Going for the Gold
Local chef Tracy O'Grady is America's hope in a race for one of cooking's highest honors.
By Judith Weinraub
Rarely are they quiet and serene--focused on a single goal.
On this night, however, the half-dozen high-level visiting chefs working in the back kitchen at Kinkead's in Foggy Bottom are functioning as one, not only preparing their own specialties but also assisting one another in the creation of a spectacular multicourse fund-raising dinner.
Their goal: supporting Kinkead's sous-chef Tracy O'Grady's three-year-long effort to compete for one of the culinary world's highest honors, the Bocuse d'Or.
Food runners, wait staff and managers from the restaurant have volunteered to work the dinner tonight too, and chef-owner Bob Kinkead--all eager to help O'Grady prove she can more than hold her own with the best chefs in the world.
"She could be the most talented person I've ever worked with," says Kinkead, who's filling in tonight whenever an extra skilled hand is needed. "She's creative, she has a good palate, great basics and mental acuity. And she's focused--she can set a pace, organize all the tasks, and the food comes up fast and good. . . . You're going to be hearing a lot about Tracy O'Grady."
The Bocuse d'Or is an international culinary competition that takes place every other year in Lyon, France, to determine the most talented chefs in the world. Although there is no age restriction, the competition, which was created by the renowned French chef Paul Bocuse, tends to attract younger chefs. O'Grady, a 32-year-old Buffalo native, will represent the United States against 21 other chefs representing their countries at the 2001 event. That's where, just less than a year from now, she'll have one single 5 1/2-hour shot to prove her worth.
But, oh, the countless hours she'll put in beforehand.
Like the Olympics, the Bocuse d'Or finals are preceded by advance heats in each of the participating countries. (O'Grady qualified in the preliminaries in California in March 1998 and then at the finals in Chicago two months later. )
Like the Olympics, the competition demands speed, stamina, impeccable artistry and a lifestyle that shuts out distractions during a lengthy training period.
Like some Olympic events, a roster of international judges uses a numerical system to grade each contestant's performance. (Out of a possible 40 points, 20 are for taste, 10 for presentation and 10 for originality.)
And like the Olympics, there are gold, silver and bronze award winners.
Unlike the Olympics, however, the Bocuse d'Or isn't well-known--few people outside the food world have ever heard of it, even though it's been around since 1987. So there's no national fan base cheering on O'Grady. No government sponsorship for her effort. And no heavy-duty corporate sponsorship.
Instead, what she has in spades is boundless support from Kinkead, her colleagues at the restaurant and many other chefs around the country. Together they're Team Tracy, each contributing different skills to help her raise the money she needs to compete, and to spread the word about the Bocuse d'Or.
Theoretically, competing for the Bocuse d'Or is a straightforward affair. Each contestant prepares 12 portions of a fish course and a meat course and presents them to an international panel of judges. In Lyon, the contestants will be required to work with sea bass and baby lamb, each with three serious garnishes.
But winning isn't as simple as coming in first, or having the best technique, or producing the most delectable food.
For starters, the 12 dishes (one plate for each of the 11 judges and one display plate) must be presented as a group on a giant platter, and each platter has to look great--not too contemporary, not too classic. The platters can't look crowded either.
Second, each dish must show mastery of French technique and must taste terrific--even after the platters have been passed around for the judges to examine them.
Then there's the do-it-yourself aspect to the event. Except the meat and fish (which are provided), entrants have to bring all their ingredients (or buy them locally) and all their equipment except a convection oven, four burners and a sink. They have to provide their own platters too. (Participants can also bring an assistant, but no one older than 21 years old--no super-chef ringers allowed.)
And finally, there's that time limit: 5 1/2 hours from start to finish--including cleaning, trimming and portioning the whole fish and butchering a 35-pound baby lamb.
Sounds challenging? Sure. And daunting and time-consuming.
It's also incredibly expensive.
Why? For one thing, the cost of the ingredients needed to develop, modify and prepare the recipes over a couple of years adds up--not to mention maybe a month of dry runs. Then there's the special equipment needed in Lyon, the expense of getting it there, the phone bills involved in obtaining that equipment or having things custom-made, the time and money spent trying to find sponsors, and costs for the food other than the sea bass and the lamb. O'Grady's boss, Kinkead, estimates final expenses will add up to $80,000. Just getting through the U.S. semifinals and finals cost almost $15,000, a tab Kinkead shared with her. (Because of that expense--and the amount of time it takes to prepare--American restaurant chefs haven't participated as much as chefs from hotels, culinary schools and even country clubs that can afford to let an employee use work hours to prepare.)
For another thing, there hasn't been an ongoing American support system. There is no tradition of passing on the giant platters from one competition to the next, or the extra equipment and case needed to accommodate the entrant's mini-traveling-kitchen, or an illustrated archival history of past winners to refer to. There is no bank account to support the effort either.
So O'Grady has two very different challenges: to try to do as well as possible in the competition and to figure out ways to fund her effort. Some companies have responded to her requests for help, including All-Clad, which is providing cooking equipment, and Friedr. Dick Corp., which is providing knives. A few others have responded with small grants. The Wine Source and The Chalone Wine Group have donated wine for the fund-raising dinners. Nevertheless, both O'Grady and Kinkead have considerable out-of-pocket expenses.
That's why they figured they'd better draw attention to the project. Brainstorming with the restaurant's general manager, Mimi Schneider, Kinkead and O'Grady came up with the notion of fund-raising dinners, which they hoped would attract interest and possible sponsorship. But who would cook? O'Grady, of course. And Ris Lacoste (Kinkead's former sous-chef now the chef at 1789). And chef friends of O'Grady and Kinkead--both locally and from outside Washington--who also agreed to donate their services. Two of the dinners--each sold out long before the events--have already taken place. A third, cooked primarily by chefs from restaurants in the South, will take place on March 13, and a fourth is scheduled for September.
Why are the chefs doing it? A respect for Kinkead and O'Grady. "Tracy sets a great example for people in the industry--pursuing excellence while cooking her heart and soul out every day," says Jackie Riley, formerly the pastry chef at Kinkead's and now at Tabla in New York, who made the dessert for the second dinner. "I would love to see her win. It's a great opportunity to show people the high quality of cooking in this country."
Even given the high-class help in the kitchen, far more is needed to produce a successful gala dinner. That's whenTeam Tracy steps in. The restaurant's executive sous-chef, J.G. Gaetjen, orders whatever food is needed. (He also serves as an important sounding board for O'Grady as she develops ideas for the Bocuse d'Or dishes). Wine director and sommelier Michael Flynn unpacks, helps polish and repacks all the wine glasses. O'Grady, Gaetjen, Schneider, polishers Manuel Calajas and Demas Rodriguez, runner Bertine Martinez and dishwasher Elmer Lopez have all helped ready the rest of the glassware, the china and silver. Kinkead's office manager, Marcus Vidales, does the mailings and prints the menus for the dinner. Waiter Bill Collison sets up space in the atrium adjoining the restaurant for pre-dinner cocktails. Several staffers--including Martinez, Rodriguez, Lopez, servers Collison and Debra Rubin, bus persons Olman Paz and Armando Rossas, and fish cutter Luis Rios--work the dinners regularly.
The main restaurant still has to function during the dinner. So while Schneider, Flynn, manager Mark Congdon and waitress Bunny Johnson watch over the special dining room upstairs, managers Freya Morris and George Rontez, who also made the equipment box that O'Grady will take to Lyon, run the restaurant downstairs. And because O'Grady, who is normally in charge of all the food for the dinner service, is busy in the back kitchen, line cooks Brian Wolken and Robert Bates fill in for her in the main restaurant.
"We're all so excited for Tracy," says server Collison, a longtime employee of Kinkead's. "She seems to be so darned talented, and she's done such hard work. And she gets everyone involved by asking us what we think of the recipes she tries out."
"There's a great sense of pride on our part," says Flynn, the wine director. "Tracy is an extraordinarily talented chef who could easily win this in spite of the fact that it's a French-dominated competition."
So far, the dinners have been popular and have spread the word about the competition. But they've made very little money--perhaps $2,000 each. And no big spenders have stepped forward volunteering support. So, the restaurant is shifting its focus to the many regular customers who've asked to help, offering $25 opportunities to be a part of the effort, and trying to find a way to turn those $25 tabs into raffle tickets, with the top prize being a special dinner for 10 cooked by Kinkead and O'Grady.
Throughout the planning for the dinners, which she's shepherded, O'Grady has been working her usual 60- to 65-hour weeks cooking for between 225 and 450 people a night, and, of course, thinking, rethinking and testing recipes for her Bocuse d'Or dishes. She also went to France last year to observe the competition and photograph the entries so that she could study and learn from them.
Is this a lot of work, or what? No American has ever won the bronze, the silver or the gold. Did she ever think twice about doing it?
"In the beginning, I had great reservations," she says. "I didn't want to participate unless I could do it the way I wanted to. You want to be perfect--not just okay. And I was worried about the costs."
But she was intrigued by the challenge and buoyed by Kinkead's supportive attitude. So, she took the plunge. Besides, here was a chance to go to France and celebrate what American chefs are capable of.
"When you used to hear about the best restaurants in the world, you thought of France," she says. "But it's such an exciting time for us in the United States now. We understand technique. We have great products that we've developed. Our cuisine is emerging as something we can consider uniquely American. We have to cook in the French manner [in Lyon], but we can still show the world what American cooking has accomplished over the last 25 years.
"And, you know something?" she says, pointing to a distinctly American character trait. "We are super-motivated.
"We want to be as good as the French, or even better."
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
How does a chef decide which dishes to prepare for an international competition of the magnitude of the French Bocuse d'Or?
If the chef is Tracy O'Grady, she's already starting at an extremely high level of expertise. She's worked with some of the best chefs in Washington--Yannick Cam at Le Pavillon, Roberto Donna at Galileo, and, since 1993, Bob Kinkead at Kinkead's, where she's in charge of all the food for the dinner service.
Even so, whatever the challenge, it only makes sense to play to the audience. And although each of the participating countries at the Bocuse d'Or sends one judge, the competition was started by French chefs, takes place in France and has been won three times (out of seven) by French chefs. "You're supposed to cook food from your country," says O'Grady, "but you need to cook in the French venue [with] its technique and precision, because that's the standard of judging."
Analyzing what seems to have worked in the past--in particular the dishes in the 1999 competition, which she attended--O'Grady also realizes that her dishes can't be so classical they might seem stodgy, or so modern they could appear over-the-top. And, of course, she must demonstrate exceptional culinary skill. "The judges don't want to see a sauteed piece of bass," says O'Grady. "They want to see something more intricate."
A roulade, for example. And she's playing with elegant ways to combine that technique with an Americanized fish-and-chips concept. Her lamb dish seems even more ambitious, combining Moroccan flavors, French technique and contemporary American ideas. (We know how, but we don't want to give her competitors any more clues.)
How many ideas has she already considered and rejected before focusing on these? "Not that many," she says. "Once I get an idea, it's usually a good one. But it needs refinement."
And how complicated is that? Very. Her boss Bob Kinkead wants her to do nothing else but practice for the entire month before the competition. "You can have some really good ideas," she says, "but you still have to figure out what you can actually do in 5 1/2 hours."
The March 13 Bocuse d'Or fund-raising dinner is sold out. For information about the waiting list, the dinner in September or contributions, call Mimi Schneider at Kinkead's at 202-296-7700.
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