An American first-timer’s view of the Bocuse d’Or

On January 26-30, the Bocuse d’Or, Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie and 22 other world class culinary competitions were held in Lyon, France. Sirha, the biannual international foodservice trade show, generously hosted NCR on behalf of the ACF. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

Every few minutes, whoops and applause rise from another group in the grandstands. They wave flags from their home countries and raise handmade signs. Once in a while, a brass band strikes up a jaunty tune. Someone keeps honking an air horn.

It’s barely 10 a.m. — 4 a.m. at home in Florida. And a simple cup of American coffee is nowhere to be found.

Matthew Kirkley • photo by Jocelyn Tolbert

These are the first hours of the Bocuse d’Or 2019 finale, sometimes called the most prestigious culinary competition in the world. It was created by Paul Bocuse in 1987 as a contest among 24 young chefs from all over the world in a show placing the emphasis on cooking and on the chefs. And here in this giant, stadium-like room, with all eyes on the open kitchens, it’s obvious he succeeded.

Mimi Chen • photo by Jocelyn Tolbert

The grandstands are separated from the row of 12 active kitchens by a “press corridor” and a large section where, later in the afternoon, the judging will take place in plain view. That fact, coupled with the huge projection screen dangling above the chefs offering even those in the nosebleeds a front-row view and the two emcees, Angela May and Vincent Ferniot, offering running commentary, makes it easy for everyone in the room to feel connected to the action.

May and Ferniot • photo by Jocelyn Tolbert

For these first few hours, press and VIPs are allowed on the floor to get as close as we like to the kitchens. It’s thrilling. I watch head chef Matthew Kirkley and commis Mimi Chen work with the utmost precision and speed. I stop to chat with Gavin Kaysen (and try not to fangirl too hard). I walk down the line of kitchens and linger a few extra moments to watch Kenneth Toft-Hansen of Denmark prep his rack of lamb with laser-sharp focus.

photo by Jocelyn Tolbert

The scene at ACF competitions is similar, albeit on a smaller scale: The chefs work in open kitchens. Friends and family crowd around to watch, only feet away from the action. But there’s not the same level of raucous enthusiasm — except in fleeting moments when the finished plates are trotted by on their way to the judges, who sit behind closed doors. According to the chefs I spoke to, the Bocuse’s atmosphere is unique — and something one can’t really grasp until one arrives in Sirha’s Espace des Chefs.

“[At the Culinary World Cup,] people that are walking around — they’re not going to start screaming because they see the cold buffets. Or if they stand in front of the kitchen where the team is cooking in front of the glass, they’re not going to scream,” says Michel Bouit, CEC, AAC, who was in charge of choosing and training the U.S. candidates to the Bocuse d’Or for 20 years. “In Lyon, they give them that.”

Fans from the U.S. make some noise • photo courtesy Sirha

Other first-timers were just as impressed — even the group of ACF chefs I talked to, many of whom have seen more than a few competitions before. “All the countries were there cheering. You had people shooting guns off with confetti. Musicians playing. They had everything there,” says Art Ritt, HAAC. “I was surprised how many Americans were in the audience. We sat in a section, there were at least 50 or 75 Americans rooting, and mostly young people.”

“I’m a huge fan and had been following the team on social media leading up to the event,” says Barry Greenberg, CEC. “I was blown away by the size and scope of the production. I knew the food was going to be top-notch but I didn’t expect the amount of people in the stands.”

“At the Culinary World Cup, you can stand outside the kitchens, and there is some cheering, but it’s not like this. You’re surrounded by 2,000 to 4,000 people — it’s like a sporting event,” says Ted Polfelt, CEC, CCA, AAC. “You don’t see that kind of following at other culinary competitions. Every other team had bands and drums. It was cool to feel that energy.”

Lady Liberty • photo by Jocelyn Tolbert

He’s not the only one who was surprised to see the cluster of American fans. Kaysen told us that when he competed in the Bocuse in 2007, he felt as out of place as the Jamaican bobsled team did in the 1988 Winter Olympics.

When Mathew Peters and Harrison Turone brought the gold to our shores for the first time in 2017, the Bocuse barely registered on U.S. radars. Eater even ran a story by Greg Morabito called “Holy Crap: The U.S. Team Actually Won the Bocuse d’Or” with the subhead “Three reasons why we still don’t care.”

One only need look at our TV-watching habits to know that we love a good cooking competition. But if you talk to most Americans — other than those proudly hoisting the stars and stripes in the front row — they probably wouldn’t know much about the Bocuse d’Or or other high-level competitions such as IKA or the Culinary World Cup.

“I may be wrong, but I don’t think American culinary fans are quite there yet,” Greenberg says. “I don’t think this level of cooking is going to attract the same audience as ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’”

Of course, unlike “Hell’s Kitchen,” the Bocuse d’Or isn’t televised, which is a big roadblock to entering American cultural consciousness. While one announcer was speaking English, the rest spoke French — also a hard sell to American audiences.

Another strike is that these events take place in Lyon, France — which, while it’s known as the capital of gastronomy in the country, is an industrial city that isn’t exactly on the average American’s list of can’t-miss international destinations. Think of it this way: It’s been compared to Philadelphia, Mumbai or Athens with regard to its international position. Not bad — but not great, either.

Eater’s Morabito also pointed out in his article that the competition isn’t exactly diverse. Chen represents 50 percent of the women and 100 percent of the people of color who have represented the USA in the last ten years. “The American teams are often comprised of people who work for [Daniel] Boulud or [Thomas] Keller (or other members of their culinary wolfpack),” Morabito wrote. “These have been, almost without exception, white male chefs from high-end kitchens. This does not look like an inclusive group. America’s involvement with the event seems like an extension of the chef-bro boys club that so many people in the industry have been railing against lately.”   

Some say that food is written into European culture in a way that it just isn’t in the United States — at least not at the same level.

“There’s foie gras everywhere [in France],” Polfelt says. “I think I gained six pounds in foie gras.” Americans are admittedly not known for our penchant for foie gras.

U.S. coach Robert Sulatycky • photo courtesy Sirha

“We’re not a dining culture. … It’s not woven into the fabric of our lives,” says 2019 U.S. team coach Robert Sulatycky, who, with his fourth-place finish in 1999, held the distinction of highest-ranked North American chef until 2015. “When a Frenchman wakes up in the morning he thinks, ‘What am I having for dinner?’ That’s the first thing that crosses his mind. And at home, I don’t think we think that way.”

“[France] is my favorite country in the world because it’s very food-centric. It doesn’t take long to look around at the streets and roads and cars and see it’s just value system,” Kirkley, the 2019 Bocuse candidate, says. “Day to day pleasures matter more than … possessions. And I’m not saying one is better. It’s just how you spend your money.”

The U.S. team jokes around at the end of the day • photo by Jocelyn Tolbert

Marie-Odile Fondeur, managing director of Sirha, is confident that the European furor for culinary competition will cross the pond eventually. “We’re working hard to promote Sirha and our competitions in the USA but it takes time. However, we have a good network there,” she says. “Jérôme Bocuse lives and works in the USA, we are very close to famous chefs like Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller. So, it will take time, but we’ll make it, I’m sure.”

Sulatycky agrees. “I was honored to compete in this competition 20 years ago and it was a different time. There was zero recognition. We’re obviously following in the footsteps of Phil Tessier and Matt Peters. Phil won silver [in 2015] and Matt won gold [in 2017], so, it’s coming.”

Hungary’s platter is brought out before the judges • photo by Jocelyn Tolbert

Back at the Bocuse in 2019, after the chefs have cooked for five hours and 35 minutes, the presentation of the plates and platters begins. The crowd is going wild. The plates are paraded in front of the media — now relegated to the press corridor, behind a large partition — before being sliced with breathless announcer commentary and served to the judges who have taken their seats in front of the kitchens, facing the audience. Among them are famed American chef Thomas Keller, HHOF, of The French Laundry and Per Se; 2001 Bocuse gold medalist Henrik Norström of Sweden; and Italy’s Enrico Crippa, a chef whose three-Michelin-starred Piazza Duomo is a fixture on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.

When the American team’s plated vegetable chartreuse with cockle butter and roast rack of veal with veal kidney farce, apicius spice glaze and salad pastorale appears on the big projector screen, there’s an audible gasp throughout the stadium. It’s beautiful — a culinary puzzle topped with the tiny, stamped flower-shaped pieces I’d watched Chen labor over. The dish doesn’t need to be cut, only deconstructed. One chef says it’s “amazing trickery and very smart because cutting is a very difficult part.”

“There were oohs and ahhs from everybody, and there was nothing to cut. It was so unique in comparison to everybody else’s. And I thought that alone would have put them over the top,” Ritt says. “I was disappointed they only got ninth.”

Spoiler alert.

Team Denmark takes the gold at the Bocuse d’Or 2019 • photo courtesy Sirha

Yes, at the awards ceremony the next night, the American team received ninth place. Toft-Hansen took home the gold Bocuse statue as the contest’s 2019 winner. He was presented with the legendary trophy by Jérôme Bocuse, president of the Bocuse d’Or, alongside Mathew Peters, president of the jury, and honorary president Christophe Bacquié, after an emotional ceremony complete with a vibrant tribute to Paul Bocuse, who died in 2018. It was Denmark’s second win in history. The Danish fans in the crowd completely lost it. Confetti was everywhere.

The next day, even though I’m exhausted and my feet are sore from getting repeatedly lost in the staggering 1,506,947 square feet of trade show (“Every day is like, which way is the way out?” laughs Polfelt), I’m feeling energized. I’m not alone, either.

Schopp and Polfelt with the great Paul Bocuse • photo courtesy Ted Polfelt

“The Bocuse d’Or, Pastry Coupe du Monde, and Catering Cup were all phenomenal competitions. The finished dishes and sculptures push the artistic threshold of our industry,” says John Schopp, CEC, CEPC, CCE, CCA, AAC. “From my spectator’s vantage point, I found myself inspired creatively as well as professionally. This will be a bi-annual Mecca for me and as many people as I can convince to join me.”

“I’d love to take my wife and my students or other chapter members,” Polfelt says. “It’s just a plane ride. It’s so important to travel and see how close everything is. Travel influences the way we see people and the way we cook.”

If all of these first-timers are so enamored after one visit to Lyon — and ready to convert their friends, family and students into Bocuse d’Or disciples — then perhaps high-end culinary competitions like the Bocuse, IKA and the Culinary World Cup do have a place in mainstream American culture. In fact, IKA is in February 2020 and we’ll be cheering on both ACF Culinary Team USA and the ACF Culinary Youth Team as they compete in Stuttgart against the best in the world.

“America’s in its adolescence culinarily and we continue to grow,” Kirkley says. “But it’s going to take some time.”