On the Road to Lyon
Meryle Evans - May 2014
Milan, Ohio—What better place to root for the USA Team than the Culinary Vegetable Institute, where the indefatigable farmer Lee Jones and his family hosted a sumptuous fund-raising dinner in March for the foundation that supports the American team at the rigorous biennial Bocuse d’Or International Culinary Competition in Lyon, France.
The French Laundry’s executive sous chef, Philip Tessier, who will represent the United States at the competition next January, and head coach Gavin Kaysen, former executive chef at Café Boulud in New York City, were joined by a half dozen of the nation’s top toques, who came from around the country to prepare an eight course meal at the institute, an R&D hospitality center for visiting chefs. Former competitors for the Bocuse d’Or USA team, Jennifer Petrusky (Quince) and Michael Rotondo (Parallel 37) flew in from San Francisco; Curtis Duffy (Grace) and Thomas Raquel, pastry chef at Acadia, trekked from Chicago; Eli Kaimeh represented New York City’s Per Se. Master sommelier Joseph Spellman coordinated wine pairings for the 80 guests, many of them from companies that provide support for the team.
Taking advantage of the array of artisanal vegetables, micro greens, and edible flowers available in the huge greenhouses at the Jones family’s 300 acre farm, Chef’s Garden, the chefs showcased the encyclopedic yield from borage blooms to watermelon radishes as garnishes for their dishes.
Local luminaries Jonathon Sawyer, who owns four restaurants in nearby Cleveland, and CVI resident chef Jamie Simpson offered hors d’oeuvres that included spring vegetables with aged beef suet, five year anchovy sauce, and home-fermented Côte Rôtie vinegar, along with yuzu curd with cucumber blooms.
Tessier’s course featured bacon-wrapped monkfish, and, with a Gallic nod, pommes maxim, petits pois à la francaise, and red wine braised escargots. Kaysen’s lamb mosaic was accompanied by fines herbes pesto, niçoise olives, red pearl onions, and confit pepper.
Kaysen, who represented the United States in Lyon in 2007 and has coached the team since then, notes the difficulties of preparing for the competition without government support. He and Tessier, for example, are going to Sweden this month to observe the finals for the European countries who are vying to participate. Thanks to the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, established by chefs Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse in 2008, “we’re not going over like a Jamaican bobsled team,” Kaysen jokes, praising the nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to helping inspire, build, and promote culinary careers as well as raise money for the team.
Tessier, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America who began his career at the Williamsburg Inn and has worked in France, at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin, and Keller’s New York City and California restaurants, believes that “people don’t realize how much thought goes into it; we have all these TV shows here, but for me this is the quintessential culinary competition, and I hope the industry will embrace it.”
Until Tessier, his commis, Skylar Stover, chef de partie at The French Laundry, and the coaches head to Lyon next January, he’s on leave from The French Laundry kitchen, training for the five-and-a-half-hour cooking marathon when he and the other 23 contestants will prepare a meat platter and a fish plate, each with three elaborate garnishes. The proteins won’t be revealed until next fall to encourage spontaneity. “We need to develop the techniques we want to use,” Tessier explained, “decide what direction to go in, figure out what vegetables to use in the middle of winter.” Fortunately, the team will have the support of Jones, who will be able to overnight produce to Lyon.
The candidates face myriad hurdles, ranging from adapting to the different flavors of European butter and cream, to deciding what dishes will remain at their peak during an agonizing 10 to 15 minutes while the plates are assembled, presented to, and tasted by the judges before a cheering crowd of 2,000 spectators. “The biggest challenge,” Tessier observes, “is to present ourselves in a clear, concise way; we have to find the right marriage of tradition and originality to please 24 judges from different regions of the world.”
“There’s lots of anticipation,” Tessier points out, “but we’re focusing on the excitement, not the pressure.”