Forget Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Next Food Network Star and any other made-for-TV cooking shows; the Bocuse d’Or in France is the pinnacle of culinary competitions. No American has ever won it, or even come close, but that could change this year. An all-star group of superchefs headed by Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller is mobilizing to help one U.S. chef win the January, 2009 edition of this biennial event. You’ve got until June 30 to apply…but you’d better take a gander at some of the previous entries to see what you’ll be up against if you enter.
Here’s how the statement Boulud released in late May states the case:
“Twenty one years ago, chef Paul Bocuse created the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France. As the most rigorous international culinary competition, the Bocuse d’Or provides a platform for talented young chefs to represent their countries on the world stage. Together with Thomas Keller, Jerome Bocuse (ed: Paul’s son, who works at Chefs de France at Epcot in Orlando) and many of America’s best chefs, we have established a not-for-profit organization to recruit and train a USA team to compete at the Bocuse d’Or. Our goal is to promote a team on par with the culinary status this country has earned.”
You can nominate yourself by going to www.bocusedorusa.org and downloading an application. You’d better get on the stick, though, because applications are due by June 30, 2008 and there’s a lot more to the process than just filling out a form.
For one thing, prospective Bocuse d’Or participants must enter as a team. That team consists of one chef, 25 years of age or older, and one commis (assistant), age 22 or younger. Team members can be from the same restaurant, but are not required to be.
Then there’s some documentation that’s required. You’ll need a “letter of motivation” detailing why you want to represent the U.S. at the Bocuse d’Or World Contest, two letters of recommendation from chefs or restaurateurs, a 4-inch by 5-inch photo of yourself in chef uniform against a plain background (a print, not a digital image) and a photocopy of your U.S. passport.
Then comes the hard part. Each team must submit descriptions and recipes for a fish dish (using two whole cod weighing between 8-10 lbs. apiece) and a meat dish (using two beef tenderloins weighing 5-6 lbs. each), plus the required three individual garnishes for each of the two protein items. You also have to supply a photo of individually plated portions of each protein item and include a schedule that indicates how you will be able to prepare and plate both dishes within the contest’s five-hour time frame.
We don’t know how many ambitious chef/commis teams are out there. But anyone who puts out the effort to meet the demands of this application process will definitely be serious about winning.
What happens from there? The Culinary Advisory Board of the Bocuse d’Or USA (mainly big-name chefs) will pick eight semi-finalist teams from the written applications.
On Sept. 26-27, those eight teams will head for Orlando, FL, for an elimination contest, with the winner gaining the honor of representing the U.S. at the Bocuse d’Or World Cuisine Contest in Lyon, France in January, 2009.
The Orlando elimination contest will follow the same format as the Lyon finals. Teams will prepare 12 portions of each protein in five hours, presenting six portions on individual plates and six portions on each of two show platters.
It sounds manageable enough…until you check out the plated portions and show platters that have emerged from previous Bocuse d’Or competitions. The standard of competition is staggeringly high, as readers can see from the images we’ve used to illustrate this story. To look at more examples, you can go to bocusedoruse.org/gallery.html or www.bocusedor.com/2007/concours/platstest2.php. Chefs are going to have to bring their A-plus game to play in this league.
But whoever wins the Orlando elimination round is going to have something no American entrant has had before: help, and lots of it, from the chef/coaches supplied by Bocuse d’Or USA, i. e., the top chefs in the country. Also, money. “All training costs during this period, including travel, accommodations, food and equipment will be provided by the Bocuse d’Or USA,” the organization says. In the past, U.S. competitors have been woefully underfunded compared to European teams, which have $1 million-plus budgets. That won’t be the case this time around.
Recent U.S. representatives to the Bocuse d’Or include:
Handke, who placed sixth, is the highest American finisher so far. He’s also the first American to earn a medal, taking one for best meat platter.
Bocuse, Keller, et al are gearing up for a big effort, but it’s worth asking to whom else a high finish at the Bocuse d’Or really matters. The contest requires skills in a kind of cooking that is miles away from what takes place in restaurants. And the intricate arrangements on the mirrored show platters, while impressive, harken back to an earlier culinary age. The grand prize isn’t overwhelming, either. The winner of the Bocuse d’Or in Lyon takes home 20,000 euros. By way of contrast, the winner of the biennial Pillsbury Bake-Off here in the U.S. gets a check for a cool $1 million.
On the other hand, the lucky U.S. representative will get a chance of a lifetime, and his or her career will likely head into the stratosphere. Kaysen, who finished 14th in 2007 as the U.S. entrant, was recruited away from El Bizcocho to become executive chef at Café Boulud in New York City. He was just named “Rising Star Chef of the Year” at the James Beard Award—and it’s been reported he’s thinking about entering the Bocuse d’Or again this year.But so what. If you’re ambitious, and if you want visibility and career advancement, this year’s Bocuse d’Or just might be for you. You’ve got two weeks left to mail in your application.