USA, Norway, and Sweden celebrate their wins at 2015’s Bocuse d’Or competition
When the United States won a coveted silver medal at the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious cooking competition, in Lyon, France, last week, it emphatically ended nearly three decades of futility for the Stars and Stripes in the international contest. It also put an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence American cooks have been writing for 40-plus years.
Chef Philip Tessier and his assistant (or commis) Skylar Stover, both from The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller’s landmark Napa Valley, California, restaurant, were the Americans who finally cracked the code, devising and preparing food that a predominantly European panel of judges deemed second best out of 24 entrants, besting past champions such as France, Sweden, and Denmark.
Chef Philip Tessier and commis Skylar Stover
Norway won top honors in this year’s contest, while Sweden placed third to take home the bronze.
Team USA’s result immediately drew comparisons to the “Miracle on Ice” American ice hockey team that toppled the Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics, and the California vintners who won the Judgment of Paris, a blind wine tasting conducted in the City of Light in 1976.
As in those events, the United States had been a perennial underdog at the Bocuse d’Or (“Golden Bocuse”), as much because of the top competitors’ culinary heritage as for America’s relative lack thereof: Generally speaking, Western cuisine was codified in France and has centuries-deep roots in multiple Bocuse d’Or medalist countries, all of which are European. By contrast, Americans have only been building a reputation as chefs in their own right since the 1970s, making it all the more unexpected that the United States became the first non-European country in the competition’s history to win silver.
"The reputation of this profession in this country has grown in the past 40 years," says Keller. "When I was a young cook, what was there in this country? In the supermarket, there was iceberg lettuce and unripe tomatoes. We didn’t have the diversity, the greenmarkets we have today. Chefs have led the way in this country to a point that we have gained enormous respect from the world for our products, for our farmers, for our fishermen, for our purveyors, and for our restaurants and chefs… [This medal] solidifies our place in the world as a profession that has accomplished this extraordinary feat."
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Bocuse d’Or was created in 1987 by iconic French chef Paul Bocuse, widely considered the world’s first “celebrity chef,” as a showcase for international cuisine. Held every other year at the Sirha, a gargantuan trade show on the outskirts of Lyon, the event is a sophisticated cook-off, as renowned for its eye-popping presentations and world-class cuisine as it is for its vociferous, partisan, thousands-strong audience that cheers, chants, sings, and wields a variety of noisemakers in deafening support of the various teams.
Team USA commis Skylar Stover plates up
The contest’s format has been periodically tweaked over the years, but has always featured 20 or more countries from around the world. Currently, the field numbers 24 two-person teams. All competitors are assigned the same selection of proteins (fish and meat) on which to base two presentations—a meat platter and a fish plate. The teams are informed of the proteins months in advance and use the intervening time to devise and rehearse the cooking and assembling of ornate compositions that they must prepare from scratch in five and a half hours during the competition.
Simply put: The goal is to show off as many complementary techniques, flavors, and visual flourishes as possible in the allotted time, a goal that drives teams to compulsively plan and rehearse their routines.
In recent years, Bocuse d’Or organizers have added an element of spontaneity: On the night before the competition, the competitors (“candidates” in Bocuse-speak) visit a contest market to select vegetables for their fish plates, and to have one mystery vegetable imposed on them by the organizers.
The competition is divided among two days with 12 teams competing on each. When a team’s time is up, the food is judged by a panel of 24 judges, one representative from each competing nation, with 12 evaluating the fish plate and the other dozen the meat platter, which is portioned out for tasting. Keller serves as the U.S. judge and was assigned to the meat group this year. Of 100 possible points from each judge, 20 are allocated to presentation, 40 to taste, and 20 to fish and meat, with the remaining 20 awarded for kitchen work habits.
ANATOMY OF A MILESTONE
This year’s American success synthesizes a number of intertwined stories that have been developing for close to a decade.
Coach Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable restaurant in Minneapolis, Minnesota, himself a former candidate, has been personally driven to see the U.S. succeed, and has been involved in some capacity every year since he served as the competing chef in 2007.
The rest of the U.S. leadership became involved at the behest of Paul Bocuse himself. The chef’s life was saved by a blood transfusion from an American G.I. after being shot in the chest during World War II. To this day, as a gesture of appreciation to the United States for saving his life and liberating his country, the Stars and Stripes flies outside the chef’s flagship restaurant.
Though French, Bocuse has made no secret of his desire to see the United States triumph in his namesake competition. In 2008, he asked Keller; chef Daniel Boulud, himself a native of the Lyon area; and his son, Jérôme Bocuse, who has long been living in the U.S. (he owns and operates Les Chefs de France restaurant at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida) to assume the leadership of the U.S. effort.
The trio formed an organization, now called Ment’Or BKB Foundation, to help select and support U.S. candidates; previously, candidates had to raise their own funds to cover training and transportation costs, a time-consuming distraction that many believe impeded their abilities to properly prepare for battle. The foundation also raises money for educational grants and internships.
Though the U.S. has fielded a team for every Bocuse d’Or, it’s been a Sisyphean struggle, even under the current leadership. As in the Olympics, the ultimate goal is gold, but silver or bronze are considered wins in their own rights—an accomplishment referred to as “making the podium.” In 14 prior attempts, the United States’ best result was twice placing sixth: once in 2003 when German-born Hartmut Handke represented the U.S., and again in 2009, when Timothy Hollingsworth, then a sous chef at The French Laundry, stepped up to the plate under the auspices of the current leadership.
Despite consistently mounting pressure on the United States, when the quietly confident and admittedly competitive Tessier attended the Bocuse d’Or in 2013, he grew to believe that he could successfully compete there. Moreover, just as Keller wanted to win for Paul Bocuse, Tessier wanted to help his boss achieve that goal, and bring glory to the United States. He approached Stover, a chef de partie (station chief) at The French Laundry, the two applied via an essay-driven contest, and they were selected to represent the United States.
Chef Philip Tessier. Photo: Meg Smith
To help the team, the American leadership assembled a squad of coaches and advisors. As in a caper movie, each offered a specific skill set, one piece in the U.S. team’s jigsaw puzzle: chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago brought his contemporary sensibility and keen visual instincts; Dave Beran, chef of Next restaurant, also in Chicago, offered a fresh set of eyes to the veterans; Richard Rosendale, who represented the U.S. in 2013, was enlisted for his organizational prowess, which can save precious minutes in high-level competition; and Gabriel Kreuther, formerly of The Modern in New York City, was looked to for his classic palate, to help ensure the food would be relatable to the majority of the judges, half of whom are European.
In a category all his own was Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail, the firm that creates tabletop pieces for, among other businesses, Achatz’s Alinea. In consultation with Tessier, Kastner created the physical plate and platter that would display the chef’s fish and meat creations, as well as supporting pieces for the garnishes. Tessier says that working with Kastner, whom he’d never met before, was an early source of both inspiration and confidence that he could create the “wow” factor essential to the team’s success.
The team was committed full time to the Bocuse d’Or from September 2014 through last week’s competition, training at a dedicated house two doors down from The French Laundry and holding periodic tastings for the coaching team at Keller’s Ad Hoc restaurant down the road.
To maintain extreme focus, Tessier set up a unit all his own that functioned like a restaurant without customers, and even included two assistants—William Mouchet and Greg Schesser, both drafted from Keller’s Yountville, California, restaurants—who provided support that enabled the team to focus exclusively on the food. As in a restaurant, the support team even prepared a staff meal every day. (Their final one was a very Bocuse-appropriate truffled scrambled eggs.)
The official meat platter menu
Eventually, after much trial and error, Team USA had honed its meat and fish presentations. The meat platter featured Barrel-Oak Roasted Guinea Hen with Sausage of Guinea Leg Confit, White Corn Mousse, and Black Winter Truffle; a “Garden” of Sweet Peas with French Laundry Garden Blossoms and Herbs, Sugar Snap Peas, and Black Trumpet Mushroom Panade; a “Beehive” with Boudin of Smoked Guinea Liver, Grapevine Honey, Pistachio “Pain des Genes,” Wild Fennel Buds, and Topaz Wine Glaze; Black Truffle Consommé with Ragoût of Gizzard and Heart Confit, Steamed Custard, and Flowering Cress; a White Corn “Nest” with Buttered Corn Pudding, Crisped Corn Silk, and “Petit” Popcorn; and Preserved Chanterelles with Salad of Frisée and Garden Blossoms, Pickled Huckleberry, and “Foie Gras” Jus.
Team USA’s finished meat platter
The fish plate, designed with the flexibility to incorporate the market and mystery ingredients, eventually (on the day of the competition) featured brioche-crusted brown trout pavé with American caviar, tartelette of crisped skin, garden dill, celery branch “farci,” celery root purée, compressed apples, brown butter emulsion, and smoked mushroom consommé.
Team USA’s finished fish plate
The team immersed itself in preparations to the point that Tessier says he had to sometimes make himself find ways to “turn it off” By the time they pushed off for Lyon, he and Stover had executed approximately 25 practice runs of the meat platter alone.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
Tessier knew that he was stepping into a potentially thankless role: In the past three tries, the U.S. had placed sixth (2009), tenth (2011), and seventh (2013), each renewing calls for a podium-finish, or “why do they bother” confusion, from observers back home. During the 10 days he was in Lyon leading up to the competition, he noticed that locals had a look on their faces that, to him, said, “Oh, you guys are trying again, huh?”
But he and Stover were undeterred. When the U.S. competed on Day One, they both felt that their training kicked in, allowing them to perform with the robotic precision evinced by the best candidates. At the three-and-a-half-hour mark, however, the team was behind in its carefully planned timetable.
"Phil was six minutes behind, and Sky was 10 minutes behind," says Coach Kaysen, who rattled off a list of what it would take to regain precious time.
"Phil got angry," says Kaysen. "Thirty minutes later, he told me he was done with the list, and I told him he was now 30 minutes ahead."
Chef Philip Tessier concentrates during the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition in Lyon, France
There were signs that the U.S. had done well. As they cooked through the day, Tessier and Stover began to draw a crowd, many of whom asked Kaysen about certain techniques the team was displaying, especially the treatment of the guinea fowl.
When the meat platter was paraded before the judges and the audience, it had that shimmering, almost animated quality that Tessier, Stover, and Kaysen knew was essential to their success. A French television station asked Kaysen for an interview, which had never happened before in nearly a decade of being associated with the U.S. effort. Rather than just saying, “Well done,” passers-by said, “Congratulations.” A sense of guarded optimism had begun to wash over the team and their coaches.
On Day Two, the team watched the dozen remaining competitors with bated breath, eager for the judgments that would be rendered come nightfall.
When the score sheets had finally been tabulated, in a moment of karmic perfection, Achatz, installed as honorary president of this year’s Bocuse d’Or, was tasked with announcing the silver medalist. When he opened the envelope, he milked the moment, looking up for a moment, then looking back at the card.
"Let me make sure I got this right," he deadpanned, before announcing, "United States!"
The team members embraced and wove the American flag around themselves. Both Tessier and Stover say that an air of unreality has hung over them since the announcement. Perhaps that’s why Tessier has been carrying his silver Paul Bocuse statue with him everywhere he goes since winning the prize—as a reminder that it really happened. They really did it.
Chefs Philip Tessier and Thomas Keller celebrate the silver win
A footnote for this year’s U.S. team—at once encouraging and excruciating—is how very close they came to gold: their score of 1,653 was just nine points behind Norway’s 1,662.
"Less than 1 percent difference," says Keller. With 24 judges scoring, just one more point from half of the judges would have earned the U.S. the top prize.
Others who have made the podium have returned to the competition, realizing even greater success, the ultimate example being Dane Rasmus Kofoed, who has earned bronze, silver, and gold.
Might Tessier make another run at the ultimate prize?
"It’s a good question," says Tessier, a grin brightening his face. "For us to be nine points away from gold is pretty amazing. Do we want to win gold? Would I like to be a part of it? Most definitely. But right now, I just want to enjoy the moment."
WHAT IT MEANS
The Bocuse d’Or is covered around the world, but according to the team, there was scant American media presence in Lyon. Maybe that’s because the competition doesn’t have the easily digested appeal of, say, a reality TV cooking show, or the novelty of a new restaurant. Or maybe it was just disappointment fatigue, and now that the U.S. has medaled, the coverage will be there next time.
For the moment, the question is, simply: What does it all mean?
"I ask myself the same thing," says Keller. "Does this really matter? We’re working really hard, spending a lot of time, dedicating enormous resources…it does matter to me, to [the team], to a small group of Americans who supported this, to our sponsors. I think it’s an important thing to be recognized on the world stage."
Keller says that he, Jérôme Bocuse, and Boulud will remain in their leadership roles. Among their goals is to continue to, as Keller says, “beat the drum, to use this win to help build interest in an effort we believe is noble.”
In the meantime, like Tessier, Keller wants to savor the moment. During a celebration meal in Lyon, he told Bocuse, now 88, that he was glad he and his colleagues had been able to fulfill their promise of getting the United States on the podium.
Chef Philip Tessier, left, poses with the gold winner Ørjan Johannessen from Norway and Tommy Myllymaki, the bronze winner from Sweden
Bocuse smiled, leaned over to Keller, and whispered a word into his ear, one last lingering wish he had for the United States, summed up in a single syllable: “Gold.”
It was further proof of one of the great truths of the cooking trade: A chef’s work is never done.
Andrew Friedman is the author of Knives at Dawn, about the 2009 American team that competed in the Bocuse d’Or, and more than 25 other chef-centric cookbooks and collaborations. He is also the creator and chief contributor to the website Toqueland, which features chef profiles, interviews, and an insider look at the professional cooking life.
Photos: Courtesy of SIRHA