With the cable smorgasbord of Top Chefs, Iron Chefs, and Master Chefs larding the TV schedule, we’ve all gotten used to watching truffle-slinging toques under pressure. But pleasing Tom and Padma is a far cry from representing your country’s honor before a stadium packed with 3,500 rowdy food fanatics, cheering as if they’re at a football match, while persnickety judges eyeball your every move.
Such are the conditions at the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition. Named for the great French chef Paul Bocuse, the games take place in Lyon, a gastronomic capital of France, and a regarded as Olympics of cooking. Chefs from 24 countries work with the same ingredients – this year it was guinea hen and brown trout – to make eye-popping, taste-bud rousing dishes over the course of five-and-a-half intense hours. On the evening of January 22, after being shut out of the last three bi-annual competitions, Team America got serious and won the silver medal, marking the first time a non-European team had nabbed the statuette depicting a stern looking Bocuse. Considering past results, it was the equivalent of Jamaica placing in the bobsled competition.
Having Michelin starred super-chefs Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and Grant Achatz spooning up advice didn’t hurt. Competitors Philip Tessier and Skylar Stover, both from Keller’s wildly lauded French Laundry in Napa Valley, spent a year training for the event. Tessier even gave up wine for nine months in order to help guarantee that he’d be sharp. “From the outset, our goal was to produce a level of food that would have experienced chefs wondering how we did it,” says Tessier. “We built something based on Napa Valley and a culinary garden.” Looking more like an architectural sculpture than something you’d eat for dinner, the meat entry included beehives made from foie gras, silos of oak-roasted guinea hen, and a white-corn nest with buttered corn pudding.
“Getting there was a process,” adds Tessier. “We started the dish with sausage and potato and it evolved from there.”
They got judged on taste, presentation, and style in the kitchen – right down to cleaning up. “If you let the pressure get to your head, you get derailed,” says Tessier, who almost committed a game-losing gaff. “I misplaced a mold [full of meat] and left it by the dishwashing station. If it had been taken away for washing, our ending would have been very different. That was a hairy moment – and we had no Plan B.”
Gavin Kaysen, a former competitor, veteran of Daniel Boulud’s kitchen in Manhattan, and owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, served as the head coach. Though he helped shape the team over the course of 25 practice preparations, in the heat of the competition Kaysen kept an eye on the clock (at one point, the chefs had fallen behind by six-minutes and needed to work rapide in order to finish on time) and provided an extra set of critical eyes. “It’s just like any other kind of coaching,” he says, falling back on precisely the sort of football metaphors the winning Norwegian team wouldn’t understand. “There is still one quarterback and one receiver, and they need to do the scoring.”
Once the dishes were plated and served, the guys felt confident about what they had done – confident enough that they were relieved to have not won a non-metal consolation prize. “The Swedish team got bronze and we were on the edges of our seats,” remembers Tessier. “We spent a year preparing for a single game where it all matters.”
They reveled in the win at a gala dinner but really experienced full-on glory when a plaque in their honor got displayed near the entrance to Bocuse’s restaurant. Considering that Tessier had sacrificed alcohol for the better part of a year, it was easy to imagine his celebration taking a Bordeaux-fueled turn. Asked if he showed the French how to toss it back, Tessier hesitated for a beat then gave an answer worthy of an NFL press conference: “I paced myself.”