America is all about WINNING these days, according to our new president. And while he may not have been talking about our culinary talent, the United States earned a major accolade yesterday, for the first time ever: American chefs took the gold in the Bocuse d’Or, a top French culinary competition named for legendary French chef Paul Bocuse. It’s basically the Olympics of cooking. The competition is so steep, it makes the cheftestants on “Top Chef” and “Chopped” look like burger flippers at McDonald’s.
“It’s certainly an extraordinary moment,” said chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se, president of the team. “We needed to get gold for Monsieur Paul. That was our promise to him nine years ago. We fulfilled that promise.”
A group of 10 American chefs, led by Mathew Peters, 33, who has worked as the executive sous-chef at Per Se, had less than six hours to prepare two extravagant, elaborate dishes. The first was an interpretation of a classic French dish, “Poulet de Bresse aux Écrevisses,” or chicken with crayfish. If that sounds simple to you, let New York Times reporter Florence Fabricant list everything that went into this dish: “The American version involved the chicken with morel mushroom sausage, braised wings, a wine glaze and sauce Américaine, a kind of lobster sauce. Alongside were a chicken liver quenelle with foie gras, corn custard, black-eyed peas and toasted pistachios, as well as lobster tail with Meyer lemon mousse. The garnishes included preparations using carrots, Vidalia onions, black truffles, carrots, peas and potatoes.”
“The whole point of the competition is to cram as much technique, visual pyrotechnics and flavor” as possible into a dish, said Andrew Friedman, author of “Knives at Dawn,” a book following the 2009 American Bocuse d’Or team. “Usually there’s dozens of recipes in each component on the plate. They rehearse it to the minute.”
Bocuse is a notoriously intense competition. Chefs take a year to prepare. And they don’t just rehearse making the food; they also have to prepare themselves for the frenetic environment, which spectators describe as akin to a soccer stadium, with noisemakers and chants from each country’s cheering section.
Friedman thinks one key to Team USA’s first victory may have come in the second dish. Competitors were tasked with making a vegan dish, an assignment that may have been “really surprising to a lot of people,” said Friedman. He thinks it may have come more easily to a chef trained under Keller, who offers a vegetable tasting menu.
“He’s been in a kitchen where vegetable dishes are a huge part of daily life. I think that’s probably not true for the majority of people from other teams,” said Friedman. “I thought that was a real advantage for him on paper.”
The Americans’ vegan dish, according to the New York Times, included “California asparagus with cremini mushrooms, potatoes, a custard made of green almonds, Meyer lemon confit, a Bordelaise sauce and a crumble using an almond and vegetable yeast preparation that mimicked Parmesan cheese.”
But despite all of this training and hard work, it’s possible that Peters will return to America no more famous than he left it, aside from a few publications noting his win. The Bocuse d’Or may be well-known in Europe, but it’s relatively obscure in the United States. That might be because of the name — most Americans have never heard of its namesake chef, or know that d’Or means “gold” in French — or it may be that the “platter presentation, the style of food, it does seem a little bit outdated,” said Friedman.
And maybe it’s that Americans are so attuned to reality-show cooking that the subtleties of the Bocuse are lost on them. There’s no Padma-esque host; the judging can seem arbitrary and confusing to outsiders.
People “still get confused with the style of competition,” said Keller. “The most-asked question is always, ‘Is it like Top Chef?’ and we have to say, ‘No, this is a lot more serious.’ It takes more effort, more time.”
It’s not surprising a U.S. chef would win such worldwide acclaim anymore. Friedman drew a parallel to the Judgment of Paris, a 1976 wine tasting in which California wine usurped French contenders, a huge upset. But nowadays, there are numerous American restaurants that have earned three Michelin stars and have made it onto the World’s 50 Best restaurants list.
“I think it’s more of the cherry on top than storming the castle,” said Friedman.
But winning the Bocuse also gives future competitors a platform to build upon. And that win can be credited, in part, to the 2015 team, which came in second place.
“One reason the same countries medal over and over in the Bocuse d’Or is that many medalists keep involved in their countries’ efforts, so when the next candidate develops their cuisine for the competition, they have three, four or five medalists giving them feedback — a major advantage that continues in perpetuity,” said Friedman.
Keller isn’t sure what will happen at the next Bocuse, which will take place in 2019. But he likened the American team to athletes: “The difference between a national sports franchise and this is you can scout another baseball team. You know their weaknesses, you know their strengths,” he said. In cooking, “You don’t know what the 2019 teams are going to come with.”
The sports metaphor is fitting in another way.
“We want to have that sense of national pride,” said Keller, “like when Michael Phelps wins the gold medal. We want that kind of feeling, that kind of embrace, that kind of affection, that kind of pride in what we do.”