Real-Life Iron Chefs Go Head to Head: Inside the Bocuse d'Or

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Chris Parsons


After an expansive day of exploring the ancient streets of Lyon, France, the "gastronomic capital of the world," Nate and I were looking forward to settling into the newly designed Eurexpo center and taking in the sights and sounds of last week's 2011 Bocuse d'Or cooking competition—an event we had hoped to represent America in before falling short in the qualifier one year prior. We had traveled across the Atlantic in order to support James Kent and Tom Allen of New York's Eleven Madison Park in these "culinary Olympics." Given that America has never placed better than 6th—a feat achieved by Timothy Hollingsworth of the French Laundry in the 2009 Bocuse d'Or—and given the accusations that America has no native "cuisine" to call its own, reaching the top three has become a sort of quest for the Holy Grail.

If our current era were not so civilized, I'm sure such a battle between our varying fans would have been bloody and epic. Think Braveheart.

24 countries compete in the Bocuse d'Or, and the competition is split into two different days. After all, to have 24 two-person teams cook tirelessly for nearly six hours straight and produce some of the most complicated food you have ever seen, all at the same time, would be nothing short of a nightmare. Having watched videos and having read about past events, I was sure the crowd would number in the thousands, armed to the teeth with foghorns, noise makers, and the infamous vuvuzela. With this all in mind, Nate and I delved into the list of teams to compete on the first day. The standouts were easy to spot. France: home to the patron saint of cooking, at least according to the French, Paul Bocuse. Iceland—Tom Allen mentioned that this team would come out swinging. Japan: a country with a rich tradition of technical cooking for the sake of being technical.

We arrived at the massive Eurexpo in the morning, coffees and croissants in hand. As we reached the end of the seemingly endless aisles of plates, meat slicers, and espresso machines on sale, we heard screaming and cheering, and we entered a massive hall. Stadium seating crept up the left side. In front was a press section, then two expansive tables set for 12 judges each, then finally the notorious side-by-side kitchen pods to our right. Draped above the kitchens was a screen to aid in the viewing efforts of the crowd, as well as a hanging remote-controlled camera that traced a wire track above the kitchens to obtain a bird's-eye view.

We settled in on the left side of the auditorium, facing the first six kitchens. The right side had been occupied by devout supporters of the Netherlands, Finland, France, and Japan. The side that we found seats in was virtually vanquished—not what I had expected at all. There was a gang of blue and red Vikings supporting team Iceland in kitchen four, but seat-vacancy around us was rampant. Where was the packed auditorium? Where was the cheerful jarring between warring clans? Most importantly, where were the vuvuzela horns?

The Japanese had packed massive flags and wooden spoons that clicked in synchronicity throughout the day, and one or two Frenchmen had a foghorn that must have lost juice quickly. There's no doubt that we saw some great looking food, specifically from France and Iceland (and Finland's whimsical themes took many by surprise as well), but all of that was overshadowed by the audience's overall lack of excitement. We hoped this wouldn't carry over into the second day. And would Team Kent's efforts pay off and end the drought that has plagued America for the entirety of the Bocuse d'Or's existence? We would soon find out.

Wednesday broke to an air of urgency. Upon entering the auditorium I was immediately taken aback by the visible lack of seating. Flags from various nations were sprouting up from the polyester seats like colorful rosebuds lining a spring garden. The visual aspect of it all immediately made up for the previous day's lack of energy. We were flagged down by director of the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation Nora Carey, who put us to work immediately, hanging signs and flags from railings and furiously taping up visual support for team America.

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Chris Parsons

Occupying kitchen eight, the U.S. was moments away from starting up their marathon. Fans representing other countries were growing in numbers at a menacingly exponential rate. We moved to the USA section and were handed tambourines and flags. If our current era were not so civilized, I'm sure such a battle between our varying pockets of fans would have been bloody and epic. Think Braveheart. Norwegians with palm-sized bells around their necks to our right. Spaniards chanting through megaphones beyond them. Italians and their incessant foghorns above. To our left, the Brits and their travel-sized vuvuzelas. Past them, the Swiss and their massive cowbells. The Danes, to the far left, had a full drum-line—complete with neon drumsticks. This was the environment I had envisioned and sought. The funny thing about it all was that 99 percent of America had no knowledge of the event whatsoever. And team America was certainly in the mix of top teams.

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Chris Parsons is the chef of Parsons Table in Winchester, Massachusetts, and Catch Restaurant, an award-winning establishment that blends honest, straightforward flavors with haute-cuisine style.

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