Now that we have an Iron Chef and nearly had a Top Chef, maybe it’s time for a Philly chef to rep the U.S. in the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition? We checked in with Jim Burke, executive chef-owner of James, who was a last-minute replacement for Top Chef’s Kevin Gillespie, to find out how the switcheroo happened, how he’s preparing for the first round of the competition, which takes place February 6, and which chefs present the biggest challenge.
How did you end up in the competition? Did you know you were replacing Kevin Gillespie?
It was actually very last minute for me. I received a phone call two days before Thanksgiving from the Bocuse USA Foundation. It was a reminder that the next day was the deadline for applications — they had extended the deadline. But I hadn’t received the application and didn’t know what she was talking about — [wife] Kristina had our son over the summer, so I took time off and I wasn’t at the restaurant so I guess it got lost in the shuffle.
She said I could still download the application and get it to them by the next day. I figured it would take a few hours, but I needed a notary, two letters of recommendation from other chefs and restaurateurs — it was a lot more involved than I originally thought. I ran around and got it out to them and then I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks ῗ we were in the middle of holiday season so I turned my attention to running the restaurant. I didn’t go on website or check in or see who was selected, then I got a message the week of Christmas saying that someone had dropped out. The next day they chose me to compete.
If you won, how would you handle running your own restaurant while training and the expenses? Gavin Kaysen said he spent $250,000 on the competition in 2007.
I’m the only chef-owner on the list. This isn’t Charlie Trotter’s or Daniel where I can just stop doing my everyday work and practice at the restaurant’s expense day in and day out for the competition. As a small restaurant owner that’s not a possible - I still have to make menu changes and manage my staff. I’m under the impression that after the U.S. Finals, any travel costs or costs of ingredients or equipment, things of that nature, will be taken care of by the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation for the Lyon competition. I know the cost and time commitment are significant, but they are kind of vague of what it will entail. They allude to it and say you must be available any time throughout the next year to travel and practice. I know that it’s very significant.
How much have you spent so far?
Up until now we’ve spent a good amount of money. There is a significant fee to participate. There’s a $3,000 competition fee. There are cash prizes for the top three in the U.S. finals. You do win some money. Obviously, the Lyon competition has a significant cash prize.
You have to make two protein dishes for the U.S. Finals. Can you pick whatever protein you want? Are there other parameters than that?
It’s lamb and salmon. They give you a saddle of lamb, a leg of lamb, lamb kidneys and lamb sweetbreads. Then they give you a whole salmon. They don’t say that you have to use every part - I’m sure you could not use them - but it probably makes you look bad. That’s a big part of being a good cook - utilizing every part of the product. Each protein needs three garnishes, they’re really three little sides dishes. So it’s actually eight dishes. and you need to prepare twelve portions of each.
Can you tell us what you’re making?
I’m going to refrain from revealing any specifics. I definitely don’t want other people to know what we’re doing. But given the last minute aspect of this for us - we’re still tweaking our dishes and I’m sure we will be right up until the day of. We’re being very ambitious - we’re not taking it easy at all.
How are you preparing? Are you working on your knife skills or practicing sauteing things at random?
You absolutely have to do that. I’m trying to get my hands dirty and get back the speed I once had. I don’t cook on the line as much as I used to - I’m only a working the line a couple of days a week - you need to really refine those skills again. It seems the ideal candidate for this would be a sous chef at one of these high profile kitchens. They’re the ones that run these kitchens and work the line - they’re at the top of the game as far as line cooking goes.
We went out and got a few salmon and I went at ‘em. You really do have to be conscientious - we have to practice things so that they come out right and we have our portions perfect. But you also have to do it really quickly. We’re timing ourselves and we have to figure out things here and there that can cut a few minutes off of the prep time.
Any timed cooking event goes a lot faster than you think it will, but for something like this, with people like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud watching you cook - it’s a little bit overwhelming.
Do you know any of the other contestants? Who do you think is your biggest competition?
I don’t know any of them. There are a few sous chefs - a sous chef at Trotter, the Modern, Eleven Madison Park, the guy who’s running a restaurant in Vermont is a former Daniel sous chef - I know for a fact that those four are going to be really strong. They’ve had a little more time to prepare and more resources. I know those four platters are going to be very impressive. It’s going to be an enormous challenge. Those four are going to be really tough to beat.
It sounds like you’re a little big of an underdog in true Philly style?
Yes! We were a replacement, we’re entering late and I’m the only chef-owner. I definitely think we have underdog status. I don’t mind it - I kind of like it actually! But hopefully, we’ll have a little more success than most of our local sports teams.