By J. Freedom Du Lac
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; E01
The Bocuse d'Or, a prestigious international cooking competition held every other January in Lyon, France, is a big, big deal in Europe. Here, not so much -- largely because the U.S. team never wins, places or shows in the event named for Paul Bocuse, the Frenchman who helped popularize the notion of chef as celebrity. In 12 competitions, no American entrant has finished higher than sixth in the culinary equivalent of the World Cup, possibly because American cooks generally don't feel the gravitational pull of classically French cooking competitions.
Things were supposed to be better for the Americans this year, after Paul Bocuse's Florida-based son, Jerome, teamed up with culinary giants Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud to support the American effort. They recruited potential contestants, raised money, built a practice kitchen near Keller's Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, and helped prepare the duo selected to represent the United States.
But Timothy Hollingsworth, then the sous-chef at the French Laundry, and his Bocuse d'Or assistant (and French Laundry colleague), Adina Guest, wound up placing sixth in the competition, in which they had just over 5 1/2 hours to execute two perfect platters, one featuring Aberdeen Angus beef from Scotland, the other Norwegian seafood.
Andrew Friedman has documented Team America's failed bid and the drama of the 2009 Bocuse d'Or in a riveting new book, "Knives at Dawn: America's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition" (Free Press). Friedman knows from both cooking and competition: He has collaborated with the likes of chef-restaurateur Alfred Portale, former White House chef Walter Scheib and tennis star James Blake on book projects and is a contributing editor to Tennis magazine.
"The nexis of cooking and sports was the thing that really turned me on," he says about the Bocuse d'Or. "The more I started looking into it, I realized that was a real legitimate angle to explore: cooks as athletes."
I talked to Friedman over the phone about his book. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Did you find yourself getting swept up in the story and rooting for the U.S. team?
There's no way for me to be completely objective. But that had less to do with nationalism than it had to do with the fact that I had spent such an incredible amount of time with these people. Having said that, there are things about some of the other competitors that makes it hard not to be happy for them. The Norwegian candidate, Geir Skeie, won the gold medal this year. This is a guy [who] from the age of 12 wanted to win the Bocuse d'Or. It's hard not to be happy for that guy; he's wanted this moment for more than half the time he's been on the planet. Even Timothy, the American candidate, said to me afterward that he was happy for the guys who did well.
What does the United States have to do to become competitive?
It's a very complex question. First of all, I think we need time -- and I don't mean time 20 years trying. I mean, taking time to get ready between the last Bocuse d'Or and the next one is important. The American semifinalists for an event that's going to be held in February 2010 were just announced. This is for the Bocuse d'Or that isn't held until January 2011. So unlike last time, the team will be in place a full year prior to the Bocuse d'Or; that's very important. In terms of the actual candidate, it's almost a Rubik's Cube, trying to figure out all the traits you need. Somebody who's technically proficient, somebody who functions extremely well under pressure, somebody who can create something that's visually stunning without going too far overboard and getting too far from traditional cooking. Having an affinity for classic European flavors and understanding that palate is a desirable trait, too.
And the other factor that we haven't really had is to find a candidate who specifically desires to win the Bocuse d'Or.
Why in the world would anybody subject themselves to this and become a competitive cook?
For some of the European candidates, there's a long, proud tradition of culinary competition; cooking is a source of great national pride in those countries. The other thing is, to an outsider, you watch people cooking in kitchen pods with a timer, creating these elaborate, old-fashioned platters, and you think, well, that's got nothing to do with real-world cooking.
But what a lot of the competitors will tell you is that there are huge benefits to their daily lives as restaurant chefs. It teaches you discipline, it teaches you organization, it helps you develop an intimacy and almost a telepathy with the people on your team. It also is a way of turbo-charging your development as a cook. You get to travel more as you compete a lot, and you get to see what these other teams are doing from around the world. It's a quick injection of influence and inspiration.
There's also just the sense of pushing yourself to the absolute limit. Daniel Boulud was saying to me: "You can be in the kitchen and you can get through a difficult service. But you will never know your absolute limit until you put yourself through something like the Bocuse d'Or, with the extreme pressure of knowing that you only have one chance to do it."
Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, two guys who really know their way around a kitchen, would never compete in the Bocuse d'Or themselves, because of the time commitment and maybe the notion that they have nothing to gain/everything to lose. But humor me: How might they do as contestants?
I think if either of them were to compete and train in the way people who've done well are training -- taking the better part of a year to do it -- I think certainly they would both have a serious chance of winning the gold medal. I certainly think they would both stand on the podium. It says a lot about what the competition is to think that Thomas Keller, a chef who holds three Michelin stars at two different restaurants, might have a chance to win but wouldn't be a lock.
Have you ever been to a sporting event that has the same sort of atmosphere as the Bocuse d'Or?
To me, it's like a Davis Cup match. Or a U.S. Open when Andre Agassi or [Pete] Sampras or [Andy] Roddick were on the court playing somebody from another country. Some of the normal rules go out the window; the crowd's just rabid for their national hero to do well. But it's not just the noise of the crowd; it's the noisemakers that the different countries bring. The fans all sit together in the bleachers, opposite their team's kitchen. The Swiss have cowbells. The Japanese fans have these red clackers. The noise was just insane, especially on Day 2, when France competed. It was deafening. And it goes on for hours. . . . What's fascinating is, you can't actually see the kitchen. There's an overhead TV screen, but it never shows more than two kitchens at the same time. So for a lot of that time, these fans are really just screaming out of sheer enthusiasm and anticipation. It's like they're screaming for something that's about to come out of a sous-vide machine.