Yes, we can… cook!
When First Lady Michelle Obama invited chefs from the Bocuse d'Or Foundation to harvest vegetables in the White House garden along with local school students, she was encouraging a new generation of budding food lovers to aim high. Now they have the proof that hard work pays as America wins silver in the Culinary World Cup, or Bocuse d’Or.
You’d be forgiven for never having heard of this event until now. After all, America has competed in this biennial event 14 times before getting anywhere near the podium, but the U.S. has been seriously upping its game these past years and the proof is in the pudding (or rather the free-range guinea fowl). When Gavin Kaysen came home after ranking 14th in 2007, he hatched a plan to get Team America a spot on that podium. With the creation of a culinary council, which included some of America’s best chefs (Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Charlie Trotter), things really took off. So it is fitting and fair that Kaysen was the coach to this year’s silver trophy winner, Philip Tessier (Thomas Keller was present as president of Team U.S. and a jury member).
Un match de food
I have a theory that if the U.S. televised the Bocuse d’Or, it would certainly get more people hooked. We're a nation that loves team sports, the nation that gave the world cheerleading; I just know the American public would be all over this event — and public support really counts! Let me explain: “foodball” is a game of two halves. One side is, as you might imagine, the most prestigious culinary event in the world: silverware, finery, starched white tablecloths, pristine uniforms, and a solemn jury (that I like to call the United Nations Gastronomic Council because of the wealth of cultures and cuisines it represents). The other side is made up of raucous chanting, whistling, vuvuzelas harping, flags wafting, face-painted supporters who are dressed in hockey shirts (Team Canada), Haori and Hissho Hachimaki (Japan), Viking helmets (Norway)… it is the most random juxtaposition of decorum versus something approaching hooliganism but somehow it is okay. It’s more than okay; it’s encouraged! And this might just be important. Rasmus Kofoed of Denmark has won three Bocuse trophies: Bronze, Silver and Gold… and what does his restaurant Michelin two-starred restaurant, Geranium, overlook? Denmark’s national soccer stadium!
Which side do you play for?
My press pass didn’t come through in time, so I when I arrive for the final day of the competition I am only able to access the main viewing area. It’s 9 a.m., but the teams have already set up camp (cooking started at 8); the Germans have carefully placed little brochures in their seats, in much the same way we Brits poke fun at them for shamelessly “reserving” sun loungers by throwing towels over them. I snicker to myself about how territorial they are, but they’re not alone. As I sit in a spare seat and get my laptop out, a great Dane gesticulates and seems to be saying “You’re not Danish,” which I think was meant as an insult. As I look around, I notice that the audience is in fact about 70 percent Scandinavian. This is unsurprising when you learn that at the time (hours before the final), Denmark and Sweden had four trophies (including one gold each) and Norway a whopping eight to its name (four gold) … that, of course, was about to change, which only corroborates my theory that it’s all about the supporters!
I decide to go for coffee — I’ll try for a seat again later — but the queues are phenomenal, though entertaining thanks to the costumes of the supporters. I wait beside two Norway supporters, and as we suffer in patience, we chat. The one claps his hands over the other’s shoulders and tells me
“This is Ørjan (Johannessen)’s father.”
“You must be very proud today,” I reply, not knowing that I was speaking with the father of the soon-to-be winner! His father has clearly poured his heart into this project. His was perspiring and red in the face, but his steely blue eyes sparkled with tears as he told me how hard his son had worked, the sacrifice it meant personally and the stress of not knowing which fish would be imposed until August (it was fario trout).
“So he’s only had six months to prepare the fish dish” he tells me, though I sense he’s been preparing his entire life on some level.
Bolstered by the warmth of the Norwegians, I decide to brave the hoards and resolve to find a seat. Since my compatriots from the U.K. and the U.S. are not competing today, I figure I’d best make my way over to a Commonwealth country and see if they’ll take me in… Ah, Canada!
As I hover near by, I tentatively join in the chanting of “Let’s go, Godbout!” but Hideki Takayama, Japan’s candidate, has just served his fish dish and it includes a millefeuille containing 18 different vegetables (this year’s fish dish spec stipulated that 50 percent of the dish must be vegetable-based) and his supporters cries of “Nippon, Nippon, Nippon — Hey! Hey! Hey!” accompanied by a percussion of wooden spatulas drown us out. I lean to the man next to me and say something about remembering to bring steel pan lids next time and then we are introduced: François Martel, president of the Culinary Academy of Montreal. Canada’s candidate, Laurent Godbout, is a Quebecer himself and this is the first time a Quebecer has competed, Martel tells me. “We set up a replica kitchen for him and had him practice for months in these conditions with the same apparatus; the only thing missing was a crowd of chanting supporters.” And once again, my theory plays out when, despite delivering one of the most original and appetizing dishes (so many of the others were ball-based: I’m telling you, it was sphere, after egg, after orb…) Godbout does not make the podium.
It’s not about the money, money, money…
Except that it is. The investment that goes into training a chef is one thing. But the budget required even just to enter is another. Teams have to create their own artwork for the event (there is a prize for this; Hungary and Argentina won this year), then there are the accoutrements, the specifically designed crockery, etc. You can tell a lot about a country’s culinary identity by the kind of cloche they use to keep the food warm! One team even had forks made especially for the jury; the space in between the prongs was cut into the shape of Paul Bocuse himself. Sadly, this was as close as we got to seeing him this year. His son, Jerôme, was emotional as he announced that his father would not attend the award ceremony. Paul Bocuse will celebrate his 89th birthday in just a few weeks.
Nevertheless, in light of past controversies — in 2005, Spain’s Dalí-inspired presentation had them ranked second to last (despite over €1 million in investment), inspiring the Spanish delegation to call the competition “outdated” and El País to refer to it as a “contest of buffets and snacks” — it is perhaps time for Jerôme to take the Bocuse d’Or into a new era. Team America’s second-place win today is certainly a nudge in a new direction. Grant Achatz, this year’s honorary president, who had commented somewhat cynically that his role didn’t mean much this year, seemed visibly moved by America’s triumph. He even double-checked the envelope before reading it out, aware that once he said the words, something would change. A shift would occur. And although Monsieur Bocuse may not have been present, his presence was felt in tonight’s results because, as they great man once said:
“In his passion for his art, a chef needs movement and creativity to perfect his craft…”