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.]
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…