French Laundry sous-chef Timothy Hollingsworth recently began to prepare for his Bocuse d’Or appearance as head of Team USA. The Texas-born, California-grown Hollingsworth walked into the French Laundry seven years ago without formal training (he's taught himself by reading cookbooks, including French Laundry’s), asked to be a commis — “the lowest position” —and was hired by Thomas Keller. But he’ll need more than natural skill and Keller's guidance come January, as no American has ever placed above sixth in the 21-year-old competition. We interrupted Hollingsworth’s training regimen to see what he's planning for the meal of his life.
When did you get onboard for the 2009 competition?
French Laundry chef Corey Lee approached me. It’s very different from being a restaurant chef, so I said "I don’t think so." Four days before the deadline, Thomas Keller asked me in a meeting and I said "okay." They helped me get everything together. I had to design a menu, find a commis, submit résumés and background histories for both of us, [and] write a paper on why we want to be chosen and [another on] what the Bocuse d’Or means to us. There were eight accepted who made it to Orlando.
Why can’t America just send Thomas Keller? Do you have to be young and starting your career?
I’m not sure why Keller doesn’t do it. It’s a matter of [having] time. Competing is probably for a younger generation, but for the Bocuse d’Or you have to be over 25 and your commis has to be under the age of 22. The guys I know who are competing, I’m probably the youngest one; everyone else is a chef of a restaurant and I think I’m the only sous-chef.
What do you actually have to do during the competition?
You have five and a half hours to complete two platters for twelve guests. There’s a fish platter and meat platter. Everyone uses the same proteins. This year it’s Scottish Angus beef and you have to use the fillet, the côte de bœuf, oxtail, and beef cheeks. And the fish is Norwegian seafood: cod, scallops, blue prawns. The idea is to design your menu and make it as intricate as possible. A lot of the countries, the guys work on it for up to a year. Mine’s not necessarily decided yet.
What are you judged on?
On how you worked in the kitchen, the techniques, your platter. It’s presented to them, how intricate it is, how dramatic. It needs to be pretty spectacular. I hope to design a menu that’s very American.
André Soltner recently told New York that there's no such thing as American cuisine. How would you describe it?
American, I think it’s very regional: Texas barbecue; Northeast clam chowder; Louisiana Creole. It’s about using the ingredients you have around you. American [cooking] is built on not one country, but every country. My menu will represent what I work with here. With my dishes in Orlando, I took all the vegetables from my garden and we shipped them.
What is your typical day like during your training sabbatical?
Every day is different. I started November 1 and I’ll be working with several different chefs. Thomas Keller is a huge influence, Corey Lee, Roland Henin, Bruno Goussault, who’s a sous-vide expert, Daniel Boulud. Last year’s competitor, Gavin Kaysen, will come by. I got to meet him in New York. [For advice] he said repetition; you have to practice your menu day in and day out.
Do you have an archrival or country you think will be tough to beat?
France, of course. Scandinavia has shown a lot of talent this year. I want to bring some pressure to the competition.
Besides 20,000 euros, what do you hope winning will bring to you?
I just want to show the rest of the world the kind food we make here. I do want my own restaurant at some point, but right now it’s about the camaraderie. All of the big-name chefs have really reached out, and it’s meant a lot to me. I want to hold on to those relationships.