Eleven Madison Park’s James Kent On the Value of Preparing for the Bocuse d’Or
[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA team-selection finals on February 6, Toqueland will profile as many of the twelve candidates as possible.]
I don’t have hard numbers to back this up, but I feel confident stating, based on the research for my book Knives at Dawn, that most of the candidates who compete in the Bocuse d’Or are sous chefs. There are good reasons for this: prep and line cooks don’t have the experience or sense of culinary self to head up a team (they are appropriately chosen as the commis, or assistant), while full-fledged chefs and executive chefs, generally speaking, can’t be spared for the time it takes to prepare and train for the Big Event in Lyon. (This isn’t always the case; there are a few bona fide exec chefs in the mix for Hyde Park, such as John Rellah, Andrew Weiss, Percy Whatley, and Michael Clauss, executive chef of The Daily Planet in Vermont, whom I just interviewed the other day for an upcoming profile.)
Sous chefs occupy a curious position in the professional pecking order. Many of them have the managerial and expediting chops to be chefs–they do, after all, run kitchens during service–but their own style isn’t necessarily formed to the point that they are ready to essay their own menus. Generally speaking, that’s because the food they put out–often for years at a time–is somebody else’s. Even the specials they might devise have to hew to the style of the guy or gal they work for, or else the menu won’t fully gel.
James Kent, a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, is learning what many past Bocuse d’Or candidates have learned–that the Bocuse d’Or offers a valuable exercise in determining where their chef ends and they begin. For whatever the reason, observers of the Bocuse d’Or will tell you that if you don’t cook from the heart in the competition, then your food will suffer. Accordingly, chef-candidates aren’t generally sent into battle with instructions to simply execute food conceived by, say, Daniel Humm, who happens to be a Bocuse d’Or USA advisory board member and Kent’s chef at EMP.
And so, on New Year’s Day, when Kent cooked the working draft of his Bocuse d’Or USA menu for Humm (for whom he’s worked for three years) for the first time, it was a Big Moment. “This is Chef’s restaurant, and this is Chef’s food,” says Kent of the dynamic most days at EMP. “All of us have our say, but ultimately he’s the one who likes it, or changes it.”
Not so on January 1st.
Although Kent and Humm had conversed about the menu items Kent had in mind, and Humm had offered advice along the way, Kent hadn’t taken it all. This was fine with Humm, who encouraged his sous to break free and do his own thing… for the competition. “I don’t really like this idea, but this is your menu,” was a familiar refrain during their rap sessions
Kent recalls butterflies leading up to the New Year’s Day confab. “I was tired,” he recalls. “It was the first day of the year. I had a hangover. I was expecting Chef to come in and kill me.”
But Kent got a nice surprise to usher in 2010 and his training homestretch: “Things he’d been fighting, he ended up loving,” he says of the tasting.
Kent first got interested in the Bocuse d’Or because of Humm, who was in Lyon with the Team USA contingent in 2009. (Unlike many American chefs, the European-born and raised Humm has been aware of the Bocuse d’Or since his formative days). Toward the end of summer 2009, as Kent was mulling over the possibility of applying, Humm arranged a meeting with 2007 US candidate and Cafe Boulud wonderkind Gavin Kaysen–one of the event’s biggest cheerleaders on US soil.
Kaysen told Kent about his Bocuse d’Or odyssey, and how it helped him define himself as a chef. “It’s amazing,” Kaysen said. “You’ll learn how to cook in your own style.”
That seemed like an idea whose time has come, the logical next step in a career that dates back to the candidate’s early teens. Kent is a native New Yorker whose best childhood friend was the nephew of a restaurateur who owned three neighborhood joints in New York. He started working in one of them as a busboy, then began rolling pasta in the kitchen when he was thirteen. By the time he was fifteen, he knew he wanted to go the fine-dining route, fantasizing about having his name on the plate in his own restaurants. He studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris at nineteen, though didn’t stage at any top European places, instead using his downtime to disappear into, among other places, Amsterdam for a spell. Back in New York, he worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Mario Batali, and was part of the opening team for Gordon Ramsay, where he was the lead line cook.
After he was selected as one of the twelve finalists for the Bocuse d’Or USA, Kent selected as his commis a young cook named Thomas Allan who worked at EMP for a year and a half, and has cooked at Per Se for the last eight months. (Update 2/7/10: Allan recently returned to EMP as a sous chef.)
The plates that Kent and Allan put up for Humm on New Year’s Day were works in progress, for sure. They timed themselves, but didn’t hold themselves to the 5 1/2 hour limit, and they didn’t present formal platters, “just” the final dishes that they’d be serving to the judges.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to cook things the fastest, the sequencing, but we wanted Chef to see the plates,” said Kent.
With the Chef’s blessing secured, Kent was planning to spend January figuring out the timing and sequencing of his and Allan’s tasks lists, and to hone the routine of getting their food onto their respective (fish and meat) platters at the same time, and piping hot. (This final gear-shift was the bugaboo that Team USA, 2009 edition, never quite solved.)
Kent has also adopted an approach to which many of the candidates I’ve spoken to so far seem to have gravitated: keeping things relatively simple in Hyde Park, befitting the short preparation time (roughly nine weeks from selection to competition), then up the ante if they get selected for Lyon. Says Kent: “If we have more time to train and have a coach who’s [familar with] the food in Lyon, it might be different then…”
Though he hasn’t cooked competitively before, Kent acted and sang in high school, so seems unfazed by the prospect of plying his craft before a crowd, and says he’s used to the pressure of working to the clock: “We always cook with really strict deadlines,” he said. “No matter what… [The Bocuse d’Or] is just practicing and being organized and having proper prep lists.” As an example of his hyper-organization, he’s purchased ten timers, one each for various methods, and there will be a Post-It Note on each of them. That might seem borderline OCD, but it’s the type of control that’s required in this particular contest.
Though participating in the Bocuse d’Or will surely be the learning experience Kaysen and others have promised him, Kent isn’t just doing it for the edification: “Tom is a very strong cook and I feel I’m rather strong myself and we’ll definitely push each other. The goal is to make it to the final competition.”