Two years of meticulous effort will be put to the test soon as the U.S. culinary team goes spatula-to- spatula with the rest of the world in the Bocuse d’Or, the international cooking contest for chefs, named after legendary French culinarian Paul Bocuse.
Head coach of the U.S. team is none other than our own Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, who competed in 2007.
Although the U.S. team has never topped sixth place in competitions that date back to 1987, Kaysen hopes this will be the year for Team USA as 24 international chefs face off in a raucous culinary arena.
In a few days, he leaves for Lyon for last-minute prep for the Jan. 27 competition, after which he will load all the team’s restaurant equipment into a 20- by 20-foot storage unit that stays in France until the next contest, two years from now. “I have more equipment in that storage unit than I have in my own restaurant,” he said.
Q: How many are on the team?
A: The team consists of one chef and one commis [an assistant chef]. The commis has to be under the age of 22 by the time we actually go to the competition. The chef is Philip Tessier, executive sous chef at the French Laundry. He has worked for Thomas Keller for about 11 years. We pulled him out of working day-to-day last December [in 2013]. We have been training him since then. Next door to the French Laundry is a home that originally was Thomas’ father’s home. We now affectionately call it the Bocuse House; it’s an R&D test kitchen now. Philip also went to Lyon with us the last cycle as well and got to see the competition and be part of the competition as well and observe — which is really helpful.
Q: How do you train for something like this?
A: We basically help focus the team on the flavor they are going after at the competition, so we do various tastings throughout the year. They give us guidelines. We know we have to create a meat platter and a fish plate. We know that the platter has to have three garnishes — and by garnish, we’re not talking about shaved celery or celery leaves, it’s super thought out. But until about six months before the competition, we don’t know what the ingredients are going to be. Once we find out — it’s guinea hen for this competition — then we begin to practice and focus all of our energy on that guinea hen. About a month ago we found out what the fish will be — a brown trout — so then we turn all our focus on that. The difference between the two presentations is that the fish will be on a plate. We have to focus a lot of our energy on how we are going to make this a plated dish. They want this to be a very three-star Michelin dish. It will be kind of like one beautiful bite, so all the components need to be there. Once we start to narrow down on those things, then that’s when we start to focus on the timing. How are we in terms of timing? You only have five hours and 35 minutes.
Q: What kind of experience was it when you competed in 2007?
A: It’s crazy. It’s hard to explain how intense it is. It’s literally thousands of people screaming and watching you cook. It’s a very odd thing to have happen considering when we cook [elsewhere], the intention is for it to be quiet, calm and collected. So there’s noise and the time limit. Your stress and nerves are going at such a high capacity that by the time you start tasting the actual food, you can’t really taste it perfectly because your nerves are just so taken over by everything. That’s why it’s really imperative that we measure everything out — from the salt in a mousse to whatever it might be. Everything is measured out to a T.
Q: When we think of athletes training for competition, it’s often in terms of repetition of various exercises. How does this compare with chef training?
A: It’s pretty similar, actually. We get up every day at 5:30 in the morning to go to the gym, to create good stamina. Because the thing is, the competition is five hours and 35 minutes and it’s basically nonstop. There’s no time for you to lag one second. It’s an intense push. And there’s the repetition — that’s basically what the chefs do every day. They cook the same thing over and over and over again. They find different ways to cook faster and find different ways to make the dish more delicious.
Q: What are the other teams doing to win?
A: If we knew that, we’d be on the podium! We do know that the competition itself, especially in Europe, is an incredibly huge honor to be part of. If you win that competition, it literally changes your career. One of the things we want to push with our competitors and all the U.S. teams in general is how do we carry that same sort of energy and that same sort of drive that allows a young chef to look up and say, ‘When I get more mature in my cooking, this is something I am going to strive to do.’ There isn’t that right now. What a lot of these other countries are able to do is to create a kind of a farm team, for lack of a better term. They train these kids at a very young age, and this is something they study and watch for years.
Q: How do other countries support this financially?
A: Every country is different. Some have national sponsorships by the government, others have organizations like what we’ve built in the U.S., the Ment’or organization, which is great. The Ment’or foundation meant the U.S. team was financed. When I competed in 2007, we didn’t have that. The biggest difference now is that the competitor doesn’t have to worry about what their income will be while training. I never had that. For me, it was me getting paid a salary from the hotel [his employer], but I was paying my commis from my paycheck, basically.
Q: What is a commis?
A: They are the full-time assistant. Every chef we’ve had as a competitor treats the job of the commis differently. It’s peeling things, it’s doing last-minute garnishes, it’s cutting vegetables, getting the chef set up to cook the items. That’s their main focus when they are in there training. It’s an incredible learning experience.
Q: What do you, as head coach, do at the actual event in Lyon?
A: During the competition, I stand in front of the U.S. booth. I help communicate to the international press and to the other chefs who walk through what it is we’re cooking if they have questions as to what our theme is or our focus. I help remind the chef when timers are going off. It’s kind of like expediting the service a little bit. You are just standing there and helping direct the traffic. Physically there is nothing I can do. I can’t touch their food.
Q: Does this competition need to be updated?
A: They are doing a really good job updating it now with the fish plate. It used to be two platters. Now that they’ve had the fish plate, it’s helped a lot. That has allowed more restaurant chefs to come in. At one point, at least in America, it was a lot of country club chefs and hotel chefs that were doing this competition because you would have the time basically to train. If you’re a restaurant chef doing 150 covers every night and you’re busy, it’s pretty hard to train. I feel that they are doing a better job of updating it, but it can always get better.
Q: You have a medallion in your restaurant kitchen that reflects the competition (see photo above).
A: We were called Bocuse d’Or USA before it was renamed Ment’or in 2014. The main focus of Ment’or is really to finance the candidate and commis and also young culinarians around the country with grants. I believe we gave out a little more than $200,000 in grants this year. The competition is a way not only for us to give back to our younger generation of cooks but also to help inspire and promote them.
Q: Will your role continue as head coach in future competitions?
A: This is my third cycle of coaching. So I guess it depends on how we do this year! A lot of it is continuity. We have to have that kind of consistency.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste.