The difference between gimmicky Food Network cooking competitions and the Bocuse d’Or is like the difference between The Amazing Race and climbing Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. One is made for TV. The other is about preparation—what happens behind the scenes—and process as much as it’s about any public achievement. It’s about rigor and skill and method and precision and creativity and willfulness bordering on madness. Which is to say, the biennial Bocuse d’Or is about what it takes to be a truly world-class chef.
Vegas will get its first taste of this international event on December 17. That’s when four chefs compete at the Venetian for the opportunity to represent the U.S. during the 2017 Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France.
The contenders include Brian Lockwood, chef de cuisine at New York City’s NoMad, an elegant Daniel Humm restaurant famous for stuffing roast chicken with foie gras, truffles and brioche. Lockwood previously cooked at sister restaurant Eleven Madison Park, which is even fancier and has three Michelin stars and a No. 5 ranking (highest of any American restaurant) in the 2015 S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Eleven Madison Park’s James Kent (now executive chef at the NoMad) represented the U.S. at the 2011 Bocuse d’Or.
“I’m really excited for Chef Lockwood to be a part of this as he’s one of the most precise and focused chefs I know,” Humm says. “Having seen James Kent compete, I know how demanding the Bocuse d’Or can be, but I have no doubt in my mind that Chef Lockwood will succeed.”
Humm is a humble dude, so those might not sound like fighting words, but he’s making a bold statement about a competition in which the U.S. had never finished higher than sixth until 2015. It’s a showdown against countries that invented classic cooking technique, against nations where competitors are often sponsored by government organizations or culinary-minded donors allowing them to take a year off just to prepare.
But the U.S. isn’t an afterthought at the Bocuse d’Or anymore. Not after chef Philip Tessier finished second in 2015. Tessier left his full-time gig at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, a restaurant as legendary as fine dining gets, with Keller’s blessing. Keller, along with Daniel Boulud, is part of Ment’or, a group that supports America’s Bocuse d’Or efforts; the revered chefs will co-host the Venetian event.
Instead of cooking tasting menus, Tessier continued working for Keller by organizing thousands of recipes from 20 years of the French Laundry and 10 years of Bouchon. This gave him the mind-set and time to prepare for 14 months. He had a mantra: “Whatever it takes, whatever we need, we’re going to do it.”
This went well beyond the kitchen. “For me, if there’s anything I can do in any realm, physically, mentally, spiritually, practically, I’ll do it,” Tessier says.
He took French lessons, sweated through CrossFit, went to the gym at 6 a.m. before working in the kitchen for 12 to 18 hours a day. He compares the process to how a gymnast or figure skater would prepare for the Olympics, where exactitude is everything but it often takes a personal, nuanced twist to win the gold. So what is it going to take for the U.S. to triumph at the Bocuse d’Or?
“It’s going to take a half a percentage of a point,” Tessier says. “We missed gold by nine points out of 2,000. There were so many subjective factors. Guys we had competed against thought we had won. There’s no barrier for us anymore.”
Winning the Bocuse d’Or isn’t out of reach now, because chefs like Keller, Boulud and Humm have elevated American fine dining to the heights of any other country’s. So it’s no surprise that Mathew Peters from Keller’s Per Se in New York City is also competing at the Venetian. Meanwhile, the other two chefs in the running—Gerald Ford of New York’s Westchester Country Club and Angus McIntosh of the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs—have sharpened their knives in cooking competitions before.
There are no quick-fire challenges here. This is a clash that lasts four and a half hours, where all four contenders will prepare a meat platter with Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork and a fish dish with Norwegian fjord trout.
For chefs at this level, all that’s at stake is everything. Although Tessier is writing a book about his Bocuse d’Or experience with a chapter simply titled “Intimidation,” he knows representing the U.S. comes with some swagger now.
“When we showed up there with our USA jackets, there was no expectation,” he says. “France was surrounded by a jungle of media and cameras. When we go back in 2017 with the same jackets on, people aren’t going to ignore us. They’re going to say, ‘That’s the U.S.; they’re going to do something.’”