2008 Finalist Percy Whatley Wants Another Shot at the Title
[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?
Whatley left Orlando empty-handed. Nonetheless, the chef has submitted his application for the 2010 American showdown. He has no idea if the committee is open to giving any of last year’s contenders another shot, but he’s putting himself out there in hopes that they will, and he really wants it.
Whatley’s willingness to re-up for Bocuse d’Or duty illustrates one of the more fascinating aspects of the competition: The Bocuse d’Or can be something of a femme fatale–once they’re in her spell, no matter how cruelly they’ve been rejected, some chefs can’t help but try, try again to woo her.
Beyond the physical challenge, the international Bocuse d’Or is an emotionally grueling undertaking, even at the outset, because of twenty-four teams who compete, twenty-one will leave without medals. The numbers are a little better for the chefs who will duke it out at the Bocuse d’Or USA in February. While three of sixteen chefs will win medals at this event, the prevailing wisdom is that the only real prize is the opportunity to go to Lyon.
But is that really the case?
Whatley says that, while winning the whole enchilada and representing the US in Lyon in 2011 “would be the ultimate,” that “to be in the top three would be awesome,” especially because he expects the field to be formidable thanks to the recruitment efforts of Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse. Whatley’s motivation? A combination of pride, competitive spirit, and a desire to attain his personal best: Since the 2008 event, he has been haunted by one of the most unshakable feelings any chef or athlete can experience: knowing in his bones that he was capable of doing better… that’s a scab that picks at itself.
And so, Whatley wants another chance, so much so that he’s ready to sacrifice the time and sleep it’ll require. With the holiday season looming, followed by the annual Chef’s Holiday promotion at the Ahwanhee, days off to devote to training will be hard to come by between now and the American semifinals. So where will Whatley find the time? “I’ll just work overnight a couple of days a week,” he says.
Whatley considered himself the “grandpa” of the competition at Epcot, where most of his competitors were still in their twenties, but at 40 he’s still young and fit enough to hold his own. (Last year’s candidate from Japan was 41, and in 2003 the United States sent 63-year old Hartmut Handke to Lyon; he placed sixth and won “Best Meat,” the best-ever showing by an American.) There’s certainly precedence in the international arena for a return candidate: Denmark’s Rasmus Kofoed won the bronze at the Bocuse d’Or in 2005, then returned in 2007 and nabbed the silver. But not all sophomore stories have a happy ending: Australian Luke Croston placed twelfth in 2007, believed he had a better result in him, trained for months, returned in 2009 … and placed twelfth again. Ouch.
Whatley believes he learned a lot from the 2008 competition, both about the Bocuse d’Or USA itself and about his craft, though the lessons came in the postmortem rather than during the event. After his disappointing finish, he solicited the feedback of Epcot judges Traci des Jardins and Gavin Kaysen. He also consulted his longtime mentor, Roland Henin, Thomas Keller’s kitchen sensei and coach to Team USA in 2009. The chefs gave him belated advice on how he might have amped up his flavors, sharing a treasure trove of methods and techniques, and he’s employed that wisdom in his kitchen at the Ahwanhee. He’s also made a point of adding sous vide cooking–a crucial technique in the Bocuse d’Or because of the precision it affords the cooks–to his repertoire.
Whatley may not hail from a Michelin-starred restaurant as some US semifinalists surely will, but he possesses something few, if any of them, have: He’s competed in the Bocuse d’Or USA once before. He’s experienced what it’s like to cook in the claustrophobic confines of a three-meter by six-meter pod, over five and a half hours, with emcees tracking his every move, cheering crowds shaking the rafters, and legendary chefs waiting to taste and judge his food. He may not be a culinary competition veteran yet, but he ain’t no rookie anymore either. And that’s worth a lot.
“You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve been in that box,” Hartmut Handke said to me during my research for Knives at Dawn, referring to the competition kitchen pods, his point being that you might be able to rehearse your routine, but you can’t practice pressure.
Whatley’s been in the box. If he gets a chance to go back, that experience will be priceless. Whether it will be enough to get him on the podium… well, that’s why we watch, isn’t it?