Real-Life Iron Chef: A Judge Tells All


Photo by Keith Ferris/CIA

When Thomas Keller or Daniel Boulud asks you to do something, you simply cannot say no. They have managed to encourage chefs from the best restaurants in America to join the culinary council of the USA team for the next international Bocuse d'Or competition, to show their support and offer guidance. Part of the responsibility for the council members was to judge the final competition that would be the determining factor in who would go to Lyon in 2011. So ... I said yes. And I was recently one of the eight judges helping make that decision.

I'd never thought much about competitions. Neither had most of the cooks I know. In the U.S. there has historically been a divide in the profession between restaurant chefs and those who choose to focus on competitions. Most restaurant chefs have the perception of competition cooking as being more like dated buffet. The ability to be creative and expressive by using modern techniques was limited, causing chefs to question the relevance. In Europe the Bocuse d'Or competition has a strong following, and winning is considered extremely prestigious. While the USA team's budget for the 2009 Bocuse d'Or was $500,000, some of the European teams are rumored to have spent over $1 million.

Clearly the objective was to select the chef who would give the USA the best hope in winning the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon. But what does that mean?

All of these factors might explain the dominance of France, Belgium, and Sweden, all of which consistently place in the top three—and the relatively poor showing by the U.S. teams. Historically, most chefs in the U.S. could not see the benefit of devoting the time and energy to train for a competition that would not further their careers, even if they did win. Placing high in the contest would not draw people to their restaurants, like wining a James Beard Award, ranking high on Gourmet's list of top 50 restaurants, or even winning an episode of Top Chef.

This might be changing. With some of America's best chefs, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, becoming the chairman and president respectively, the Bocuse d'Or immediately gained legitimacy in the industry. In the past three years the U.S. team has been made up of sous chefs from the leading restaurants in the country. Gavin Kaysen from Daniel was the representative in the 2007 contest, followed by the French Laundry's Tim Hollingsworth in 2009. Now Eleven Madison Park's James Kent will try for the podium in 2011.

At the recent judging to decide the U.S. representative, the 12 teams consisting of a chef and commis had five hours and 35 minutes to prepare two platters, one focusing on salmon and the other on lamb. The judges would make evaluations based on the level of perfection in the presentation, cooking sophistication, creativity, aesthetics, and of course, flavor.

Going into the judging I expected the food to be classically composed, with little risk taking regarding flavor combinations and overall concepts. In conversation with some of the other judges, I asked what exactly we were looking for. Clearly the objective was to select the chef who would give the USA the best hope in winning the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon. But what does that mean? Level of execution is easy to evaluate. Either the food is cooked well and seasoned well or it is not. The U.S. candidate has to be a good cook, and this panel could easily discern who that would be.

But to me the more important aspect to selecting someone who would place high in Lyon was style. I have never competed in or watched a competition. But I assume the standard by which the international panel of judges decide the winner in Lyon is based on years of competitive cooking and the traditions that frame them. Did that mean we were looking for a perfectly executed, boring platter?

I wondered if the contestants were thinking the same thing when they designed their food. Is the goal to win and advance by playing the game? Or to cook expressively? Would the styles of the restaurants the chefs are working in shine through? Would I be able to pick out the work of a cook from Charlie Trotter's or Eleven Madison Park? Should I be able to?

As it turns out, I could.

One of the chefs, Jennifer Petrusky, a sous chef at Charlie Trotter's, had the most conceptual platter. Instead of just manipulating the ingredients and composing them in a logical way for flavor and appearance, she had worked the trays into a theme. Drawing inspiration from a recent trip to Dubai, she framed the foodstuffs around a tea that she had enjoyed in the Middle East. Rose, coriander, and honey became the backbone of the dish. Elements of sweetness, bitter, spice, floral, and salt blended together to form a complex course. This was high concept restaurant cooking, and I liked it.

Midway through the day Thomas called all of the judges together. He stressed that the most important element in making our decisions after flavor should be creativity. He reminded us that the actual competition was not for another year, and that an intense amount of training and coaching will take place to get the U.S. representative ready for Lyon. This prompted discussion amongst the group. What was easier, to train a chef to become technically precise or to encourage them to be expressive with their concepts? He admitted that last year's Bocuse d'Or winner did not have the highest level of execution, but when his tray was presented it exuded passion and originality.

"You could tell he had been thinking about that tray for years. It was a true expression of him."

It appears that by having involvement from the country's best chefs, the U.S. team and the competition in general will evolve in the coming years. There is no question that by bringing on chefs who work in a more modern style in their own restaurants, the American team will be influenced to cook in this manner. And the crossing over of restaurant cooks will help modernize the competition and bring a larger public awareness, which in turn will help produce a more talented group of competitors, like this year's winner, James Kent. The question is: will the international panel of judges embrace this type of thinking?

Maybe it could be the next cooking reality show.