Knives at Dawn

As anyone who has ever devoured an episode of Top Chef knows, even if you can’t taste the food, cooking competitions can be a sensual feast to watch: the thrilling mix of colors and textures; the urgent rhythm of knife work and quiet fluidity of kitchen choreography; the mounting tension as empty plates and persnickety palates await; the pleasure of presentation — the imagined tastes and aromas — followed by the painfully attenuated moment of judgment. And then there are all of those riveting chef personalities. In Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d’Or Competition, Andrew Friedman combines all these ingredients and offers up a deliciously detailed look at the world’s most elite cooking competition: the Bocuse d’Or, held in Lyons, France, every other year. Friedman’s beautifully reported book is not a history but rather a dramatic narrative of what happened when, in 2008, three world-famous chefs, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse, set their sights on helping a team from the United States take home a medal — as no U.S. team had ever done — in the 2009 competition. Of course, getting there wasn’t going to be easy. As Friedman explains, “In preparation for this literal trial by fire…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.” Friedman’s composition is itself intricately assembled and impeccably presented, taking us not only into the U.S. competitors’ kitchens but inside their heads as well. Knives at Dawn is a book to savor.