What We Saw, and Learned, in Hyde Park This Weekend
[The Bocuse d’Or USA selects its 2013 team at the end of January; here’s a look back at some highlights of our coverage of the 2010 team trials; this piece was originally published on February 8, 2010.]
It was a successful weekend for the Bocuse d’Or USA at the Culinary Institute of America. Team USA was selected; chef demos, panel discussions and book signings were packed; and great food was served. Herewith, a few observations and reflections on the happenings:
The Bocuse d’Or USA Has Cause for Optimism. Journalists don’t get to taste the food at the Bocuse d’Or (see below for more on this), but the thing that stands out to me above all else this weekend is how very Bocuse d’Or-appropriate Eleven Madison Park’s James Kent’s food (his meat dish is pictured to the right) looked. With a year to revise, tweak, hone, and practice for the Main Event in Lyon, I truly believe the US has a shot at the podium with Kent and his commis Tom Allan at the rudder. Moreover, these guys are personally psyched to make a go of it, and the value of that cannot be overstated.
Similarly, I was impressed that, on the whole, the candidates’ food looked much more Bocuse-appropriate than did most of the food dished out by candidates at the 2008 Bocuse d’Or USA at Epcot. Generally speaking, there was more “work” on the individual garnishes and they were scaled down and executed with more finesse. (Flip side: a number of judges told me that some of the dishes didn’t taste as good as they looked.) There’s also clearly a growing pool of talent interested in investing the time and energy it takes to pursue this culinary holy grail: with chef-candidates on hand who work or have worked at 11 Madison Park, The Modern, Charlie Trotter’s, and Daniel, plus a number of candidates who had competed in either the Bocuse d’Or USA or American Culinary Federation events in the past, it was a good showing. It was also nice to see past competitors such as Hung Hyung and Kevin Sbraga in the house to lend their support.
Setting the Event at the Culinary Institute was a Brilliant Decision. The Bocuse d’Or USA 2008—the first time the event was under the auspices of Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Jerome Bocuse—was held at Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. It was well attended and a helluva lot of fun (e.g., Chef’s Beach Barbecue on Friday night), but there were no national journalists in attendance, other than yours truly, there to write my book, and Food & Wine’s Dana Cowin, who was on hand to present awards, not report on the happenings. This year’s CIA Hyde Park location, just 2 hours north of New York City, made it easy for the likes of Mimi Sheraton and (from Boston) Corby Kummer to be on hand. The location likely also inspired more than a few future candidates from the student body, many of whom were getting their first look at a competition on this scale. Perhaps a New York City location would have attracted more “civilians” and even more media, but it felt right that it be at the CIA—a spectacular facility with all the necessary kitchens and talent on hand to pull off the weekend with considerable aplomb.
Ultimately, the Two-Day Format Probably Doesn’t Matter. There was a lot of whispering about the two-day format this weekend among Bocuse d’Or observers and cognoscenti (and, truth be told, a few candidates who found the break unnatural and limiting). Rather than have all the chefs cook for 5 1/2 hours straight as Kent and Allan will have to do in Lyon, the teams did the first several hours of their prep on Friday, stashed the food overnight, then did the last 2 1/2 or so hours of cooking on Saturday. (This was to get all the candidates presenting on one day out of the four competition kitchens, and save the audience from waiting around for many hours between presentations.) I had lunch Friday with Richard Rosendale, executive chef of The Greenbrier, and a competition veteran at the young age of 34 (he took silver at the Bocuse d’Or USA 2008, and has been on two US Culinary Olympic teams). Rich wondered how a team’s ability to function in the Bocuse d’Or pressure cooker could be adequately gauged with this format because there’d be no way of knowing how the steadily building intensity would affect the teams, particularly during the crucial final 60 to 90 minutes. He has a point: Christopher Parsons, who won the bronze this year, told me that, although things went well for them on prep day, he and his commis were grateful for the opportunity to regroup midstream. You don’t get to do that in Lyon, and, I must say, the teams looked remarkably calm during the last hour of cooking on Saturday, compared to the sweaty, frantic spectacles many of their predecessors devolved into in 2008. I’m sure that not having had the full experience is a bit of a loss for Team USA, but with a year to get ready, they should be able to get their routine down to a science, and Kent and Allan just strike me as cool customers who will be able to handle the stresses of the Bocuse d’Or, including the famously rafter-shaking noise-level in Lyon, to which the CIA simply didn’t compare anyway. I think it would have been better to stay true to the Lyon model, but ultimately I don’t think it’s going to matter very much.
A Modest Proposal: Some Media Should be Able to Taste. I’ve made this comment to a few journalists about the international Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, but I feel the same way about the Bocuse d’Or USA: Journalists should be able to taste so that the coverage of the event can include notes on the food itself. Of course, it’s impossible for all journalists in attendance to get a bite, but my personal suggestion is that a few extra plates of food be served to a few journalists who would function as a sort of “pool camera,” providing tasting notes to any colleagues who want them. In the USA it could just be one or two “deans” of the food media (Alan Richman strikes me as a prime candidate). Internationally, perhaps one French-language, one English-language, and one Spanish-language journalist would make sense (those are the three languages the press materials are presented in over there; an argument for a Japanese journalist could also be made due to the event’s popularity in Japan). This would offer the Bocuse d’Or more extensive press coverage and provide a more thorough experience for the fans, many of whom only experience the Bocuse d’Or via written summaries.
Chefs Go Out of Their Way for Culinary Students. There is no place I enjoy speaking or signing books more than culinary schools. I’m sure there is such a thing as an ambivalent or reluctant culinary student out there, but I have yet to meet one, and the passion, enthusiasm, and optimism of these young cooks is just plain refreshing to be around. Clearly, chefs feel the same way. This might sound hokey, but I was touched by how much time some of our greatest chefs made for students over the course of this weekend. Everybody from Daniel Boulud to Paul Liebrandt to David Chang could be seen during judging breaks and on their way from one building to another, stopping to listen with perfect attention to students—many of whom were trembling in their presence—seeking career advice. The most poignant instance I saw was probably Thomas Keller, who stayed about 90 minutes after his book signing was scheduled to end on Friday so he could sign every book, and chat and pose for photographs. There was also an omnipresent reminder of how much many of these students are sacrificing to be there—a number of them, unable to afford glossy coffee-table books, were collecting signatures on toques or on aprons and chef coats. I’ve seen that before at CIA events, and it’s never bothered me, and I was heartened to note that the chefs were happy to accommodate these requests as well.
Paul Bocuse Transcends Time and Space. The great man himself, Paul Bocuse, was not on hand for this Bocuse d’Or USA , but he was beamed in via satellite and projected on the huge overhead screens above the competition kitchens from which he addressed the standing-room-only crowd. It was a nice moment, especially since Bocuse is a big fan of the Culinary Institute of America—he’s called it the finest cooking school in the world, and sent his own son, and Bocuse d’Or USA vice president Jerome Bocuse to study there. Bocuse turns 84 this Thursday, but clearly retains his gift for showmanship, even when it’s administered via Skype.
If Things Don’t Work Out in the Kitchen, Gavin Kaysen Can Always Start a Lounge Act. Café Boulud’s Gavin Kaysen, who competed for the USA at the Bocuse d’Or in 2007, acted as co-emcee with Top Chef Masters’ Kelly Choi on Saturday, and he took to the mike like a veteran, narrating the action in the kitchen, interviewing the candidates and judges, and keeping things lively. My favorite touch was the little, “Bravo, Chef” he threw in as each platter came out of the kitchen windows. Gavin’s been there, and done that, and he knew how hard it was to produce those dishes; it was nice to have somebody so plugged in doing the play-by-play.
Mission Impossible. At the Crafting Your Career panel discussion on Friday, moderator and CIA president Dr. Tim Ryan asked the chef-participants to name the most important thing they look for when considering a job applicant. They went down the line giving answers: Determination (Keller), Smile (Jerome Bocuse), Ambition (Boulud), Consistency (Cimarusti), Perseverance (des Jardin), Commitment (Humm), Focus (Liebrandt), Will to Commit (Manzke), Desire (Sailhac), Hard Work (Tourondel). “Okay,” said Thomas Keller, “Get your pens out and write those down. Whoever comes up with the best anagram to remember them wins dinner for two at Per Se.” Two seconds later, the woman next to me said, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s only one vowel on that list!”
This wraps up my Bocuse d’Or USA coverage for now. I’ll be back later this week with some non-Bocuse d’Or postings that have been on hold for a while. In the meantime, thanks for following the competition action on Toqueland and best of luck to Team USA!