Inside the World's Most Prestigious Cooking Competition


Guillaume J Plisson

It's been one year since I competed in the Bocuse d'Or USA cooking competition in Hyde Park, New York, yet the memories still excite me. My experience at the qualifier for the international Bocuse d'Or 2011—the world's most prestigious cooking competition, which is being held today and tomorrow in France—far exceeded my expectations, and the disappointment (I won third prize) is still fresh. While sitting on the plane to Lyon to see this week's event firsthand, I couldn't help but feel a bit anxious. On a run earlier that day, I thought of the competitors and the painstaking details they must be delving through, and it sent me back to the days leading up to Hyde Park.

With the competition underway, no more practice can take place, only mental run-throughs and seemingly endless levels of organization. I've read the lineup of chefs and it is truly impressive. For the USA to win, the team will have to beat some seasoned veterans, who are quite hungry, I'm sure, and are only back for one reason—the sublime yet fleeting taste of victory.

Regardless, there is little doubt that this year the U.S. has compiled its best effort in the form of Team Kent: James Kent and Thomas Allan, both sous chefs at New York's Eleven Madison Park. This fact, however, should not downplay the enormous task ahead of them. After all, for the U.S. to win they will fiercely have to put their best foot forward without misstep or falter; all of their competitors will surely leave no room for error.

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As the Bocuse d'Or gradually has gradually entered the American culinary consciousness, it is likewise garnering much attention in other countries as well. Although it has long been a standout event for the European powerhouses of France and Norway, others thirst for an unprecedented spot on the podium—a feat that a non-European team has achieved only once (Singapore, in 1987). To breach the iron-clad curtain that surrounds the notoriety of the "top three" would no doubt propel underdog countries into the timeless culinary limelight. This is the proverbial carrot on the string that the U.S. pursues without rest.

Among the returning countries who have achieved a medal, the resumes are nothing short of impressive. Denmark's Kofoed Rasmus: one silver, one bronze, and a gold in the Bocuse d'Or Europe 2010 qualifier. Franck Giovannini, chef de cuisine from Philipe Rochat's Hôtel de Ville Crissier in Switzerland and a past bronze medal winner. France, always tough. Norway—fresh off a gold medal in 2009. And many others among the 24 countries stepping up their game, all wanting the recognition.

If working in a kitchen professionally can be considered an addiction, then the competitors in the Bocuse d'Or are the strung-out heroin addicts hell-bent on reaching a seemingly unachievable goal. They are willing to tolerate lack of sleep, stress of unfathomable levels, and separation from family and friends. And these are just the common drawbacks of working in the service industry. Multiply all of that by 1,000 and put the individual on the biggest stage in front of the brightest minds in the industry, and you start to understand what these competitors are dealing with in the days leading up to the five and a half hours of cooking fury.

I remember well the sleepless nights, the hours of preparation, the checking and rechecking of lists, and the omnipresent mise en place of our trip to Hyde Park. A year later, all of these international chefs are competing on a completely amplified level. To truly understand, one must participate—and while that is not my duty this year, I must observe and learn, for improvement is always possible.