Photo by Keith Ferris/CIA
This post is the first of a two-part series on the author's quest for victory at the Bocuse d'Or USA.
In the summer of 1998, when I was the sous chef at Arizona 206 in New York City, I read about the upcoming Bocuse d'Or USA competition at the Culinary Institute of America's Graystone campus in St. Helena, California. The winner would represent the USA at the international Bocuse d'Or in Lyon, France, one of the world's most prestigious cooking competitions. The simple prospect of representing America in any international contest sounded intriguing, so I went to task preparing recipes and took the necessary photographs of my completed platters. I dropped my application in the mail, and a month later I got the surprising invitation to the competition.
With little money and no support from my employer, I felt the need to decline. But my father, in typical form, insisted that I go and cashed in frequent flyer miles so we could make the trip to Napa for a weekend of winery tours and culinary competition. I had not mentioned that I was in need of a commis and was packing chef's whites his size. He reluctantly agreed and proceeded to help me cook for the likes of Paul Bocuse, Georges Perrier, Gary Danko, Roland Passot, and Jean Banchet. The gala dinner continues to be one of my most cherished memories. We placed fifth; the top four went to Chicago to compete for Lyon and culinary glory. I was frustrated but realized Chicago would have been a financial burden, and my cuisine was far from the Bocuse d'Or style the top finishers had possessed. I returned to New York with a hunger to return one day as a stronger competitor.
The process of developing a Bocuse d'Or platter is a series of ups and downs. You need to have speed, great flavors, and high-impact presentations.
As the years passed, for one reason or another I didn't submit an application. But I had always been puzzled by the lack of attention to such an amazing competition and was pleasantly surprised to see the sudden swell of support when Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud got involved. Early this fall I started to think about giving it another go. I contacted one of my young chefs, Nate French, who works summers and vacations at Catch, my restaurant in Winchester, Massachusetts, while attending Hobart University. He is fast and intense, and had decided to pursue cooking after his graduation. He'd be home for school break, giving us time in January to train, and he was just young enough to compete in Lyon in 2011. I had the perfect commis. I submitted my application with letters of recommendation from Barbara Lynch and Normand Laprise, fully expecting an invitation. On my birthday, December 11th, we got the email. My wife, Meg, and I drank some champagne and I started preparations the following morning.
We had two months. I began working through ideas with my team at Catch. The process of developing a Bocuse d'Or platter is a series of ups and downs. You need to have speed, great flavors, and high-impact presentations. I eventually decided to build our menu from strong concepts we had worked with at Catch: roasted salmon with baby turnips, rainbow chard, pear and dried fruit mostarda, verjus, lamb loin en crépinette with Provençal flavors, zucchini flan, charred lamb kidneys with caramelized onions and olives, and patty pan squash stuffed with braised lamb belly.
Nate and I also started working through each garnish. We unfortunately only had time for two full timed practice sessions, but we made positive changes in each. The final decision to encrust the salmon loin in mustard was made only days before we left. We spent eight hours meticulously packing for the competition. My father-in-law delivered his handmade wooden tart removers the day before our trip. Nate and I had the mindset that we were going to win and no one would get in our way. I had seen the list of competitors and felt comfortable with Nate at my side, but I wished we could have had more time to develop and perfect.