Danny Cerqueda on Life Beyond Mystery Baskets
[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA finals this Saturday, February 6, Toqueland will profile as many of the finalists as possible.]
The first time Danny Cerqueda, executive sous chef of Carolina Country Club in Raleigh, North Carolina, competed in a culinary contest was in 2003, in the La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs’ young commis competition—a regional showdown in which the candidates are presented a mystery basket (unannounced selection of ingredients from which they have to cook) and have to fashion a three-course meal, with four portions for each course.
“I did horribly,” Cerqueda recalls. “I thought I knew what I was doing and I think I came in last place.”
Cerqueda picked himself up off the canvas and jumped right back in the next year, training for and winning the regional event, then placing fourth at the national contest. He went back again in 2006, posting the same results.
The experience lit a competitive fire under Cerqueda, who participates in one or two culinary competitions per year, mostly in events organized by the ACF (American Culinary Federation). In many ways, the 29-year-old Atlanta native is the quintessential American competition cook: He hails from a country club (historically, most of our Bocuse d’Or and International Culinary Olympics competitors have come from private clubs or culinary schools), and finds great value beyond the competition itself.
“You get to meet a lot of new people all across the country,” he says. “I’ve competed in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Wisconsin, the CIA once before…everywhere all over the country. What’s neat about it now is…not only do I get to meet people all over the country, but I get to look at other people’s food in other regions and see where I fit in there. It’s, like, ‘Alright, I’m staying with the trends, I’m staying current, I’m doing pretty well.’”
Cerqueda also says that he picks up techniques and flavor combinations by seeing what other competitors bring to the table, and that “if you perform well in a competition setting, you perform better in regular work. If you can deal with the stress of competing, of everybody watching you perform under pressure, then think about what you can do for three hundred people on Saturday night.”
I’ve heard this kind of talk before. It’s exactly the way two-time US Culinary Olympic team member Richard Rosendale discusses competing. Ditto Roland Henin, who’s coached the US Olympic team and was coach to Bocuse d’Or USA’s 2009 team. Ditto super-veteran culinary competitor Hardmut Handke, who placed 6th at the international Bocuse d’Or in 2003 at the age of 63 (that’s not a typo), winning Best Meat platter in the process.
Because of his competition background, to me, Cerqueda is one of the real x-factors coming into this weekend in Hyde Park. He doesn’t operate out of a big-city restaurant and hasn’t logged time in the kitchens of Michelin-starred whisks. There’s also not a whole lot in the public domain about his place of employment, the private Carolina Country Club (if you’re not a member, you can’t get past the home page of the club’s site).
But Cerqueda’s experience should not be overlooked. Richard Rosendale placed second in the team trials in 2008, besting candidates from Charlie Trotter’s organization and Top Chef superstar Hung Hyung, among others.
All of that said, Cerqueda himself acknowledges that he has some unique challenges to contend with at the Bocuse d’Or. He’s used to mystery basket exercises, so this is the first competition he’s participated in where he knows what’s coming and is expected to hone his menu and cooking choreography ahead of time, and he had a tough time getting started down that road.
Cerqueda expresses the challenge in downright poetic terms: “It’s just a process of refining it and creating this time schedule, this symphony of movement, a rehearsal if you will,” he says. “You know what to do and you’re just keeping up with the beat.”
Cerqueda began cooking at 16, as a short order cook. He graduated culinary school at 23, then interned at Pano’s and Paul’s. He was offered an executive chef position when he was just twenty-two but didn’t think he was ready. “How hard would it be to gain respect [from my cooks] when I was 22?” he says. (I found this humility refreshing, same as when Cerqueda came right out and told me that he didn’t think he was going to make the cut for the Hyde Park finals because, “I didn’t think I had enough experiences.”)
Instead, Cerqueda sought out a chef mentor he could have a real give-and-take relationship with. He moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to work with just such a chef at the Louisville Country Club, then followed the chef to Raleigh. They have been together for seven years now, and Cerqueda has been his sous chef since 2005. (Not coincidentally, the chef competed in the Bocuse d’Or USA several years ago and made the finals.)
Cerqueda says that he gravitates to a Southern style of cooking, and also dabbles in Asian and Spanish cuisine. It will be interesting to see how a competition veteran (who I assume knows the prevailing wisdom is to “go French” for the Bocuse d’Or) brings those influences to bear this weekend.
Cerqueda has high praise for his commis, Wayne Goode, a prep cook at Carolina Country Club.
“He has one of the best attitudes and work ethics that I have ever seen,” says the candidate. “A lot of cooks these days can develop attitudes. I don’t know if it’s a product of society, but good cooks are few and far between. Fifteen, twenty years ago, it was all about getting the job done and taking the abuse like a dog. You responded ‘Yes, Chef,’ or ‘Oui,’ and get it done. You don’t see that mentality as much with this generation. But this guy, he has it…I’ve never heard him say ‘no.’
“My whole mentality is you can teach somebody how to cook, but not how to have the right attitude,” he says.
Will Cerqueda’s competition chops and Goode’s righteous attitude be enough to win, place, or show this weekend? I have no idea. But I’m as eager to see what emerges from his kitchen Saturday as I am to see what those from more heralded restaurants put in front of the judges.