The year was 2015 and, amid the cheers and shouts from the audience, an ecstatic Thomas Keller hugged Paul Bocuse, the French culinary statesman who had started the Bocuse d’Or, the international chef competition, decades earlier.
“Monsieur Paul, we did it,” said the proud Keller. The American team had come in second — they won silver — the best they had ever achieved in its rankings.
Monsieur Paul grinned. “Gold,” he said, pointing out the obvious. Keller took it to heart. The American team needed to try harder.
In late January, after a year of grueling preparation, the U.S. team took top honors during the 30th anniversary of the event, a biennial culinary competition that takes place in Lyon, France.
Never heard of the Bocuse d’Or? The event is more familiar worldwide among a certain stratum of chefs than it is to the general public. Think World Cup soccer rather than Super Bowl, with all the excitement, noise and drama that takes place in a sports stadium, with 1,000 or more observers cheering on their teams from nearby bleachers. “The Great British Baking Show” this is not.
Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, was there in Lyon, as he has been since 2005, as an observer, contestant, coach and now vice president of the Ment’or Foundation, which financially supports and trains the U.S. competition.
“We are on Cloud 9,” he said from Lyon, hours after the big announcement.
“It was an amazing collaborative effort. It’s remarkable because you put us all together and we help come up with these dishes with the chef, and we help do everything we can,” said Kaysen. “But at the end of the day, it’s them [the chefs]. Anything can happen.”
This year the U.S. chefs were Mathew Peters and assistant chef Harrison Turone, both of Keller’s Per Se restaurant in New York City. The two spent the past 12 months rehearsing their menu and technique in California, in all sorts of conditions that might prepare them for the unexpected at the competition.
The contest itself takes place over five hours and 35 minutes, during which the chefs are pushed to their physical and culinary limits as they prepare two “dishes” — a misnomer to the casual observer. This year involved one chicken-based platter and the other a vegan-based plate. More than a single item, each dish represents an elaborate display of cooking prowess and creative display.
Take the chicken dish, for example. This year’s was based on a French classic that pairs chicken and crayfish.
In the hands of the U.S. team, that translated to chicken (with morel mushroom sausage, braised wings with glaze and sauce); chicken liver quenelle (foie gras, corn custard, black-eyed peas, celery vinegar and pistachios), and lobster tail (with Meyer lemon mousse, black truffle and chervil). And then the “garnishes”: slow-poached sweet carrots (Vidalia onion sauce, fennel pollen tuile, pickled carrots and watercress); sugar snap pea crisp (sweet pea crumble and pea aioli); potato (purée, translucent potato chips, black truffle and caramelized scallions). They had six months to create and perfect this combination.
The second, a surprise focus on vegan (the requirement is usually fish) had only a month’s notice for the teams. The U.S. took their inspiration from California produce, highlighting asparagus with cremini mushrooms, amandine potato, almond custard, red wine shallot, Meyer lemon confit, “Parmesan” crumble and pea tendrils with Bordelaise.
Talk about a timed test.
“Imagine the best chefs in the world watching you cook for five hours,” said Kaysen.
The success took teamwork. The U.S. chefs worked with Crucial Detail, a design studio in Chicago, which created the mechanics of their platter to keep food heated until the judges could sample it.
That worked until the crew tried to bring the platter through airport security.
“TSA ripped out all the wires,” said Kaysen. Fortunately, three members of the design studio traveled with them and resoldered new electrical boards to the platter once they landed in France.
Then there was the rest of the kitchen equipment. “We bring absolutely everything,” said Kaysen. “We ship two to three pallets of equipment over here.”
Even the menus get attention before they are presented to 24 judges, each from a different country. “We write it in their mother language so that there is no error in translation,” Kaysen said.
The food itself must tell a story to stand out. “It needs to look delicious. It all has to look flawless and together. But it also has to be representative of the two chefs cooking at the time,” said Kaysen.
“Whatever story we are trying to tell, it’s important to convey so that the world understands, not just a few countries.”
And the winner —
Gold prevailed with Team USA. Keller was ecstatic. Bocuse nodded, this time with approval.