Perhaps nothing symbolized the American team's efforts at the Bocuse d'Or better than its beef cheeks. At the world's premier chef's competition, which ended on Jan. 28 in Lyons, France, the Estonians transformed the cheeks a required ingredient this year into pot-au-feu, the Brazilians stuffed potatoes with them, and the Malaysians spiced them up into rendang. But the U.S. competitors, 28-year-old Timothy Hollingsworth and his assistant, Adina Guest, braised the meat until it was silky, set it on a tiny round of baby turnip, and topped it with a floret of broccolini. Smuggled through customs, the vegetables came straight from the garden of the famed French Laundry restaurant in Napa, California, where the two chefs work, and gave the presentation a delicious, locally grown flavor that could only be American. Sadly, in a context where extravagance and adherence to the rules of classical cooking take precedence, that might have been part of the problem. (See pictures of Bocuse d'Or 2009.)
From the heavy presence of seafood mousses to the cheesy compliments the MC paid the female judges, the Bocuse d'Or is nothing if not French. But because it is also a kind of culinary Olympics, with teams from 24 different countries competing over two days for a gold trophy that brings prestige and a $26,000 prize, the contest is imbued with national rivalries that extend from the fans in the bleachers to the flavors on the elaborate platters.
In fact, for the young chefs who compete in the contest founded by revered French chef Paul Bocuse navigating between the desire to demonstrate the glories of their national cuisine (to say nothing of their own creativity) and the wish to please a jury that tends to favor the classic French style is precisely the challenge. "If you're playing soccer, you can't use your hands," says Antonio Saura, a Spanish filmmaker whose 2007 documentary El Pollo, el Pez, y el Cangrejo Real featured the competition. "The Bocuse is the same way: you have to play by their rules."
Those rules are precise. The biennial contest assigns the main proteins that all teams use (this year they included Norwegian cod and several different cuts of Angus beef) and gives contestants 5 1⁄2 hours to prepare the two platters, which are then evaluated by a jury comprised of one chef from each participating country. If 5 1⁄2 hours sounds like plenty of time, bear in mind that contestants must also complement their proteins with elaborate garnishes, keep their cramped kitchens clean, and stay organized while they cook on a stage, watched by thousands of screaming fans.
For aficionados, the Bocuse might as well be the World Cup, so passionate (and loud) are their loyalties. Wearing T shirts with the red field and white cross of their national flag, Swiss supporters rang cowbells and cheered with an intensity matched only by the home team's fans, who alternated between long, head-ache-inducing horn blasts and renditions of La Marseillaise. The small British delegation hung T shirts over the rail printed with the encouragement ALLEZ LES ROSBIFS. With nearly 50 people, the U.S. fielded its largest delegation ever. "Last time, our uniform was a sweatshirt that my wife ironed U.S.A. decals onto," says Gavin Kaysen, who competed in the 2007 Bocuse. Now dressed in one of the sleek, matching jackets printed with the words JE T'AIME U.S.A. sported by team members and their supporters, he marveled at how much more support the U.S. had this time around.
Team president Thomas Keller, chef at the French Laundry, signed on when he was approached by none other than Bocuse himself. "When Monsieur Bocuse asks you, you say 'Yes, Chef,' " he explains. Keller transformed his father's old house, located next door to the Napa Valley restaurant, into a training center for Hollingsworth and Guest, and together with New York City–based four-star chef and honorary Bocuse president Daniel Boulud, raised $500,000 for the team. Their aim, Boulud says, was "to show what amazing food we cook in the U.S."
Money clearly makes a difference. While Norway had the team truck equipped with a practice kitchen, the South African team made do with a less grandiose means of getting around. "We rented a couple of trolleys to get our produce in," says team coach Marli Roberts. "And then we took public transportation."
Like other teams, the South Africans strove to put a bit of home on their platter without alienating any of the judges, in this case by including some South African curry and passion fruit in their marinated cod. The Dutch topped one of their exquisite garnishes with pastry windmills. First-timers Uruguay served their oxtails in hand-painted ceramic pots from home. The British team's national touch came in the name they assigned their beef filet: Henry V. "It's a bit of fun," says team coach Roger Hulstone. "[England] beating the French at Agincourt, and all that." Adds chef Simon Hulstone, Roger's son, as he rolls a piece of cod in mousse: "It's a good thing this contest isn't being held in Germany."
As befits Spain's current reputation for culinary invention, the Spanish team took the most radical approach. Chef Angel Palacios emptied eggshells, then filled them with spherified scallop coral made to look like yolks and gelatinized algae broth with the slippery, translucent appearance of albumen. "We wanted to pay tribute to Ferran," said coach Paco Roncero in reference to famed molecular chef Ferran Adrià. "And we also wanted something transparent to show off the scallops."
But it doesn't pay to get too far ahead of the jury, a lesson that France and the Scandinavian countries have learned to good effect. "You have to stay in the comfort zone of the judges," says Roland Henin, the U.S. team's French-born coach. "They can't be tasting or looking at something they don't know, because you'll lose them." Innovative Copenhagen chef René Redzepi, who served on the jury, was a little regretful about that comfort zone. "I was hoping it wouldn't be luxury item upon luxury item, that they would strip away the pretension," he says after tasting 12 plates of beef on the first day. "But that wasn't quite the case. Still, the fact that I'm here means the contest is changing."
The U.S. team certainly hoped for change. Hollingsworth and Guest spent nearly five months training for the Lyons event, motivated, Hollingsworth says, "by the sense that the U.S. is always the underdog. A lot of Europeans still think that American cuisine is hamburgers and hotdogs. That just makes me want to strive harder." At their kitchen in California, they ran time trials, tinkering with everything from the garnish on their pistachio-crusted cod to the shape of their beef filet (in the end, it went from square to round), and learning to move past each other in a graceful ballet.
In the end, the American team placed sixth, tying its best-ever result from 2003. Norway, Sweden and France the teams that always do well maintained their hold. As his girlfriend, Kate Laughlin, waited with tears in her eyes, Hollingsworth said he was proud of his team but had a hunch why they had not placed higher: "What we do is more modern. It's not in the style of Bocuse d'Or. American food is a little more refreshing."