Chef Paul Bocuse
Team USA drew the sixth spot on the second day of the competition. With twenty four teams entered into the finals, each day permitted competition for half the squads. Most of the favorites including France, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Spain, Canada along with the U.S. were also slated for the second day. That left day one for the U.S. team to observe and learn.
Day one was spent soaking up the ambiance of the crowds cheering on their respective teams and watching the teams cook in their cubicle kitchens racing against the clock to prepare two platters of food, the first fish based with Norwegian cod, scallops and shrimp as featured ingredients and the second meat based featuring Scottish beef. Supplementary ingredients could be brought by each team as desired.
Tim Hollingsworth, the American contestant selected through a difficult and rigorous competition in Orlando several months before, watched closely as the day unfolded. Hollingsworth who along with his commis, Adina Guest, work at The French Laundry in Yountville, California, had a paid leave of absence from the restaurant to prepare for this competition. He and Guest appeared focused, even and anxious for the competition to commence. While Hollingsworth and Guest were to be the competitors for the team, they were by no means alone. Team USA President was none other than Thomas Keller himself, a rock star in this food obsessed nation of France as he is back home. He had spent part of the previous day autographing his newest book, Under Pressure, at a booth at the SIRHA show besieged by a mob of fans. The coach of the team was Roland Henin, known as a mentor to Chef Keller and other chefs, who also has plenty of experience in International cooking competitions. Gavin Kaysen, 2007 Bocuse D'Or Team USA candidate and current Executive Chef of Cafe Boulud, was the assistant coach of the team. Additional support led by Jennifer Pelka included 2009 Bocuse D'Or runner-up Richard Rosendale and a number of others who came to Lyon to root the team on. Lyon native and New York chef, Daniel Boulud, completed the contingent from the U.S. in his role as Honorary President of the 2009 Bocuse D'Or. He would sit at the President's table along with Paul Bocuse and Fabrice Desvignes, the winner of the 2007 Bocuse D'Or and current President of the Jury. Previous Honorary Presidents have included a who's who of internationally renowned chefs including Heston Blumenthal in 2007, Ferran Adria in 2003, Michel Bras twice, Frédy Girardet and others.
The President's Table
With their day of competition facing them on the morrow, the American team and key support people had a low-key night, while most everyone else joined Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud for a wonderful dinner at La Mere Brazier under Chef Mathieu Viannay in Lyon. The evening proved to be another late one as I didn't make it back to my hotel until about 1:30AM. Unfortunately that meant little sleep for me as I determined to join the US Team to photograph them and document the complete day of competition.
I met Gavin Kaysen and Andrew Friedman, a NY based writer doing a book on the team and the competition, at 5AM. We then walked to meet the rest of the team along with support vehicles that were used to pick up the team's supplies that had been stored at Paul Bocuse's catering facility outside of Lyon. With a lot of equipment and ingredients needed for the competition, this element was not as easy as one might imagine. Given that the day everyone had been waiting for was finally there, a level of tension was palpable as the team swiftly and efficiently loaded up their vehicles then drove off to the Exposition Center where the competition would take place.
I stood off to the side out of the way as the team unloaded their all-important cargo and placed it where it would be safe until needed. Some of the more important pieces of equipment, the specially designed and constructed platters that would be used to display the finished dishes, were very carefully removed from their crates and polished. In addition, given their modern pedigree, the electronics were carefully checked and tested. Fortunately they were found to be in good working order.
Finally very thing was in its place as judges started to come by and examine the space for organization and cleanliness. With their presence an increase in nerves was palpable, though Tim and Adina remained looking cool and collected. Slowly, the contestants changed into their chef's whites. In addition to the candidate, Tim Hollingsworth and the commis, Adina Guest, the team as is the case for all teams, was given a helper from the Bocuse school. The helpers are divided by lottery, though this under appreciated component of the process could go a long way towards making or breaking the final result of a team. A more proficient helper is clearly more valuable than a stumbling, bumbling one, but it is also important that that individual can communicate well with the team and follow direction. Tim and Adina were paired with a young man, who appeared to do a good job, though I am unable to say how good or how well he compared to some of his school mates. In any case, from my vantage point it did not appear that he hampered the team.
At 8:50AM precisely the day's competition got underway with Norway leading off. At ten minute intervals an additional team started with Denmark, Spain, Malaysia, and Japan preceding the United States and the Czech Republic, Canada, Singapore, France, Estonia and Mexico following. The previous day saw competitors from Brazil, Finland, The UK, South Africa, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, Luxembourg, South Korea, Sweden, Uruguay and Iceland. The US team got formally underway at 9:40AM.
Tim Hollingworth jumped immediately to breaking down the Aberdeen Angus beef fillet, while Adina Guest opened a can of cream and began slicing a honkingly large black truffle on a mandoline. Neither remained idle as they quickly sorted through a variety of techniques and ingredients in their quest to complete the required plates in the allotted time. Each time had five hours from their start time in which to send out their fish platter and an additional thirty-five minutes to send out their meat platter. Each team was required to utilize a fresh Norwegian cod weighing 5kg, Norwegian king-size scallops and 3kg of wild Norwegian prawns for their fish platters and in addition to the 2+ kg of beef fillet, a whole oxtail, 2 beef cheeks and three ribs for their meat platters. Other ingredients and special equipment could be provided by the teams as desired.
Though each team had a coach, once the competition ensued, the coach could only stand outside the kitchen offering advice. They essentially had the same access to the teams as the media during the morning cooking phase of the competition. no one but the team and judges were allowed into the kitchens themselves once the cooking started.
It was fascinating to walk around in front of the kitchens and peer in and observe the variety of techniques and ingredients employed. While the Danes drilled holes in the centers of carrots to stuff them, Adina Guest painstakingly stamped out uniform carrot hearts for the US effort. The Spanish squad sliced frozen cepes and laid them out like flower petals before stuffing them with additional ingredients for their meat platter, while David Wong and the Canadians were busy making a puree.
I focused on the American team throughout the day, occasionally glancing at the progress of the other teams. A number of teams such as Malaysia, Estonia, South Korea and the Czech Republic were competing at the Bocuse D'Or for the very first time, while others such as France, Norway, Belgium, Sweden and Denmark are perennial powerhouses. Countries, such as Spain and Italy, with very strong culinary traditions, have never made it to the podium. The best the United States had ever done was sixth place. It was with great hope that they would fare better this time around even daring to dream of a place on the podium.
BY 1PM all the teams were well into their preparations. It was also time for the judges to come out and be seated at the table in anticipation of the parade of platters to come. It also meant that media and support staff were asked to leave the staging area. I was able to retreat to the press box directly in front of the staging area, where I still had a decent view of the action both in front and from the cacophonous stands behind. Cacophonous was not an exaggeration, particularly as it related to the many vocal and loud French fans singing and chanting for their team and the rhythmic and amusing Japanese fans urging their team on. While not as many nor as loud as the fans from France, Japan, Norway or Denmark, the U.S. fans were spirited as well in support of their squad. With flags waving and tattoos on their cheeks, periodic chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" and "Yes we can!" rang out with energy, passion and conviction.
At 13:50, five hours after they started, Norway sent out its fish platter. The Norwegian candidate, Geier Skeie, was no rookie, having already beaten Denmark, France and all the other European nations in winning the Bocuse D'Or European qualfier in 2008. He and his commis prepared loin of cod with lightly smoked scallop and cod belly, green pea spheres and brandade, a construction of peas, prawns and onions and a number of other sides. After the platter was paraded in front of all the judges and around the stage, it was divided and plated for half the judges by Skeie. Each competing country's team President served as a judge. With 24 judges all together, half tasted the fish dishes while the other half tasted the meat dishes. Given that many if not most or all of the judges had eaten a lunch prior to the competition, it would not be an easy job to sit, taste and analyze twelve different platters of food. As much as I would have loved to eat any of those platters for any given meal, the thought of having to go through so many at one time made me queezy just thinking about it. I did not envy the job of the judges. At 2PM the Danes sent out their fish platter and the Spaniards followed 10 minutes later with a beautiful and colorful geometric elements. When the Japanese sent out their platter, the intricate design included a small "suspension" bridge holding two beautiful rolls that appeared to come from the trendiest sushi bar.
At 14:25 while most of the competitors were still sending out their seafood platters, Skie and the Norwegians sent out their meat platter, which consisted of beef ribs with foie gras, tenderloin with black truffles and oxtail with celeriac. Glazed beef cheek with spinach and parsley completed the principle anti-vegan elements.
The US team's seafood platter went out at 14:40 consisting of olive oil poached cod loin within a scallop mousse covered by preserved Meyer lemon and Sicilian pistachios, prawn and avocado tarts. The platter was accented by a potato and bacon millefeuille and Sacramento Delta osetra caviar amongst other elements. The platter was laid out beautifully for its parade around the room. Hollingsworth then had to leave the kitchen to slice and plate the various elements, leaving Guest in the kitchen to continue to work on the meat platter.
By this time with platters of seafood or meat coming every five minutes, the stage was hive of activity with judges straining as they carried the heavy platters around the stage and cooks sweating as they tried sometimes in vain to plate their dishes without disaster. Difficulties became apparent as various chefs sliced into their creations, on occasion witnessing the disintegration of elaborate elements under the hot and pressure-packed glare of the judges and the deafening roar of the audience. Hollingsworth appeared to survive his process without too much difficulty, though it seemed to take perhaps more time than he and the team had planned. As such, the pace appeared slightly more frantic as he re-entered the kitchen with less than 35 minutes to complete their meat platter.
Hollingsworth and Guest needed every second of that time and perhaps a little more to get their meat platter out in an acceptable time. They may even have been a little late in the process potentially losing precious points off their total score. Nevertheless they did get their meat platter out to the judges. The platter held rib-eye wrapped in bacon with prune-enriched oxtail jus, beef fillet rosettes with perigord truffles, celeriac and oxtail-endive marmalade, glazed beef cheeks a l'etouffée served with French Laundry grown vegetables and truffled pommes Dauphinoise amongst their offerings. Glass domes were lit from below and smoke was added to these for one of the dishes just prior to serving.
With their platters served and the remainder of the teams still to go, the competition was not yet over for the U.S. as an important element of the judging involved an inspection of the post-production kitchen clean-up. This part was largely done behind closed curtains as each team pulled the curtains closed on their kitchens once their presentations were completed.
Watching the platters pass by, it was impossible to predict who would or would not win the competition. While some were clearly inferior in their presentation, the vast majority of them were beautiful and difficult to distinguish based upon their visual appeal. Taste, would, of course play an important role as would other elements of the judging, none of which were apparent to the vast majority of the audience.
With the competition ended, the hall was packed in anticipation of the results. The excitement level was high with each team's fans offering nationalistic chants. Even so, their was a good feeling in the air as fans of different nationalities bantered back and forth good-naturedly with the Japanese at one point taking up a friendly chant of "USA! USA!"
Before the main awards were given, a few special awards were offered. The best commis went to Grace Pineda of Canada. The maximum age for a commis in the competition is 22. It would appear that Ms. Pineda has a bright career in front of her. "Best fish" was awarded to Denmark. Once they also won "best meat," it appeared that their initial disappointment at winning what is generally considered a "door prize" seemd to change into hope. The Danes had been runners-up to Norway at the European competition and now seemed to have a good chance at victory. This was abetted with the shocking announcement that pre-competition favorite, France, had taken the bronze position. The looks of disappointment on the French faces both on stage and in the crowd were moving. When Sweden was announced in the silver position, the tension mounted further. Would Denmark pull it off. Could the Americans upset? What about another team? In the end, the podium's top spot went to Norway for the fourth time in the history of the event, second only to France. With fireworks blazing and confetti falling, Skeie and the Norwegians basked in their glory and new found prize money. Their efforts had paid off in full.
That should not diminish the efforts and accomplishments of any of the other teams including the Americans, who gained valuable experience undertaking this overwhelming event. Some saw sixth place a a disappointment and a failure given the monies raised and the star power dedicated to the effort. While no one involved was satisfied with the result, the reality is that the team performed quite well and made a great showing. The reality is that no matter how much people like Paul Bocuse himself may have been pulling for them and no matter how much effort and money went into the program, they remained underdogs, in this decidedly Euro-centric competition. Much as the Spaniards have a hard time here continuing with a vanguardist approach, the Americans with an American mindset to their food will have a hard time overwhelming the majority of judges who remain conservative and traditionalist based upon classic and nouvelle French haute cuisine. It will be difficult in the future to break through any higher from what I have seen. That however, doesn't mean that it is not fun nor worthwhile to try. USA 2011 - Yes we really can!
For a recap of the results of the Bocuse D'Or and more of my photos, please see Starchefs.com.