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.]
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.
2. Know Your Judges. For all of the attention the Bocuse d'Or has attracted here in the States over the past two years, you are not cooking for the crowds or the press. You are cooking for the judges. Find out who they will be (they have not been announced yet, but surely will far in advance of the competition), and Google up whatever you can about their personal predilections and prejudices. Find the common ground among them and apply your own palate and sensibility to something that will hit those marks.
Also–this is important–find out what the basis for the judging will be. Will the food be evaluated according to classic competition standards (emphasizing visual showmanship and demanding a lot of "work" on the individual components), or will each judge simply bring his or her own idea of visual and taste success to the table? At the team selection event at Epcot last year, with a few exceptions, the the judges were not competition veterans, so the food was evaluated more by modern American restaurant standards than Bocuse d'Or sensibilities. (This was a source of some frustration to Richard Rosendale, the US Culinary Olympic team member who came in second with a classic competition approach.) The make-up and marching orders of the jury is crucial information as you prepare.
Action Item: Pretend you're hosting a dinner party for the judges; send them home happy.
3. Revise Both Platters at Once. Veteran observers of the Bocuse d'Or, including Paul Bocuse himself, will tell you that it's better to have two very good platters than one great one and one that's just so-so. If you're like most chefs, the first platter that offers inspiration will provide you mental sanctuary and momentum. Resist those comforts in favor of getting the second platter on its way, even if it means suffering through a day or two of creative block.
Action Item: Get both platters conceived. Then double back and revise.
4. Leave Nothing to Chance. The Bocuse d'Or is not the event for relying on the kindness of strangers… or new tools and equipment. The history of this event is strewn with stories of new equipment that malfunctioned, borrowed equipment that shorted out, and replacement ingredients that weren't up to snuff. Bring what you can, ship the rest, and have somebody back home briefed and ready to send reinforcements if the need arises. This is one event where the term "control freak" is the ultimate compliment.
Action Item: Make a list. Check it twice. Trust no one.
5. Be Yourself. There's a tendency among Bocuse d'Or candidates to look up past platters and imitate the style that seems to win. This is a mistake. It sounds like New Age nonsense, but if you don't cook food that springs from someplace personal, it's almost impossible to achieve greatness on this particular stage. Take a page from the approach Kevin Gillespie took on the Top Chef episode that earned him a spot among you at Hyde Park and find a way to make your style and sensibility fit in the Bocuse d'Or mold.
2009 Canadian Bocuse d'Or candidate David Wong put it best: "Every year there's a half dozen clowns who imitate previous years' France platter…If you're not yourself in Bocuse d'Or, you lose."
Action Item: Cook from the heart.
Hope these guidelines are helpful as you prepare for Hyde Park.
Best of luck!
PS I'll be back this time tomorrow with some thoughts about the finalists for Hyde Park — a handicapping of the field and related musings.