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)
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…)
OK, so the main event of the afternoon was, of course, the announcement of the finalists for Hyde Park. (Press materials still refer to “semi-finalists, but since the event has been changed to a one-round contest, instead of the previously announced two-round affair, with the victor going on to Lyon, I trust we can now call the Hyde Park candidates the American finalists.) On some level, the number of applications had to be a disappointing: just 17 teams applied, about the same number as last year, when “less than 20” (according to a former insider) knocked on the door. Look for the Bocuse d’Or committee to amp up its recruitment efforts next time around in search of a bigger field.
Another surprise was that the committee had announced on its website that it would select “up to 16” teams to compete in Hyde Park, but only admitted a dozen to the finals–11 applicants plus Top Chef “chef-testant” Kevin Gillespie, who won direct entry on a Bocuse-themed episode a few weeks back.
Now here’s the irony: Despite the small field, and smaller-than-expected number of finalists, the Bocuse d’Or USA committee must feel great about the dozen it did admit to the finals–a seemingly top-notch batch of contestants with no clear front runner, which should ensure a dramatic day of competition. I’ve only had a few hours with the list, but here’s what we can glean from it:
25% Of the Field Competed in 2008!
This is huge. Of the 12 candidates, 3 of them competed in Orlando in the 2008 Bocuse d’Or USA: Percy Whatley of The Ahwanee in Yosemite, California and John Rellah of the New York Yacht Club in New York City as candidates, and Jennifer Petrusky, sous chef of Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago as a commis to Michael Rotondo of Restaurant Charlie in Vegas, who won bronze last year. For the value of this experience, see my post on Percy Whatley from last week.
Big City, Multi-Star Talent
When Paul Bocuse asked the Boulud-Keller-Bocuse triumvirate to take over the Bocuse d’Or USA in 2008 one of his goals was that the trio would be able to draw the kind of big-name restaurant talent that competes for perennial medalists such as France and Sweden. This year, three candidates have that pedigree: Luke Bergman, Executive Sous Chef of The Modern in New York City; James Kent, a sous chef from Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park; and Michael Clauss of Daily Planet restaurant in Burlington, Vermont, who until recently was Executive Chef of Boulud’s catering company Feast and Fetes.
I haven’t had a chance to interview Danny Cerqueda of Carolina Country Club in Raleigh, North Carolina, but some Googling shows that this chef has some competition chops, having competed in the National Young Commis Competition. This is intriguing. I plan to reach out to Cerqueda and see just how deep his experience on this front goes, but background in this type of event could make him a serious contender. Ditto, Christopher Parsons, Executive Chef of Catch restaurant in Winchester, Massachusetts who competed in an earlier Bocuse d’Or USA semifinal (piecing together his bio on the restaurant website, it was in the late 1990s or early 2000s). Apparently the event had an impact on him, based on this tidbit: “It was during this time that Chris participated in The Bocuse d’Or competition. Drawing inspiration from his memories of family meals prepared at home, Chris asked his father to serve as his assistant, and won a coveted place as one of eight semi-finalists out of hundreds of participants.” The fact that he’s competed in the Bocuse d’Or USA once before, and is coming back for more, means he has one of the most crucial traits of any serious Bocuse d’Or contender: desire.
And then, of course, there’s Kevin Gillespie who has competition experience of a different stripe, having made it to the final three on Top Chef. The show has little to do with the Bocuse d’Or, but Gillespie is a smart guy (he turned down a spot at MIT to become a cook) and if he wants this, I wouldn’t rule him out, even though his natural style is too casual to win. Does Gillespie have a desire to compete well? He’s the only candidate who didn’t have to apply; essentially the Bocuse d’Or was dropped in his lap. Whether or not he finds a spark of inspiration and motivation will be key to his chances.
At press time, I haven’t been able to find out enough about three candidates to say anything cogent about them. My apologies to Jeremie Tomczak of the French Culinary Institute in New York City; Andrew Weiss of The Chef’s Workshop in Las Vegas; and Mark Liberman of Roxy’s Black Sheep in West Palm Beach. I hope to talk to them soon and report back.
The Cutting Room Floor
Much else was discussed at today’s presser, from what fish and meat will be cooked with in the Hyde Park showdown to what the format and schedule will be to some irresistible commentary from Kaysen, Boulud, and Bocuse. In the name of keeping this post to a semi-reasonable length, I’ll save those details for another time. (Well, okay, the fish is Scottish salmon and the meat is Colorado lamb.)
Food for Thought: Why Don’t Women Dig the Bocuse d’Or?
This is probably a worthy subject for a future post, but Jennifer Petrusky was the lone woman sent through to the American finals this year and there were no women among the chef candidates in 2008. To be clear: This is certainly a function of the lack of female applicants not any kind of sexism on the committee’s part. But you have to wonder: Is there something about the Bocuse d’Or that just doesn’t appeal to women? In a dozen editions of the international Bocuse d’Or, very few women have competed, and only one woman has ever made the podium (1989 champ Lea Linster of Luxembourg). Why is this? I’m not sure, but it’s something I hope to find time to explore here in the coming weeks and months.
I’ll be back with some non-Bocuse posts later this week, and updates and notes on the finalists as I manage to connect with them.