Bocuse D'or

Dispatches From the Bocuse d’Or: American Disappointment

Team USA's James Kent and Thomas Allan, ready to rock ... before the competition.
Team USA’s James Kent and Thomas Allan, ready to rock … before the competition. Photo: Phillipe Merle/AFP/Getty Images

The American team has never fared too well in France’s famed Bocuse d’Or competition, and yesterday’s results were no different. Scandinavian countries continued to dominate, while Team USA placed a dismal tenth place. What went wrong? It’s difficult to say, as the judging is completely subjective. But New York Culinary Editor Gillian Duffy was nevertheless on the scene, and files this report direct from Lyon.

The final day of the Bocuse d’Or competition was cold. A little snow had fallen during the night. It was 4:30 a.m. when Team USA left L’Abbaye de Collonges and headed to the competition. The van was packed with all of their equipment and mise en place — they’d had a gut feeling not to move anything the previous night, so they had to work quickly to load and unload, as well as undergo an official check-in to make sure they weren’t bringing in any cooked food. Officials queried a monkfish liver, which had been preserved as a confit. Eventually they allowed it.

The Americans’ gut feeling was right: The British team’s kitchen had been sabotaged during the night. Someone had used all of the equipment and left it a mess. (The Brits hadn’t left any food, as sabotage occurs frequently during these types of competitions.)

Everything was ready to go by 8:45 a.m. “Ready to rock and roll,” said Gavin Kaysen, one of Team USA’s coaches. “Everything boils down to the next five hours and 35 minutes.”

Teams start cooking at intervals — Sweden at 8:30; Uruguay at 8:40. Team USA was given a 9:40 start time. The fish platter was to be served at 2:40; meat at 3:15. Kaysen stood outside the box, on the pass to expedite the whole operation with two carefully timed worksheets in front of him. “It’s so odd being on this side,” he said, looking at James Kent, America’s representative, “But it’s James’s day.”

Standing in the press area, stationed directly in front of the kitchens, I had the opportunity to check out all of the competitors. Every kitchen had totally different equipment. Malaysia’s was full of bamboo steamers, cleavers being used instead of knives. By contrast, eventual winner Denmark’s was the most extraordinary: Two enormous white boxes stood at the front of the kitchen, reportedly not only to keep dust and dirt off the platters, but also to keep the final presentation hidden. (The Danish team would not give the press copies of their menu.)

Two and a half hours later, Kent and commis Thomas Allan were twenty minutes ahead of schedule. They eased off a little and had plenty of time for plating. All seemed to be going according to plan. They looked to be to be the only team whose platters truly reflected their country’s culinary heritage (as required by the rules): The fish platter contained, among other things, a take on “Oysters Rockefeller” and a Kentucky Corn Fritter with pickled radish and Old Bay; the meat menu — inspired by classic American steakhouses — had haute takes on baked potatoes, creamed spinach, and a wedge salad. But while the finished platters looked very impressive (the Americans’ meat menu was designed to convey the look of New York — varying heights, pockets of uniformity, and a touch of organized chaos), only the judges got to taste everything.

By 4 p.m. it was all over, but the audience had to wait until 6 p.m. for the closing ceremony and results. (Returning guests and press found chaos, as the burly security guards seemed to be indiscriminately barring entry to even those with the correct credentials, owing to overcrowding.)

Of course, the results were disappointing for Team USA: a tenth-place finish. After fourteen test runs (when Timothy Hollingsworth represented the USA in 2009, he’d only completed two test runs before the competition; he placed sixth), and hours of work from Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Daniel Humm, the team had hoped to at least reach the podium this year. What went wrong? Who knows. Maybe the judges didn’t like the flavors.

One thing is clear: With Nordic countries occupying the top three spots (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, respectively), money is the key. Each Nordic Bocuse d’Or chef is given a one-year sabbatical and (allegedly) financing in the neighborhood of one million Euros with which to prepare for the competition. Compare that to Kent and Allan, who were still working at Eleven Madison Park while training. And while it was reported that Team USA raised $500,000 for the 2009 competition, Daniel Boulud told me that this year’s amount was less, given the current economic climate.

The search for America’s next Bocuse d’Or chef starts now. Boulud and Keller have both reached the pinnacles of their own careers and are determined to see America on the podium.

American Fish Menu
Scottish monkfish dressed in herbs and lardo
Monkfish liver, seaweed, mustard-seed jus
Scottish langoustine “savarin” with crab and littleneck clams, green apple, fennel
John Cope’s Kentucky corn fritter with pickled radish, old bay seasoning
“Oyster Rockefeller” with red pearl-onion filled with spinach, smoked bacon, quail egg yolk

American Meat Menu
“T-Bone” Saddle of Scotch Lamb
White-House-honey-glazed loin, shallot-crusted tenderloin, steak-house sauce
“Baked potato” with bacon shortbread, sour cream, chive oil
“Creamed Spinach” with braised lamb shoulder, Vin Jaune sabayon
“Wedge Salad”
Lamb-kidney-and-sweetbread beignet, mint, pickled cucumber
Vine tomatoes filled with onion puree, white balsamic vinegar, borage

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Dispatches From the Bocuse d’Or: American Disappointment