Last week I got a breathless email from Shuna asking if I’d heard about it and was I going to write about it. She gave me the link to SF Eater saying that Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud were not simply supporting an effort to raise a culinary team to compete in the Bocuse d’Or, they were actively taking part in it.
I’ve written about culinary competitions and, at first enthralled by them, have been skeptical. Often the food that’s so heavily practiced and worked over is never eaten. The food I’ve seen is not better than that in the best restaurants throughout the world. What really are we doing and why, and who are the chefs who work so hard to be in these events?
So when I got a press release with the announcement of a concerted effort to find a competitive American team, led by Boulud and Keller, and read about it in The Times, I was curious why these celebrated chefs, who have enough on their plate already, would involve themselves in this. Obviously, when Bocuse, the original chef promoter, an icon, and uniformly revered in the profession, asks, you don’t say no. He’s Bocuse. He’s THE chef. There is a single available response: “Oui, Chef!”
But when I read that Keller would be creating a training kitchen next to the French Laundry, something that goes beyond “Oui, Chef” obligations, I had to find out more.
“If I am going to do it then we should make a strong effort,” Keller said in an email. “Daniel and I are committed to recruiting the best young chef to compete in Lyon next year. To that end I have the opportunity to remodel my father's house into a R&D center for The French Laundry—think El Builli. Enodis, a global food service giant, has agreed to contribute all equipment and funds to do it. That makes it a win-win situation. The French Laundry gets its R&D kitchen and Team USA gets a place to practice. We have also engaged Roland Henin, my mentor, to be the coach—another positive and important part.
“It is good for the industry because it promotes interest in chefs and allows them more opportunities, working with Daniel Boulud, myself and Roland Henin at The French Laundry is fantastic. Imagine the excitement of being part of this—if we do it correctly it will set a foundation for years to come. It is all about promoting chefs and their craft.”
See, that’s why he’s Thomas Keller. He’s taken an event one might be suspicious about, a task that might be attended to in a lackluster fashion, and turned it into an extraordinary prospect. Eight teams will be selected to compete in September in Orlando. Not only is this an opportunity to travel and compete (paid for by Bocuse d'Or USA), there are also substantial cash prizes for the top three teams. The winning team then will have the opportunity to work, with full compensation, in a new kitchen adjacent to the French Laundry with some of the best chefs in the world for four months. Four months. So that's why Shuna was breathless.
Chefs interested in this opportunity must apply before June 30. An application is at bocusedoruse.org.
This is going to be good.
(If you haven't seen it, the new documentary, The Chicken, the Fish, and the King Crab, is a fascinating view of the actual competition.)