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An exciting chefs-as-athletes story following the 2009 U.S. team's attempt for the gold at the "Olympics of food"—-the Bocuse d'Or, the world's most prestigious cooking competition.
ONE OF THE HARSH REALITIES OF EVERY CHEF'S LIFE IS THAT, AT the end of each day, he will be judged.
In many respects this is unfair, because the food in most restaurants, even the most eye-popping, palate-dazzling, wallet-busting cuisine, is more complex than all but the most knowledgeable diners can realize or appreciate. Just about anything served in high-caliber establishments is the product of hours — if not days — of effort, the culmination of the strivings of at least a handful of people, and up to dozens: fish, meats, and produce selected in consultation with farmers, fishermen, and artisans; long-simmered stocks, peeled and shaped vegetables, and minced herbs generated by the unsung morning crew; sauces, condiments, purees, and garnishes fashioned by the cooks themselves in the hours before lunch or dinner.
Members of a kitchen brigade bring years of hard-won knowledge to bear every time they strap on an apron. But there's no telling what might happen in those dizzying, adrenaline-fueled afternoons and evenings when the components of a dish are fired (cooked or reheated), seasoned, and brought together. Much has to go right for success; much less need go awry to qualify as failure. It's like that old saw about the Central Intelligence Agency: their daily triumphs are unknown; only their miscues draw criticism. Chefs and their colleagues spend every moment of their working lives swinging from one precarious task to the next: a surfeit of salt and a sauce will diminish rather than enhance all that it touches; a minute too little in the sizzle of a sauté pan and a breast of chicken will be worsethan imperfect — it will be a health hazard.
And yet, to those who keep chefs in business, none of that matters. From neighborhood eateries to Michelin-ordained destinations, the moment of truth is brutally simple: the final product is presented, a few ounces framed within the confines of a plate or bowl. Fork or spoon is lifted. Food meets palate. Judgment is rendered.
IN LIGHT OF THIS inescapable truth, one might wonder why a chef would throw his toque into the ring of the Bocuse d'Or, the most prestigious cooking competition in the world, and invite the ultimate moment of judgment. In preparation for this literal trial by fire, which has been staged in Lyon, France, every other year since its founding in 1987, candidates devote months and sometimes years to rehearsing an elaborate culinary routine in order to meet the contest's Everest-like challenge: transform a set of assigned proteins (chef-speak for fish and meats), plus whatever supporting ingredients the chefs like, into intricate, impeccably cooked compositions in five and a half grueling hours. Just before time is up, they arrange their creations on two enormous platters — one showcasing their fish and shellfish handiwork, the other their mastery of meat. An international panel of judges scores the visual presentations, then the chefs plate the food and the jury digs in for the most important evaluation: taste. There are no elimination rounds, no time to ease into the rigors of competition: the candidates get one shot to cook and present their creations, and the judges who determine their fate have roughly five minutes to taste and consider it. In the Bocuse d'Or's current form, twenty-four teams (each comprising a chef and a commis, or assistant) compete; the only thing they know for certain when they begin is that three of them will emerge with precious medals, while the others will slink home empty-handed.
Despite those odds, the Bocuse d'Or draws professionals, many from top kitchens who already toil in pressure-cooker environments, subsist on precious little sleep, and subject themselves to dozens, even hundreds, of verdicts every working day. Any number of clichés may explain the appeal of the Bocuse d'Or: Chefs love a challenge! Chefs are competitive! Chefs are masochists! All are appealing, but none fits the entire field. Just as people get into cooking for different reasons, there's no single motive for pursuing this culinary Holy Grail.
Candidates are philosophically unified, however, when they come out on the other side. "I learned a lot about myself" is perhaps the most common sentence uttered by those who have vied for the Bocuse d'Or when asked to evaluate their experience. This doesn't surprise Roland Henin, who coached Team USA at the 2009 edition. "Competition doesn't form character," Henin is fond of saying. "Competition reveals character."
An American team has competed at every Bocuse d'Or, but the United States has not yet reached the elusive podium where gold, silver, and bronze medalists are bathed in a light storm of glitter and flashbulbs. In 2008, a triumvirate of culinary figures — Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jérôme Bocuse — raised unprecedented support and awareness for the American enterprise. This is their story, and the story of the team that competed for the United States at the 2009 Bocuse d'Or: what they did, how they did it, and what they learned.
TIMOTHY HOLLINGSWORTH, CHEF DE cuisine at Thomas Keller's landmark restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, calls the highest state of kitchen being The Dance. It's a phrase he learned from Keller himself, described in the restaurant's employee manual as "the way each of us interacts with the other...crucial in the flow of a great kitchen."
The Dance, as Hollingsworth interprets it, can take many forms: there's the synchronicity of a kitchen brigade firing on all cylinders, the cooks complementing — if not actually completing — each other's tasks: picking up food, plating food, sometimes even cooking food for the person next to them; it can, and should, look like a naturally occurring phenomenon, but is achieved only with great and sustained effort.
There's also an individual Dance, in which a cook experiences the exhilaration of peak performance, operating on pure instinct, all of his senses integrated seemingly without the middleman of a brain: preparations are stirred, sniffed, adjusted, tossed, approved, plated, and then forgotten as he undertakes the next order. Hollingsworth likens this iteration of The Dance to the quintessential image of a football running back, the ball clutched tightly to his chest, charging past linesmen, spinning and weaving his way around or through an onslaught of defenders. In movies, that moment is often depicted in slow motion — the way it may feel to the athlete, and the only way for an outsider to fully appreciate its intricacies — but time is actually moving faster, as the running back makes a series of nanosecond decisions and infinitesimal adjustments.
Hollingsworth regularly attains The Dance at The French Laundry. But on January 28, 2009, at the Bocuse d'Or, the most pressure-filled day of his young life, Hollingsworth wasn't dancing. He moved with assurance, grace even, but any coâ??worker would recognize that he wasn't swaying, or ever so slightly swaggering, as he moved from one side of the kitchen to the other, the way he did when he was in the zone. He wasn't quite lost in his work, wasn't flowing naturally from one movement to the next. Instead, he seemed to be thinking about the long list of tasks before him, whether alternating avocado and diced-shrimp shingles atop a rectangle of puff pastry or overlaying a sheet of poached cod mousse with pureed scallop roe.
Hollingsworth was cooking in a box — a three by six-meter kitchen, one of a dozen such culinary cubicles erected in a row, like laboratory pods, for the Bocuse d'Or. He and his commis (assistant), Adina Guest, a fellow employee from The French Laundry, were cooking in front of several hundred frenzied spectators and the noise was deafening, the crowd separated into cheering sections for each of the twelve nations competing on this day; the one he couldn't shut out was the melodic chant of the Spanish contingent — "Olé. Olé. Olé. Olé." — which he misheard as a taunt meant just for him: "No Way. No Way. No Way. No Way."
Hollingsworth had managed to contend well enough with all of this until four hours into the five-hour-and-thirty-five-minute marathon. That was about the time that he realized he was in the midst of what he would, by day's end, describe as the "hardest thing I've ever done."
His fish platter — which would display his cod centerpiece and three elaborately composed garnishes — was due in the window in just a few minutes, whereupon it would be whisked away and paraded before, then tasted by, a dozen judges from around the world; then he'd have thirty-five minutes to get his other platter ready for the twelve chefs charged with appraising the meat dishes.
"Are the custards ready?" he asked Guest.
On the other side of the window, the team's coach, Roland Henin — in his midsixties, a veteran culinary competitor and coach, and mentor of Hollingsworth's chef, Thomas Keller — looked on, hoping for the best, but keenly aware that the team, which had been looking pretty good up until then, was teetering on the brink between triumph and, if not disaster, at least disappointment.
Hollingsworth stopped for a moment to administer an internal pep talk. The phrase that came to mind had great meaning for him. It was the one he used when he found himself in the weeds at The French Laundry, the one that had spurred him to success on any number of previous occasions. But he didn't think about the past. He didn't think about anything, really. He just said to himself, instinctively, "Okay, Tim, let's go."
Copyright © 2009 by Andrew Friedman