The Bocuse d'Or, some argue, is the Olympics of the culinary world yet the international cooking competition remains relatively unknown in the United States. But if Grant Achatz and a team of the country's top chefs, including Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, have anything to do about it, that's all going to change come January, 2013.
That's when Richard Rosendale, executive chef of the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., and the winner of the Bocuse d'Or USA finals earlier this year in Hyde Park, N.Y., heads to Lyon, France to compete in the main event.
Up until now, no U.S. team has made it higher than sixth place at the biennial competition that began in 1987. Eater sat down with Achatz, Rosendale and his commis (junior chef), Corey Siegel, at Alinea to discuss their training, the perception of Bocuse d'Or in the U.S. and what they need to hit the podium in 2013.
What was the feeling you had when you won Bocuse d'Or in the US?
Rosendale: As soon as it happened it was like being swept off your feet into this whole new world. Things happen in your life, you're sent down a path, and this was a paradigm shift. This will impact my career and my life forever. Some of the immediate changes have been the attention and support we've been given. Having been able to spend time with chefs like Grant, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Gabriel Kreuther ... being in that group brings your level of work up.
What did you do when you won?
Rosendale: Well, I was talking about Lyon on the way back to the hotel. I was already talking about platters and different dishes, flavor profiles, things we could use, new ideas. I've been so focused on this competition for the last 10 years and I left the trophy on the stage. I was talking to Daniel and Keller about Lyon and Daniel grabbed the trophy and gave it to me. Purely my focus is Lyon. [The U.S. win] wasn't a finish line; we are continuing to focus and train for France.
In January, you told Eater National you wanted to re-create the kitchen you'll have in Lyon. Why is your training that focused?
Rosendale: After all the years of competitions, I can say this is so calculated. Cooking on your station at night on the hot line—you put your towels here, your salt and pepper there. It builds that muscle memory.
Achatz: The other thing is that it's like training for the Olympics. When you think about gold medal swimmers or whatever your discipline is, Michael Jordan or whoever, they need to replicate the environment they'll perform in to be able to perform at that level.
Rosendale: Everyone is a stakeholder in this. I'm not competing to win a medal or award. We want to go to win, there's no doubt about that. But for the U.S. to have as many chefs and resources that we have in this country, we have all the talent we need to get on the podium to win. It's about putting that right mix together.
Achatz: It's like building a great sports team or company like Apple, you need all the right pieces. Richard is the driving force, but now he has the support from Keller, Boulud, etc. and the incredible culinary council at his disposal—there's like 15 on the council across the country—to draw on to build on whatever he feels his vision is to compete. The Europeans have been doing this for years. We're new to the game but we're catching up quick.
Rosendale: I'm all about having control in every possible aspect. What I do with the culinary competitions is reflective in the way I work at the Greenbrier everyday. Removing any possible variables we don't have control over ... that's why we built this kitchen. We'll have two sets of equipment, a duplicate, that we'll send to France. The only thing that will be different is that we'll have the European connections.
What are you doing to prepare, both culinarily and mentally?
Rosendale: Obviously coming to places like Alinea is great for the creative process. It's understanding the principles and Grant's thought process and how that can help us solve some problems. We've taken the time to meet with [Alinea tableware designer] Martin [Kastner, who may design the team's platters]. We're also going up to the kitchen and working on concepts. We'll spend a whole day working with broccoli or cauliflower; it's a lot of concept building. When they tell us the proteins in June, we'll already have a repertoire of items we can pull from. But there are some things that may never make it to Lyon.
What do you think needs to be done for the U.S. team to win?
I think this time we have the right blend of ingredients to be successful. It's not a reflection on the talented chefs we've had [in the past]. We've had great names, but you need the resources. It's a very expensive event. My experience in the competition circuit helps. It's not any one thing, but it's a blend that when put together that's what will make the difference. We've had them here all along, but have never put them together before. It takes time. Building a successful franchise takes time, energy, practice and the people who drive that.
Achatz: The irony here is that this is competitive cooking and America embraces competition. I wish the American public and culinary industry would embrace that these guys have committed themselves to this. It's way different than Top Chef. From my perspective, what they're doing is like being a true gold medalist Olympian.
Grant, you're a mentor on the culinary council. What does that mean?
Here's the thing, I'm not a mentor. That needs to be clear. He's the guy, he's going to sort it out. It's his vision. At the end of the day, the ultimate thing that ends up at Lyon has to be an expression of the chef; [the council is] merely a support group. If he has a question about something ... as a chef he has to pull back and go, here are my resources, but now I have an opportunity to tap into all these people.
What could help boost awareness of the competition in the U.S.?
Rosendale: In the U.S., the paradigm is that we've never been successful at it. In other countries it's televised. Here what would be a game changer is to have an American chef win in Lyon. It's important to get the exposure out to the general public and we have to be successful over there. It's hard to come back and celebrate if we didn't make it on to the podium.
Corey, how do you support the process and what does it all mean to you?
I'm the commis in the competition and it will be me and chef in there for the five and a half hours. Really for me, it's watching myself grow is the coolest thing. For me, we won when we put that food up in the window. Seeing it all plated off and seeing all the food executed that way, we were happy with our performance. Looking forward, I'm involved with the whole process, I go on the trips, we're working on garnishes, etc.
Do you feel pressure to try to place in the top 3?
Rosendale: I know that deep down inside there's probably anxiety or maybe some kind of expectation, but honestly if it's in there, it's just overwhelmed by sheer excitement and enthusiasm for the competition. I'm relentless for going after goals. It was fun talking to Martin and being here in Grant's kitchen. I love all of the things that have happened as a result of doing the competition.
Achatz: We're going to do a promotional video for Bocuse and try to figure out how to make it accessible and exciting. Touching on Top Chef and Bravo, I think the American public would be interested in following the journey of these two guys to the podium. It's the Olympics. It really is the culinary Olympics. Everyone is devoted in bringing this team to the gold.