America's Best Chef: The Finale
At 4:15 on Saturday morning, my alarm went off. The big day was here.
Nate and I drove to the Culinary Institute of America in silence. I felt very calm and relaxed: no more preparations could be made. Day one had gone as planned, and day two was looking promising.
When we arrived, I told Nate to go directly to our equipment and get it close to our station. Then we would ask if we were allowed to unpack. There was a bit of a lack of communication between kitchen proctors over the weekend: one chef said we could pile our equipment outside our booth, so we did so as quickly as possible, but five minutes later another said we needed to leave and escorted us to the chefs waiting area. Joella, a CIA student serving as our commis, was there, and I went over some simple tasks for her to take care of. At 6:15 we were off. Nate and Joella broke for the walk-in to retrieve our mise en place. I went directly to the station and began to organize.
She had not seen the other loin in the water bath, and I felt foolish for not checking.
The first half hour went quite smoothly. Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park (one of the kitchen proctors for the day) came into our booth and asked some questions. He knew Joella, and I thanked him for training her at his restaurant. Although his team was my biggest concern, his presence didn't bother me. I admire his work very much and enjoyed talking with him.
As the morning progressed, any fear of not being ready subsided and we started to focus on the finer detail of our platters. My biggest problem was my lack of experience with electric plate burners. I eventually put the back burner on high and the front much lower and worked the pans back and forth, like on a French flat-top range. Joella monitored the temperature of our frying oil by removing it from the stove and placing it back on repeatedly. With 30 minutes to our fish platter, we began the plating process. Chef Humm stayed close and said we were doing great as he watched everything come together.
All went well with fish. The braised Macomber turnips were heated more than I would have liked, but I was happy overall, and we left for the plating station. On the way out I asked Joella to remove the lamb from our immersion circulator. Upon returning to the kitchen, I saw there was only one loin and the leg on the tray. She had not seen the other loin in the water bath, and I felt foolish for not checking. We proceeded to plate the lamb. The loin turned out to be fine and Nate was ready to go.
We had been given dimensions for a rectangular platter, and had practiced our layouts as such, but we had only seen the actual platter at 6:30 on Saturday. It was square. We plated as planned, but in retrospect we should have altered our presentation. It looked too crowded in front. Nate was spot on, but I was cracking a bit. Two months of work, and we weren't as perfect as I had hoped.
It was like a friggin' library in the auditorium. Where was all the noise? The silence was getting on my nerves. The window to our stand opened for a runner to take the platter, and an olive sphere fell off one of the tarts. Nate was chasing the delicate orb around with a spoon and finally scooped it up, and off the platter went. It looked beautiful, but should have been laid out differently. My fault.
Chef Humm came right over and congratulated us. We cleaned up, took some pictures, and visited our families, who had arrived while we were cooking. A few chefs said we were the best of the first round, and we settled in to watch the second wave. It was fun to be done and just enjoy watching the other chefs go for it.
When Eleven Madison's platters came up, it was clear we were beaten. James Kent's preparation (and talent) was there. I felt disappointed but comfortable knowing they had clearly outperformed us. There would be no questions of favoritism in my mind. We left before the third round with the feeling of being firmly in second. My father asked what I thought. I told him, "Sorry, but we just got beat. Hats off to them. Someone in round three would have to take it from them."
That evening was the gala awards dinner. I'll admit to eyeing second place. The cup was sitting there and I wanted it. It was very crowded at the party and I was annoyed. I just wanted to sit and relax with Nate and our families. The awards started: best commis, best fish (Jennifer Petrusky, of Charlie Trotter's), best meat (Percy Whatley, of The Ahwahnee). Then they cleared the stage for the top three. I told Nate we were going up there. The announcement came. Third place goes to Luke Parsons. We all just stood there. Whoops! We meant Chris Parsons. Luke Bergman took second. James Kent goes to Lyon for the international Bocuse d'Or.
Afterward, Nate and I asked for a picture with Thomas Keller. After it was taken, he leaned over and said it was very close, and told me to come back next year. I pointed to Nate and said, "He's the future, not me." Chef Keller repeated: "You come back. You could go next. We'll talk." As Kent left the stage, his journey was just beginning. Best of luck. I hope they win. He has a great commis and the support of a great chef.
The next morning, I had breakfast with Kent. They had been preparing since August and Chef Humm had put the pressure on. I never met Luke but heard that Gabriel Kreuther, his executive chef at The Modern, was very involved as well.
Driving home and unpacking was a euphoric experience. We were so close but so far. I was feeling so proud of Nate, who was a steadfast worrier all weekend. Never intimidated and pushing hard. All he asked in return for his countless hours spent was a shot at the hot line at Catch. I guess I could do that for him. I couldn't help but feel I should have been better.
Back at the restaurant, I was by myself and thinking about the weekend. I made the podium, but fell short of my goals. Two spots from Lyon. That's painful. What did Chef Keller mean? Does the man I have the ultimate respect for really see the future in me? I don't know if I will return to the Bocuse d'Or. Perhaps his words are the "gold" I'm searching for in my journey as a chef. Why can't that be enough for me? If Chef Keller were to make the call to compete again, a resounding "Oui, chef!" would certainly be my answer.