The Contender: A Chef Goes for the Gold
Photo by Keith Ferris/CIA
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.
During the drive to the two-day competition at the main Culinary Institute of America campus in Hyde Park, New York, Nate and I decided our desired time slot for the competition was A4, the last of the first wave on Saturday morning. When we arrived at the orientation meeting, the understandable edginess of the teams was evident. We got the rundown, then drew time slots. I pulled A4, and we both thought this was a good sign. Next, a tour of the kitchens was followed by dinner. We returned to the hotel at 11:00 after a long evening and met for a last verbal walkthrough. The school would open at 6:00 AM, and we would start cooking at 8:00. We would be there at 6:00 sharp. I wanted to be the first team there and show we were there to win.
At 6:15, the Eleven Madison Park team arrived. Going into the weekend, I felt that Eleven Madison might be the top contender, and I was happy to beat them to the school. There was an element of taking any opportunity to be a step ahead. At 6:30, Eleven Madison was organizing in the kitchen and made a case that we be allowed in to do the same. We unpacked our food into our assigned reach-in refrigerator and left the kitchen to organize our equipment. At 8:00, the group A teams started cooking. Each team was assigned a CIA student to do simple tasks, and we ended up with a talented young woman named Joella who had ironically completed an internship at Eleven Madison.
My first problem was the size of the lamb saddles. VERY small. I was using the fatback to wrap the cleaned leg meat to form the centerpiece of our meat platter. I considered a change of plan but decided to stick with the original. Other than that, everything went pretty smoothly. It took me a bit to get into a rhythm, but eventually we were cruising. Nate was kicking ass and seemed to be thriving in the intense atmosphere. Joella was very helpful and we kept her busy. Halfway through, Chef Boulud came through and told the teams we had an extra half hour. We made the most of it.
At some point in the morning Chef Keller came in, and, simultaneously, our neighboring team's pressure cooker began to explode. I was certainly glad it wasn't ours, but it sprayed stuff into our pots, and Nate was pissed. I told him to stay cool. We got everything finished, and by 12:00 we had packed, scrubbed, and polished our station on time. Eleven Madison started an hour later than we in group B, and I watched them for a few minutes. They were going well and it was clear they had trained.
My big question going into the weekend was how much Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison's executive chef, had gotten behind his guys, and it was clear Humm had given his sous chef James Kent the time and support to go for the win. A number of other teams also seemed strong. Percy Whatley, of The Ahwahnee, looked like he had something to prove, and Jennifer Petrusky, of Charlie Trotter's, seemed very comfortable. I didn't see Luke Bergman, sous chef of The Modern, as he was in group C, but I had concerns about him as well.
That evening we attended a reception with all of the VIP judges. Meg came with us and it was a nice event, but I have to admit I couldn't have given a hoot about all of the famous chefs that night. We were going in at 6:30 the next morning and that's all that mattered. We left at 7:30 PM. Chef Keller was getting his coat when we were, and commented that he had heard good things about us. Nate and I had one final meeting and turned in at 11:00. Going to bed that night, I felt we had a one in five chance at a win. We just had to execute well, and the platters would decide the rest.