the filet – the top half is leaner and the bottom fattier – and if you mix and match them, they aren’t going to cook evenly. Also, Jen had chosen a technique that required very slow cooking, but the white proteins leaching out of the fish indicated that it just wasn’t cooked slowly enough. Other than that, her garnishes were very, very good. But it’s hard to get past the incorrectly cooked protein, given the extent of the error.
On the one hand, it seems Kevin won by default, as his slightly overcooked lamb was minor in scope compared with the errors in conception and execution of his fellow chefs. On the other hand, however, I believe that Kevin was the best choice anyway, both to win the challenge and to go on to compete for the spot at the next Bocuse d’Or, and here’s why: I don’t care how often Michael says that he cooks like Kevin on his days off – we know Kevin has great skills. They’re not even at question. While Kevin does not typically think of food along the lines that they do in the Bocuse d’Or, he has handled every challenge – this one included – extremely intelligently, ascertaining what the particular challenge called for, what its potential pitfalls might be (so he could sidestep them), and what might be both a clever and a truly delicious dish to present for that particular challenge. I think that though it’s not his normal inclination to cook as they do for the Bocuse d’Or, if given the time to prepare for the competition, Kevin would apply that same intelligence about food to that particular challenge and would rise to it not only ably but admirably. I think his food would be as precise and as intricate and well presented as anyone’s. If he succeeds in securing the slot at the competition, I believe he’ll get there. The overriding challenge is to make delicious food, and Kevin’s was more precisely cooked and had better flavor than the others, period.
One more note: You may have noticed that Thomas Keller was at the meal but did not participate at the Judges’ Table. We tried to convince him to be there, but he decided against it, citing that he didn’t want to have to be negative towards the contestants. I worked with Thomas back in the mid-80s at Rakel, where I was his sous-chef, and so I know that this decision comports with his spirit, generally. What Keller created at Rakel was remarkable, and I’m not only referring to the food. He created a kitchen that was completely collaborative and creative. No one was discussing what movie they’d seen the night before or how much beer they’d consumed. Rather, everyone was solely discussing the food and contributing ideas; there was a constant conversation about the food and only the food. This was a time when boundaries were being broken – while the techniques I’m about to describe may now be outdated, it was the first time I saw garnishes going on the rim, or sauces being splattered rather than completely saucing the food. And Thomas was at the forefront of culinary innovation, yet was confident enough to let the entire kitchen take part in creating extraordinary food. He generated excitement among his cooks and investment in what they were participating in creating. And the more everyone partook in that mode of work in the kitchen, the more it honed everyone’s way of thinking about food, which was not only great for each person professionally, but was also great for the restaurant. A cynic could easily twist this to say that Thomas was taking credit for the ideas of others, but he guided us and, ultimately, had the final say, and no – quite the opposite – he was showing deep respect for us and our opinions.
Beginning to prep for Thanksgiving? Enjoy the process … and have a good week.