Bocuse d’Or USA 2010: Hanging with the Big Dogs

 

Andrew Weiss Likes Flying Under the Radar

 

[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA team-selection finals on February 6, 2010, Toqueland will profile as many of the twelve candidates as possible.]

 

Nothing to Lose: Andrew Weiss is Ready for His Second Bocuse d'Or USA. (photo Courtesy Stacey Weiss)

A few weeks back, when the Bocuse d’Or USA committee announced a dozen finalists for the upcoming team-selection event at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, I found myself Googling around frantically for something, anything, about Andrew Weiss, the Las Vegas resident who had made the cut.  I came up empty, and the post I threw up that day featured an apology to Weiss for the complete lack of intel on him. 

Well, Weiss and I caught up by phone the other day, and it turns out that he has been down the Bocuse d’Or road before: he was a semifinalist for the Bocuse d’Or USA in 2006, and applied but was not chosen for, the 2008 competition at Epcot—the first time the event was staged under the auspices of the new guard of Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse.  (Counting Weiss, about half of the field of Hyde Park finalists has competed—either as chef or commis—in a previous Bocuse d’Or USA, which is intriguing.)

There’s no point beating around the bush: If you judge chefs by their resumes and current place of employment, Weiss is a decided underdog, an unknown 28-year old native of Amherst, NY, who studied food service management instead of the culinary arts, whose first restaurant job was in a Wendy’s, and who’s spent much of his formative cooking years knocking around from one job to another along the East Coast, essentially learning on the job. 

But what Weiss lacks in Michelin-star credentials, he more than makes up for in chutzpa, determination, and success.  At just 28, he has owned and run his own catering company, overseen a $3 million restaurant, and staged with Charlie Trotter, as well as with Daniel Scannell, a Certified Master Chef and culinary competition veteran who designed the platters for Team USA 2009 and has competed in the International Culinary Olympics. 

I really enjoyed my chat with Weiss because I quickly got the impression that he was something of a maverick.  I hope if he’s reading this that he’ll take it as a compliment that he reminded me more of the cooks I’ve known than the chefs.  Part of this was his relative youth.  But more than that, he just seemed like a hardcore whisk to me, somebody who loves being in the weeds on a Saturday night and living to tell the tale.  He also boasts a cook’s unmistakable sense of humor; for example, he describes the first restaurant where he worked as an executive chef, Gadsby’s Tavern, as “a historical building in Alexandria, Virginia, where George Washington and his cronies had dinner.”  George Washington and his cronies?  I can just hear the kitchen crew breaking up over that one as the front of the house gang somberly described the eatery’s heritage to the touristas in the dining room.

Three weeks ago, Weiss took on his latest job, as executive chef of The Lake Club at Lake Las Vegas, a private social club comprising about 255 members, many of whom don’t actually live in Vegas.  So, despite having a new clientele to please, Weiss has the necessary time to plan for Hyde Park.

Weiss first became interested in the Bocuse d’Or when he saw one of Canadian Nick Versteeg’s documentaries about the competition on Food Network.  It appealed to what he describes as his perpetual hunt for “the next adventure.  I don’t like to stop… I like to push myself, see what I can truly do with food.  I don’t like to settle. I try to push the boundaries, try something … that most chefs are too busy or afraid to try.”

Since 2006, Weiss has been lying in the tall grass waiting for his next crack at Bocuse d’Or glory: he has been keeping notes and renderings of ideas, garnishes, and other preparations, both on his computer or in a notebook.   And he’ll take inspiration wherever he can find it; he’s even scribbled down concepts he’s seen on billboards.  As of last week, he was still tweaking one garnish for his salmon platter and one for his lamb, but otherwise had his recipes locked and loaded and was shopping for suitable platters to display his creations come February.

For whatever the reason, Weiss has decided to cut his own idiosyncratic path through the culinary jungle.  He hasn’t gravitated toward the same kitchens that his peers would kill to get into, and he seems to relish his outsider status.  Of the coming challenge in Hyde Park, where he’ll cook against sous chefs from Eleven Madison Park, The Modern, Charlie Trotter, and other top kitchens, he said that he wants to “prove I belong in the same realm as the other chefs competeing, that I can hang with the big dogs.”

I’d never heard a chef use the phrase “hang with” before, but it comes up a lot in the other world I write about:  tennis.  Young players who find themselves on a court with a top player for the first time use it to describe whether or not they can keep up.  For example:  “I got to hit with Roger Federer the other day.  I was able to hang with him, but I always knew he had another gear where he could just put me away.”

I asked Weiss about this and, sure enough, he played high school tennis.  He started at a late age (around 12 or 13) and went up against some of the Mid Atlantic’s top juniors.  “I held my own,” he says proudly.  “I competed well with these tennis prodigies.” 

It’s the same pride that motivates him to go up against the thoroughbreds who he’ll be facing in Hyde Park:  “Of course I see myself as an underdog,” he says.  “Daniel Humm’s [sous chef], the Gabriel Kreuther guy, Trotter’s …they have the availability to get these great ingredients, to have these restaurants lend their equipment, to give them a leg up over everybody else.  I’m in a small kitchen.  I have to go purchase my own items. I am an underdog.  It motivates me to show up everybody else, to show that a little guy from a little club [can make it there]…”

The Bocuse d’Or is one part cooking and one part sports, and by the time we were done talking, I saw Weiss as the classic sports protagonist: the Bocuse d’Or USA’s own Rocky Balboa.  I’ve never tasted the man’s food, so don’t know if he has the goods.  But it’s no small thing for an unknown from Vegas to step into the ring with fine dining’s Apollo Creeds.  In many ways, he’ll be attempting the same brand of improbable victory in Hyde Park that Team USA tries to pull off in Lyon every other year. 

Of course, that larger triumph has not yet come to pass.  But for Team USA, as for a young, unheralded chef from Las Vegas, hope springs eternal…

-Andrew

 

Bocuse d’Or USA: The Next Generation

US Finalists Announced, and What We Learned at the Press Conference

(From time to time, Toqueland will opine on events and developments related to the Bocuse d’Or USA and the American drive toward the Bocuse d’Or 2011, based on my research for Knives at Dawn: The American Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d’Or Competition. – AF)

Keller, Bocuse, and Boulud will return to Lyon with a new team in 2011.


At a press conference held this afternoon in the private dining room at Restaurant Daniel, the finalists for the Bocuse d’Or USA–the upcoming event at which the American team for the world’s most prestigious cooking competition will be selected–were announced.  Beyond providing factoids about the finalists, the presser was a window into where the Bocuse d’Or USA is in its evolution since the new guard of Daniel Boulud (Chairman), Thomas Keller (President), and Jerome Bocuse (Vice President) took over the cause in 2008.  Rather than just list the finalists (an analysis of whom follows after the break), here’s what we learned from yesterday’s event:

Show of Force

The Bocuse d’Or USA had an unmistakable message for the nation, and the world yesterday:  We are united, and everybody’s coming to the party.  Up on the dais with Boulud, Jerome Bocuse, and (2007 candidate) Gavin Kaysen, were the Beard Foundation’s Susan Ungaro, Culinary Institute of America President Dr. Tim Ryan (who will host the team selection event at the CIA at Hyde Park), and Bocuse d’Or USA Advisory Board members Alain Sailahc and Laurent Tourondel.  (Another Advisory Board member, Corton’s Paul Liebrandt, just off a delayed flight from Chicago, arrived after the festivities had begun and politely took a seat at the back of the room.)  The message was unmistakable: all of these people made time to be here for for this; you can be sure they’ll make the time to buttress the team with advice and support as it conceives and rehearses the cooking of its food and readies itself for battle.

Time is on Their Side

An undercurrent of the presentation was that, unlike in 2009, the US has plenty of time to prepare for the Bocuse d’Or 2011 and plans on using it with some good, ol’ fashioned Obama-style deliberation.  Is there a coach in place?  Nope, they’ll wait until a candidate is picked in February and involve that person in the decision.  (Good idea.)  Where will the candidate train?  Well, the CIA seems like an ideal spot, but they’ll wait and see where the candidate comes from and evaluate the geographic and scheduling landscape then.  Who are the judges for the American finals?  We’re taking this one step at a time.  Some might call this dithering; I call it prudent and patient.  Better to delay decisions than to make them prematurely and have to backtrack.

Thomas Keller Goes Out on a Limb

Just about everybody involved in the Bocuse d’Or USA, 2009 edition, casually referred to America “bringing home the gold,” or “beating the French,” or “touching the podium” (i.e., winning gold, silver or bronze).  Among a few notable exceptions to this was the exceedingly cautious and considered Thomas Keller, who never referred to bringing home the gold.  In fact, at a candidate briefing held at the French Culinary Institute in 2008, he very pointedly said, “I don’t want to say winning the Bocuse d’Or [in 2009] but in our progression to win the Bocuse d’Or one day.”  Well, Keller couldn’t be in New York today, but he did send along a written statement which Boulud read.  A lot of it was by the numbers, but toward the end, Keller referred to “realizing our goal of being on the podium in 2011.”  I wrote a word next to that segment in in my notebook:  “Woah!”  The importance of Keller’s committing those words to paper cannot be overstated.  He simply doesn’t say such things causally.  These guys mean business.

(Keep reading for the Candidate Breakdown…)

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Bocuse d’Or USA 2010: Dear Candidates…

Unsolicited Advice for the Finalists on the Road to Hyde Park

(From time to time, Toqueland will opine on events and developments related to the Bocuse d'Or USA and the American drive toward the Bocuse d'Or 2011, based on my research for Knives at Dawn: The American Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition.  Today, some thoughts on how the candidates — who will be announced later this afternoon — should prepare for the Bocuse d'Or USA. – AF)

[Note: This post was revised at 8:30pm, 12/7/09, to reflect changes in format for the Hyde Park event that were announced in a Bocuse d'Or press conference this afternoon:  There will be just one round of competition in February, and it will involve both a fish and meat platter.]

Dear Chefs,

Congratulations!  You've made the first cut.  You and your commis will have a shot at representing the United States at the next Bocuse d'Or in January 2011.  What an opportunity!  Take a moment to savor the news, then start thinking about a plan of attack.  Here are 5 tips for how you might go about it:

1.  Get to Work!  The team that wins the American team selection event in February will have just under a year to train for the international Bocuse d'Or in Lyon in January 2011.  That's almost four times as long as Timothy Hollingsworth had to prepare for last year's competition, and he and his commis, Adina Guest, managed to place sixth, just three spots short of the podium.  The bad news is that you have a scant two months to get ready for the showdown at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park…less time than last year's contenders had to preapre for the team trials at Epcot.  The salt in this wound?  One of those months is December, the epicenter of the holiday season, the worst four weeks of the year for a chef to focus on anything other than his or her restaurant.

While this quirk of timing was almost certainly dictated by other factors and considerations (e.g, working things out with the CIA, finding a weekend when all of the players would be available), there's an inadvertent shrewdness to it: the candidates most driven to succeed will show up ready to play.  So, break out the Red Bull and skip that beer (or two or three) you enjoy after service every night.  Work late, overnight, on your day off, or first thing in the morning, but get going as soon as possible, and build momentum right through the New Year.  You simply can't make up for lost time, no matter how good the reasons may have been.

Action Item: Find a way to start training… now.  If you want this, don't give yourself the opportunity to makes excuses later.

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Bocuse d’Or USA: The Once and Future Candidate?

2008 Finalist Percy Whatley Wants Another Shot at the Title

Percy Whatley, looking fresh and rested ... for now.

[Update: Feb 4, 2010:  This piece was written prior to the finalist-selection announcement on December 7, 2009.  Whatley was selected and has been training intensely.  A summary of his ramp-up, with food pictures, can be found here.)

Applications for candidates who want to vie for the opportunity to represent the United States at the next Bocuse d’Or, in January 2011, were due yesterday, and the Bocuse d’Or USA committee will announce the sixteen semifinalist teams, each comprising a chef and a commis, or assistant, on Monday, December 7. (The teams will face off at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, NY, in February 2010, where the American team will be selected.) It’s unlikely we’ll learn more about the candidate pool until then, but there’s one thing everybody already knows: Top Chef’s Kevin Gillespie has been awarded direct entry to the American competition based on his winning a Bocuse d’Or-themed challenge on the show a few weeks back.  And here’s a piece of news: At least one finalist from 2008 is looking to return to the field of battle, and his name is Percy Whatley.

Whatley, executive chef of the Ahwanhee in Yosemite, California, threw his toque into the ring of the Bocuse d’Or USA when it was held at Epcot in 2008. In preparation for that event, Whatley and his commis, Josh Johnson, trained mightily, executing daily five-plus hour practice sessions in the final weeks before the competition.

The result of that hard work and dedication?

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