Real-Life Iron Chefs Go Head to Head: Inside the Bocuse d'Or
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.
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.
As the platters of food began to roll out, so did the slow wave of cheers across the auditorium. The Swedes put out an impressive display, but two kitchens down was Denmark's Rasmus Kofoled, who worked with such spotless precision, it was truly impressive. The Swiss, led by Franck Giovanni, likewise put out striking food.
As the platters rolled, so did the clock, and it eventually came time for the U.S. to put their offering out for the world to see. When it finally came up on the big screen and the American section erupted, what we saw could only be described as "tight." Everything had its proper place, beautiful in its attention to detail, curvature, and overall feel. The plating of the food—which strikes me as almost as important as the platter itself—was likewise elegant.
Kent and Allen returned swiftly to put the finishing touches on their meat platter. Meanwhile other offerings continued to roll out of kitchens in a mechanical staggered fashion. The cheering in the stands grew, and eventually the MCs became completely inaudible. At times they even tried to quiet the crowd down by saying that these chefs needed absolute concentration.
Finally the clock reached zero-time, and the final American platter was pushed out from their tiny kitchen. It was meant to represent New York City, with a centerpiece rested above a bed of grass to mimic central park, and the grid system growing outward from there with tiny glass and metal peaks set in alternating fashion around the center to give the sense of a skyline. The platter looked beautiful, and through the frantic waving of flags and "USA!" chants, we knew that fine and detailed work had emerged from kitchen eight, so no matter what happened in judgment, there was nothing to be ashamed of.
Shortly after America put out their last platter, Nate and I left the hall to find a quick bite to eat. We hadn't left earlier for fear of losing our seats to the crowd waiting to get in. We talked about what we had seen. Norway's food looked tight as ever. England's platters looked surprisingly good. We both liked what America had put out, but we both agreed that Denmark's platters were striking.
We returned to the auditorium to wait anxiously for the verdict. The stadium had become quite stuffy with everyone glued to their seats, not wanting to miss the conclusion. When suddenly the lights went low, the crowd woke up, and everyone got to their feet. Best fish went to the Swiss. Best meat, to the French. Thus far it was a good sign, as these consolation prizes generally went to the fifth and fourth placed teams—America had a chance to break into the top three. Third place, a bronze Bocuse trophy, and 10,000 euros went to Norway. Second place, a silver Bocuse trophy, and 15,000 euros went to Sweden. This fact, however, only meant that America had the chance of taking down the coveted top spot.
Drums were rolling, the crowd was hushed, and the globe stopped spinning for a split second. The gold Bocuse trophy and 20,000 euros went to ... Denmark.
America received tenth place. Surely a disappointment. Team Kent should, however, be commended for the dedication they put into such a demanding event. Their food looked spectacular, and I can only imagine how good it tasted. What does this mean for the American effort in future Bocuse d'Or conquests? Simply that the Holy Grail remains untouched. Someone will achieve it at some point. What does this mean for my future Bocuse d'Or endeavors? That has yet to be seen, yet the fact remains that the gauntlet has been thrown.