Right now in Lyon, the world’s best chefs are gathered for the ultracompetitive Bocuse d’Or international culinary competition. Grub Street may be stuck in New York, but New York Culinary Editor Gillian Duffy is on the scene, tracking Team USA’s every move for us. Today, she takes a look at what chefs James Kent and Timothy Allan — the young men responsible for repping the red, white, and blue — are going through the day before they compete.
I had arranged to meet Team USA at L’Abbaye de Collonges on Quai de la Jounchère at 10 a.m. To my astonishment, Paul Bocuse himself was waiting at the door to welcome me. He greeted me fondly, then showed me around this amazing building where his grandmother used to live. In a great room — now used for parties and weddings — decorated as a circus hall with enormous working fairground organs at each end, the walls were lined with the names of three-star chefs of the world, as well as past winners of the Bocuse d’Or.
If you aren’t familiar with it, the prestigious culinary competition was created 24 years ago and is held biennially in Lyon, France’s capital of gastronomy. Twenty-four chefs are selected by local competition in their own countries to create two dishes from two identical ingredients in twelve identical kitchens, in five hours 35 minutes, from start to presentation. The dishes must reflect the chef’s creativity, talent, and culinary heritage. Each competitor’s effort is then judged by a jury of 24 top chefs.
Finally shown into the kitchen, I met team USA — James Kent, sous-chef from Eleven Madison Park, and his assistant, Thomas Allan, also from EMP. The two were intensely focused on the minute details of prepping their mise en place. “This is the most important part by far,” Kent told me. “You can’t cook unless you have everything ready, and if you are missing two items when you get in the [competition kitchen], you are screwed.”
The two arrived in Lyon on January 16, with around 30 bags — they contained basically their whole kitchen (and important American groceries such as Old Bay seasoning, A1 sauce, and Tabasco), with the exception of the Robot Coupe and Vita blender that were stored with Daniel Boulud’s parents after the last competition. Produce was even shipped over from the Chef’s Garden in Ohio. On this day, team coaches Gavin Kaysen and Marc Erickson (both former competitors) had been dispatched to Les Halles market to buy oysters, seaweed, and clams. Even Boulud, the chairman of Team USA, had been sent off to find heat lamps.
Kent and Allan prepped vegetables, strained lobster sauce, and made all of the final preparations: At one point, Kent had realized he wasn’t happy with the French potatoes he was using, and he was now testing a different variety. He wishes he’d brought Idahos with him, but says that in general he’s been very happy with the ingredients he’s found in France. (The two main ingredients for the competition, lamb and monkfish, are being supplied by Scotland and will be the same for every contestant.)
Though the two are in the homestretch now, they have been through a grueling training period. After winning the American competition last February, Kent spent twenty days in August at the French Laundry, cooking test runs in the kitchen Thomas Keller constructed to emulate the Bocuse d’Or “box” (the name for the competition kitchen). Since then, both Kent and Allan have been working at Eleven Madison Park, and using their days off to practice with their team of coaches — Kaysen, Erickson and Timothy Hollingsworth, who competed in the 2009 competition — at David Bouley’s test kitchen. They photographed everything to make sure each preparation was an improvement over the last. The team says they’ve completed fourteen dry runs in anticipation of tomorrow’s competition. “We can now do the whole thing in our sleep,” Kent says. But, he adds, “Getting it right is all that matters.”