With Timothy Hollingsworth's strong, but ultimately unsatisfying sixth place finish at the 2009 Bocuse d'Or, the Bocuse d'Or USA organization was primed and optimistic for more in 2011. Hollingsworth had indeed tied the best ever finish for the United States with only about four months of real preparation (read Andrew Friedman's compelling book Knives at Dawn for the whole story). The energy coming off that finish was palpable. With more time and more money to prepare, it was indeed conceivable that the United States could improve and maybe even (why not?) make it onto the podium. With increased sponsorship from companies like All-Clad amongst others, the American effort did indeed have more money to work with and now with two years to plan, more time.
The team of James Kent and Thomas Allan was selected a year before the big event, taken from a strong field of candidates in a well-attended and well-publicized contest that demonstrated the increasing stature of the Bocuse d'Or in the United States as well as the increased commitment from the Bocuse d'Or USA organization, which featured such luminaries as Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jerome Bocuse, himself the son of Paul Bocuse for whom the competition is named. With a year to work and practice, the future seemed bright indeed.
2009 Bocuse d'Or winner Geier Skeie
The energy and confidence (but not cockiness) emanating from the team and the organization leading up to the event was palpable, especially in the few days in Lyon just before the big day. Having attended the 2009 Bocuse d'Or and now in Lyon for this one, I certainly felt it and was excited for them. However, the competition is not held in a vacuum and simply because a country fields good people, good ideas and good organization, success is not guaranteed. The Bocuse d'Or is a competition that has been dominated since its beginning in 1987 by Europeans and just a few countries in Europe at that with Singapore the only non-European nation to ever crack the podium with a third place finish in 1989. The host country of France is always a favorite. Their third place finish in 2009 was a subject of national shame as it was the first time that they had ever finished less than second in a year in which they had competed (it used to be until 1999 that the reigning champion country would have to sit out a competition). While a few other European countries with strong French cooking backgrounds like Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland have made it to the podium, the region outside of France that has historically dominated the event is Scandinavia, especially Norway, who's Geier Skeie won in 2009 and was now back as the President of the competition. While the event has been dominated by a few countries, other European countries with world class cuisines like Spain and Italy have never fared well. Countries outside of Europe have tended to fare similarly or worse than the United States. Of these countries, Japan always seems to send a strong team, though podium level success has so far eluded them as well.
Denmark's Rasmus Kofoed
In addition to facing nations with strong Bocuse traditions, this year's competition also had at least two individual chefs who not only had competed before, but who also had attained the podium and now wanted more. Switzerland's Franck Giovannini, third in command at the renowned Michelin three star restaurant, Philippe Rochat Hotel de Ville in Crissier, Switzerland outside of Lausanne, had previously secured a third place podium finish in 2007. Then there was the reigning European champion, Rasmus Kofoed of Denmark. Kofoed, who operates the newly opened restaurant Geranium II (Geranium I, his original restaurant closed last winter) in Copenhagen, took home a third place finish in 2005 and a second place finish in 2007. He was aching for the gold and would be a formidable obstacle for the rest of the field of 24 teams.
The competition is divided into two days with half of the 24 teams cooking on the first and the remainder on the following day. The first day's field appeared to be the weaker of the two with France, Finland, Iceland, Japan and perhaps Belgium and the Netherlands being serious contenders. The second day, in addition to the United States would include teams such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the powerful Scandinavian trio as well as Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, The United Kingdom and Canada as potentially very strong teams. Rounding out the countries on the second day were Uruguay and Malaysia, while the less likely teams from the first day included Australia, China, Indonesia, Guatemala, Argentina and Poland. With long days of cooking ahead, anything could happen. While the likelihood of a true dark horse ascending to the podium remained exceedingly low, disaster could strike at any time for any of the stronger teams to knock them from contention. At this level of competition it wouldn't take much.
Malaysia's all female team
Unlike some other culinary competitions, taste is not only a component of the tabulation process, it is the single most significant component worth two thirds of the final score. Presentation is worth the other third with technical skills, neatness, organization, teamwork and frugality being other elements that may come into play in the event of a tie. The only component the public gets to partake of is the presentation. While a poorly presented platter and plate may be enough to ruin a team's chances, a beautiful platter provides no guarantee of success. Alas, those of us who only get to observe can never know the whole story behind who wins and who doesn't.
I spent some time on the first day of the competition observing the teams cooking, but with only two days to attend, I spent the bulk of my time that day wandering through the amazing SIRHA culinary trade show marveling at the wonders of modern culinary technology and enjoying the delights of some outstanding culinary products including fabulous Spanish Iberico de Bellotas from Cinco Jotas, Joselito as well as some Jabugos; hay smoked cheese from Denmark, foie gras from Rougie and other companies, incredible Japanes soy and ponzu sauces, Champagne from Thienot, and great composed meals from the likes of the nearby Valrhona, Ravifruits and the Washington D.C. Area based Cuisine Solutions.
The second day of the competition, though, for me, was dedicated to the stadium. While the first day was well attended with fans from countries like Japan and France doing their best to raise the energy and decibel levels, it is generally the second day that holds the most excitement since the awards follow shortly after. This day was no exception to that rule. My last time at the Bocuse d'Or I accompanied Timothy Hollingsworth and Team USA from their pre-dawn rendezvous to picking up their equipment and food to their early arrival in the stadium. This time, I did not begin quite so early. Instead, I arrived shortly before 9AM, just in time to see Sweden start off. The start time for each time is staggered so that their finish times are staggered as well with the fish and meat platters coming out without overlap. Five and one half hours after having started, each team is finished. The team president from each country serves as the judge from that country with that judge not able to vote for his or her own country. In addition, the high and low scores from amongst all the judges for each dish get thrown out.
Germany's Ludwig Heer
As the day commenced and each team followed the one before it, it was interesting to see some of the approaches. Contemporary techniques such as the use of Activa or “meat glue” and various hydrocolloids amongst other techniques have clearly taken hold, though conventional cooking still remains a major force. Some of the candidates such as Canada's Ryan Stone and the UK's Simon Hulstone did much of their work right out in front at the windows of their kitchens, while others such as Rasmus Kofoed had a tendency to work in the back of the kitchen. Indeed, special white boxes housing special equipment made observation of he Danish kitchen more difficult as the boxes obscured lines of sight. It became quickly apparent that all of the chefs competing possessed excellent skills, but it was not apparent until the platters started their parades in front of the judges and media, how those skills would or would not come into play.
Sweden's Tommy Myllymaki
With Sweden leading off, the bar was set high as both their fish (Scottish monkfish was the principle seafood ingredient with each team getting two of approximately 5kg each along with four fresh crabs and twenty langoustines) and meat (two approximately 3kg saddles with kidneys, one shoulder and the tongue and sweetbreads of a Scottish lamb) platters and plates appeared to have been made with a great degree of precision and beauty. Uruguay, sandwiched between Sweden and Denmark, could only suffer for that placement as the impossibility of competing with those two powerhouses on a visual level was readily apparent, though they made a valiant effort. Germany's intentions wer amongst the most clearly apparent from the beginning as they had an iPad with a well produced application describing and showing the story of their platter. Theirs was perhaps the most modern looking platter of the day. Italy's looked the most homespun with Alberto Zanoletti's centerpiece for his meat platter looking like an antique tablecloth. James Kent and commis, Thomas Allan, of the United States created very personal platters. Kent's fish platter was a representation of the time he spent growing up part of the time on the shore of Eastern Long Island, while his meat platter was a representation of the grid of Manhattan built around a steakhouse theme, only in this case, the meat was lamb and not beef. The American platters looked good to me and I liked the concepts. At the end of the competition, it was clear that the level of craft from all the teams was quite high. One could safely rule out some teams from looks alone, but to my eye, on this day of competition, at least, it appeared that the United States could be in the hunt. Whatever the outcome though, I did not think that anyone that day was going to beat Rasmus Kofoed of Denmark. His food, presented with a dazzling sparkle from ultra-shiny silver and brilliant crystal, was a tour de force and to my eye the best of the show. Whether his and other beautifully presented platters (e.g. the Germans, Swedes and the Americans) would hold up to the tastes of a disparate group of judges would remain to be seen.
Once the contest came to a close upon the presentation of the Norwegian meat platter, there was a brief intermission before the highly anticipated awards ceremony. The first surprise came with the coveted award for best commis. Unlike the best fish or best meat awards, which are given to teams who do not medal, the best commis can go to anyone, medalist or not. This year the award went to a shocked and emotional young Japanese woman, Maiko Imazawa. He acceptance was heartwarming and made it clear that Japan had performed very well. The best fish award went to Franck Giovannini of Switzerland, meaning that his quest for additional Bocuse bling would not go unrewarded, though not exactly the kind of bling he was hoping for. The real shock, though was that it was apparent that for the first time ever, France would not be on the podium in a year in which they competed when their candidate, Jerome Jaegl, took home the “Best Meat” consolation prize. At this point, I still felt that the US still had a chance, especially with two major competitors clearly knocked away from the medals, but once Gunnar Hvarnes of Norway and Tommy Myllymaki of Sweden were announced for third and second places respectively, the drama was over. Rasmus Kofoed had completed his quest. The Holy Grail of the Bocuse d'Or was finally his. All that was left was the actual anticlimactic confirmation. Though I was disappointed for James Kent, Thomas Allan, Gavin Kaysen and the entire Bocused'Or organization, I was happy for Kofoed.
The disappointment of not standing on the podium went even deeper, though, for the United States squad, as their final rank was tenth ou of twenty-four teams. Though the performance and the result were entirely respectable, the fact that not only did they not get a medal, they failed to improve on their previous best sixth place finish, despite the increased resources, time and experience. It would be easy to conclude that they failed, but I believe that would be an error. Kent and allan performed extremely well under intense pressure, but then so did the other candidates. The US was clearly not the only country to step up their preparation for this event. Had they not done so, it would be scary to imagine how the team would have finished. As discouraging as the results were, I hope that they do not put a damper on the growth and effort put into the organization of future American Bocuse d'Or teams. If anything, this should galvanize American efforts to redouble the energy for the future. I hope so, as it would be a shame to take a step back. The competition is fierce, but I truly believe that we have the talent and the ability to be right there with anyone else. James Kent, Thomas Allan, Gavin Kaysen and the rest of the team and support staff did an incredible job and their utmost. It simply wasn't enough, but with continued hard work, planning and good people, it is only a matter of time before Bocuse d'Or USA gets the breaks that catapult the team to the podium.