The Bocuse d'Or Makes Fine Dining an Arena Sport
Competing chefs spend a year training to perfect wildly ornate dishes under pressure.
The Bocuse d’Or is not officially the world’s culinary Olympics, but it sure as hell looks and feels like it is. It comes with all of the trimmings of the Olympic Games: uniformed contestants from around the world challenge each other before a panel of judges in an arena filled with international flags and cheering patriotic fans. Prizes come in bronze, silver, and gold. If you win the latter, you’ll stand at the top of a podium while your national anthem blares over loudspeakers.
No matter what you call it, the Bocuse d’Or takes place every two years in Lyon, France. Twenty four countries attempt to out-fine dining each other over the course of the two-day competition, named for the late, highly celebrated chef Paul Bocuse. Competing chefs train for a year under some of the best chefs in their country, devoting themselves to the task of perfecting wildly ornate dishes under pressure. Besides glory for one’s mother country, prizes come in cold, hard euros: 10,000 for bronze, 15,000 for silver, and 20,000 for gold. Those prizes also come in the shape of Paul Bocuse statues, so there’s also a slight culinary-Oscars vibe to the whole proceedings.
I traveled to Lyon to follow team USA in their pursuit for gold. They weren’t in a great position to achieve that goal, not because their competing Head Chef Matthew Kirkley wasn’t qualified for the challenge, but because it’s extremely rare for a country to win twice in a row. In 2015, Philip Tessier became the first American to place in the top three when he was awarded the Silver Bocuse. At the last Bocuse d’Or in 2017, Mathew Peters became the first American to take home gold.
On the morning before the competition officially began, I met with Team USA president Thomas Keller, the chef and restaurateur behind such institutions as The French Laundry and Per Se. We sat in the lobby of Keller’s hotel drinking coffee, enjoying the fleeting calm before the storm. Keller looked like a president. He was well-coiffed, wearing a stately blazer, and while we were both coming from the same far-off time zone, he did not appear to be reeling from jet lag the same way I was. He explained what goes into preparing a team for the Bocuse d’Or.
“Our program will begin in June with the call for applications for 2021,” Keller said. “We will have the national competition in November of this year and then we will have the regional competition in May where we will go to Mexico City and Buenos Aires.”
The chef and commis (the chef’s right hand man or woman, who needs to be less than 22 years old) chosen to represent America drop everything for one year to train for the Bocuse d’Or full time. They’re funded by Ment’or BKB Foundation, the non-profit founded in 2008 by chefs Daniel Boulud, Keller, and Jérôme Bocuse to support the United States’ road to Lyon.
It was about time the US got some real help. Some of the European teams who had consistently dominated the Bocuse d’Or get funding from their governments. This was far from the case Stateside, where no one had even heard of the competition. It took nearly a decade of growing pains after the formation of Ment’or to win first place. That doesn’t mean the struggle is over.
“It’s a constant effort to try to bring together a group of individuals that are going to represent the United States, and I don't think people get that,” Keller said. “I know we're not some downhill racers or gymnasts in the Olympics, but this a team that has a real sense of pride and place. They’re not representing restaurants, they're representing the United States, with a serious effort to bring more pride to our country.”
The Sirha World Hospitality & Food Service Event is an F&B expo that brings more than 200,000 attendees annually. There are nearly 4,000 exhibitors and brands showing off their wares and services inside the 1,506,947 square-foot Eurexpo Lyon convention center. The word mayhem came to mind when I walked into that crowded pandemonium. It was chaos, but a controlled chaos with a European sensibility, meaning that most of the people who bumped into me were wearing avant-garde eyeglasses.
In one corner of the gigantic operation was a hall containing the Bocuse d’Or competition stage. It had grandstands, a press pit, corporate boxes, tight security, elaborate lighting and video capabilities. After a quick look around, I left the culinary colosseum to go watch the teams pick up some last minute ingredients for their big day inside a fake grocery store built for the occasion.
Toques aren’t so popular in America these days. La toque blanche, that white paper tube hat worn by chefs, was a staple in the kitchens of fine French restaurants that has now fallen out of fashion. You’re not likely to see the chef at your local farm-to-table running around the kitchen in that iconic uncooked-rigatoni-looking hat. But on that afternoon at Sirha, I found myself in a sea of toques. Hundreds of them floated above the crowds in the marketplace. I was a black sheep lost in a herd of chefs’ whites.
A French emcee was giving a deafeningly loud play by play of the shopping. I spotted Team USA’s head chef Matt Kirkley, commis Mimi Chen, and coach Robert Sulatycky crowding around a laptop, and walked over to yell through the French announcements and introduce myself.
Kirkley has a textbook background of an esteemed chef. He was born in Baltimore, went to the Culinary Institute of America, and then worked for a number of impressive chefs at a number of impressive restaurants (i.e. The Fat Duck in London, Le Meurice in Paris, Restaurant Joël Robuchon in Vegas, to name a few). His last gig before the Bocuse d’Or was running the show at Coi in San Francisco, where he was awarded a three Michelin Star rating in 2017. I asked him how he was feeling on the eve of the competition.
“Anxious,” Kirkley laughed. “I feel good about the preparations that we’ve done and there’s some relief in that. The boxes can be checked and we’re as ready as we can be. Whether it’s enough we’ll find out.”
The team—not just Kirkley, Chen, and Sulatycky, but a crew of other helpers—arrived a week before to adjust to the time change, practice with local products they couldn’t import to their kitchen, and tighten loose screws. My next question was about the other countries milling around the marketplace. I had been told that the French and Swiss were out for blood. Did it feel competitive here?
“It’s more of a sense of fraternity,” he said. “All of us have been through the same rigors these past 12 months. It’s pretty chummy, actually. Few people can relate to how you feel. It’s consoling to see other people who know the same strains. It’s certainly competitive, but not hostile.”
The next day, the team would be waking up at 3 AM to get to the competition. Others would be up before them to load the van with supplies. I wished Kirkley luck and let them get back to work.
As the festivities died down, I wandered the marketplace talking to chefs, commis, and coaches. Norway’s coach Gunnar Hvarnes, who won bronze himself in 2011, told me it’s his tradition to eat Snickers candy bars during the competition. The doe-eyed commis of Team Iceland, Ísak Darri Þorsteinsson, told me that he couldn’t wait to start the next day, and that it was hard to go to sleep.
There was a mass exodus flooding out of the Expo. Thousands of people poured into taxis, busses, and cars. The congestion was a nightmare in the frigid winter dusk. Eventually I got to the next event, a celebration of past Bocuse d’or winners from the last 30 years. There was finger food and champagne and wine. No toques, but the winning chefs were wearing white coats with their names and countries embroidered on the chest and collar. I find Mathew Peters, America’s golden boy, in the crowd. I asked him about what it was like back in 2017 during his 5.5 hours cooking on stage.
“You're only thinking about what you're doing at that time,” Peters said. “Once you train through that whole process—it's a roller coaster ride of emotions, but that whole year of training comes down to that five and a half hours of just complete focus on the task at hand. And that's it.”
While we talked, a handful of people came up to Peters for a selfie or at least a handshake. One such person was Franck Giovannini, a chef from Switzerland who’s competed twice in the Bocuse d’Or finals. In 2007, he was the first Swiss chef to make it on the podium when he earned bronze. In 2011, he didn’t place at all. The man who bested him both times (first winning silver, then gold) was Denmark’s Rasmus Kofoed, now the country’s coach. Giovannini practically snarled as he told us the tale of Rasmus. He’s the only guy to win every top Bocuse trophy. It’s a great name for a villain in a story: Rasmus. Giovannini considered him his enemy throughout the competition, although now they’re friends. I wondered if Kofoed would be as formidable a foe as a coach as he was a competitor.
After the party, my taxi dropped me off behind a big moving van in front of the hotel entrance. My hotel had been a popular choice for Bocuse d’Or participants, making it a great hub for chef-watching. I recognized the competing chef from the United Kingdom crouching in the back of the van, examining its contents with a couple other guys. They recognized me, too, but as a suspicious onlooker spying on their van. I introduced myself and asked what they were up to.
“Tweaking,” the chef told me, as in tweaking their inventory. After seeing the competition set up, they were adjusting their supplies and gear. Even though the teams are given explicit instructions ahead of the competition, things change last minute and one must tweak.
I wished them luck and went inside the hotel. Some teams lingered around the lobby bar in matching jackets. I went upstairs to sleep.
Competition Day 1: The games begin.
The next morning, it was back to the Sirha sprawl. My Uber wove through the convention traffic of Lyon, the culinary capital of France where the Rhône and Saône rivers tangle. By the time I arrived, the Bocuse d’Or stage was already alive with chefs and their commis and additional helpers hustling in their stations. Blenders whirred. Knives rapped.
Not everyone cooks on the same day. Day one competitors included the United States, Morocco, Hungary, Argentina, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Norway, Italy, Chile, Iceland, and Brazil. In a grueling five and a half hour window, each team needed to make two dishes: a suckling veal rack and a chartreuse of vegetables and shellfish. What is a chartreuse, you ask? It’s allegedly a classic French dish that’s made with wrapped and layered ingredients. News to me.
Technically, competitors are allowed to take a break during their cooking marathon if they need one, but every move they make is timed down to the second. At the front of each cooking station stood a coach calling out minutes and seconds to pace every step.
Fans assembled in the grandstands, clustered by country. To the far left, there was a strong showing from Denmark supporters, who had set up poles displaying towering Danish flags. Every so often, a barrage of Danish flag confetti would blast out of a confetti cannon. The floor was littered the stuff.
Next to Denmark was the United Kingdom, who brought a bunch of instruments to form a live band, their fan tradition. Unfortunately that band seemed to only know the chorus of the song September by Earth, Wind & Fire.
Canadians were around there too, as were Italians. A group of passionate Moroccans took up an area near the front. Norway had a thick block of supporters dressed in navy. And, of course, Americans showed up loud and proud. They had glittery hats that looked like something an Uncle Sam caricature might wear. There were red and blue beaded necklaces, star spangled scarves, American flags.
Beyond the UK’s soon-insufferable Groundhog Day-style repeating of the “September” chorus, other countries had shown up with plenty of noisemakers. As the cooking carried on, there was a constant roar of sound effects coming from the stands, not to mention dramatic music played by event organizers.
The other noise came from the competition’s two emcees, an odd couple made up of a French guy with a tiny little mustache and an American woman half the French man’s height. They bantered over the clanging and hornblowing and cheering from the crowd, doing their best Ryan Seacrest impersonations while they paid homage to sponsors and introduced facts about competitors.
I circled the stage and watched competitors toil in their makeshift kitchen cubicles. The level of detail was off the charts, which matched the look of deep concentration on each competitor’s face. Ingredients were broken down into minuscule pieces. Designs were executed with shaking hands. At the American station, Chen seemed to be working in a controlled overdrive. She barely peeked over the steaming pots, whereas Kirkley, a very tall dude, worked in a backbreaking 90-degree angle the entire time.
Other chefs and coaches paced the arena as well. I ran into Finland’s coach Tommi Tuominen and asked him what his country‘s edge was in the competition.
“I think as weird as it is, it’s the fact that our food culture isn’t very old,” Tuominen said. “It’s not very established, so we’re very keen to learn from everybody and try and take bits and pieces from all around the world, and combine the best pieces in our own unique way. That’s modern Finnish cooking.”
After a couple hours, the media was ushered off the stage and corralled into the press pit. Space was limited, and things got desperate. Elbows flew as we moshed for spots in the front so we could get our bosses the shots we promised. I was sweating when I finally planted in a decent spot.
The Bocuse d’Or judges were brought out in a manner befitting WWE wrestlers. Each esteemed judge, the president of every competing country’s team, was introduced from behind a screen to great applause. They came out and took their place before the crowd at two long white tables. One table was for the half that would taste the veal. The other table was for the half that would taste the chartreuse. After the introductions, it was time to start bringing out the dishes.
Each team had a different start time, so the presentations were staggered. Morocco was up first with its chartreuse. I’d never seen a chartreuse before, and had no idea what to expect. It looked like a circus tent crossbred with a squat pumpkin. Bocuse d’Or committee member Christian Tetedoie carried the dish out before each judge—and then, hurriedly, before the crammed, heaving line of media for inspection. We all took out our cameras and smartphones to take photos of the striped chartreuse. Morocco’s fans went nuts in the stands.
The Moroccan team then had to slice and plate the chartreuse for the judges, who were watching for a number of things, like if the dish leaked juices or if cuts were made poorly. While that went on, Hungary was up next. Their chartreuse was presented to us, and I was even more confused by what a chartreuse was supposed to look like. This one was completely different from Morocco’s. Hungary had made something that looked like a square slice of pound cake with quenelles of sorbet on top; and yet the white and purple dish topped with delicate pansies was somehow seafood?
And then it was America’s turn.
The room let out a collective gasp when the finished product was displayed on the giant television screen. My jaw dropped. Kirkley went full Alice in Wonderland contemporary art. The dish was a kaleidoscope of pink and green and white cutouts that looked like cherry blossoms. The sides were made of green and white puzzle pieces. More sounds of exclamation rang out when Kirkley revealed the bottom was not a solid cake, but individual teardrop-shaped cups for each judge.
“Holy shit,” the guy standing next to me said.
Country after country presented their very different-looking chartreuse creations, and soon thereafter came the veal platters. Whereas the chartreuses had been one-plate wonders, the racks of veal were presented on gigantic platters that took two people to lift and carry. I now understood something Keller had told me earlier—that Martin Kastner, the designer of the American team's platter, was 50% of the operation. The hardware was as important as what it held.
Most were super-futuristic silver and white behemoths, like how I anticipate we’ll be serving veal in 2050 when we all live in space. They were shiny, with a bunch of prongs reaching out in every which direction to hold elements of the dish. Anxiety welled within me as the the people tasked with carrying the platters manhandled them painstakingly across the stage. Do. Not. Drop. That. Veal.
No platters were harmed in the presenting of the veal, and before long, the first day of the competition was over. The judges were each given a round of applause as they were excused from their tables, and we filed out of the convention center.
Competition Day 2: The Results Are In
Before I went to Sirha one final time, I visited the American bunker. Coach Sulatycky let me in and showed me to the kitchen. Some team members appeared and disappeared like ghosts haunting the house. Kirkley was outside smoking a cigarette in the pale morning light. He came inside to talk over the previous day.
“It was kind of an out-of-body for a while, you know? Also fuckin' exhausting,” he told me of the experience. I asked if things went according to plan.
“We've done a couple of these before and we know that nothing is ever going to be perfect,” he said. “There's gonna be something and there were our fair share of surprises.”
Some of those surprises included changes on cooler space allowances at the last minute, or getting issued a larger rack of veal with low-quality bones. Kirkley had had to alter the platter so it could hold the unexpectedly sized veal. But the team’s timing was on target and they pulled off the task at hand gracefully, although not without pain.
“The way that Mimi and I had our run setup, we needed to be in fifth gear the entire fucking time. It was exhausting. Mentally exhausting, too,” Kirkley said. “Never mind I'm 6'5," so I'm just bent to fucking hell the entire day.”
The worst was behind them, and the pressure was off. Kirkley felt relieved, like it was his first day off in a long time.
“Whatever the fates decide is out of my hands at this point,” he said. “These guys are tired of hearing me say it, but you have to take this all with a smile. We can all get so worked up and get so stressed out, and tired emotionally and physically over something that has no actual consequence on reality. That this is pure fiction. This is the very far end of the spectrum of how frivolous food can become.”
Commis Chen entered the room stage right. She had a thousand-yard stare like she’d been through something, or maybe I was just projecting that on her after talking to Kirkley. After her year of training, she wasn't sure she if she wanted to be a chef anymore.
“I have never worked this hard in my life,” she said. “It was exhausting this whole year, but it was fun. I really learned a lot. It was a really great experience, but I just don't know if I can do it again.”
After the house it was back to Sirha, where the second day’s competitors were in the thick of their work. It was France, Finland, Singapore, China, Australia, Belgium, Japan, Tunisia, Thailand, Switzerland, and Sweden. South Korea and Thailand were the only countries with female head chefs. New fans packed the audience; most notably, a densely packed mob of Japanese supporters wearing hachimaki head scarves and banging drums. Swiss fans showed up with gargantuan Tyrolean cowbells that required both arm and leg strength to ring. France had big, billowy flags, matched only by Belgium’s big, billowy flags. Denmark was back with their Danish confetti. The place was electric.
Ment’or co-founder Daniel Boulud was mingling with the fans in America’s corner of the grandstands. When it comes to the Bocuse d’Or, Lyon born Boulud stands with the USA figuratively—and, at that moment, literally. I asked him what he thought of the American fan turnout.
“Oh it’s amazing. Just wait until the ambiance warms up, it’s going to be really crazy,” Boulud said. “We have amazing supporters because we have an amazing chef in Matt Kirkley. And Mimi Chen.”
That being said, Boulud didn’t think the US had any advantages. In fact, he said the US was at a disadvantage for having won last time.
“Every year, the level rises. Every year, every country wants a piece of the podium. No one comes here today just to participate. Everyone comes to win something. It’s tough. But we are confident, and we did amazing training. It will be an amazing competition.”
There was a break in programming while the stage was changed for the awards ceremony. Fans piled back into the arena for the grand finale. The room was filled with lauded chef talent, their fans, representatives from their respective countries. The prince of Sweden was in attendance. So was the mayor of Lyon.
Jérôme Bocuse, president of the Bocuse d’Or, Mathew Peters, the president of the jury, and Christophe Bacquié, honorary president, were the headliners of the ceremony. This was the first year the competition had taken place since Paul Bocuse had passed away, and the crowd quieted as a video played in his honor.
It was filled with montages of the bon vivant Bocuse spreading joy wherever he went. “A good sardine can be a wonderful dish,” he said to the camera. Suddenly, I was fully crying. The older man to my left was crying. The man on my right was crying. When the emotional video ended, the crowd stood for a minute’s applause to celebrate Bocuse and his legacy.
“This was the first edition without my father,” Jérôme told the crowd when the applause finished. “This was the best tribute we could have given to my father.”
The emcees thanked sponsors about a million more times, as well as the staff of the event. It made sense to me in that moment that we get the word pomp from the French. So many formalities and people to thank. At 6:30, the service staff finally came out, and then the teams, with their commis carrying his or her country’s flag out in front. The UK’s band played the chorus of “September.” American fans broke into a pretty solid USA chant. The announcer asked for a moment of silence, for it was time to present the awards.
There were a couple consolation prizes to give out in the beginning. Morocco won best poster slash promotional campaign. France got the Special Plated Dish prize. Finland earned best platter. The award for best commis felt more important. I couldn’t imagine who could beat Mimi Chen, though the judges disagreed with me, and gave the prize to Christian Wellendorf of Denmark, who accepted a 2-foot tall ceramic goose as his reward.
Then it was time for the rest of the awards. The announcers continued to make it awkward, stalling constantly as they invited different people to come up and help make announcements, or ushering them away because they didn’t need them anymore. The cheesy banter of the emcees had run out of charm and the audience just wanted to hear the results.
Finally, bronze went to Norway. The announcer who announced silver mumbled the name Sweden so oddly that I only realized they won silver when they grabbed the trophy.
And, lastly, gold.
Kofoed had done it again, that talented bastard. OK, Denmark’s chef Kenneth Toft-Hansen was actually the one to get it, but he had Kofoed in his corner. Golden confetti fell from the ceiling. The national anthem played. Danish fans shot more Denmark flag confetti from confetti cannons. I did not want to look at Team USA.
When the dust settled a little, I found Kirkley in the crowd. He looked exhausted.
“It wasn't the result I wanted but, hey. We got to respect the rules, and yeah, we were bested,” he told me. “There's a lot of great food out there. That's how it is.” I didn’t want to keep pouring salt into a fresh wound, so I thanked Kirkley and let him go. Keller was standing nearby.
“Sorry we didn't get it for you,” he said.
I asked him how he felt. He told me his heart mostly went out to Chen “who really struggled. She worked really, really hard” without even knowing if she wanted to stay in this industry. Keller was proud of the work that Kirkley and Sulatycky put in all year to get to the finals, even though they were all disappointed to come in ninth place.
“I’m really happy for Rasmus [Kofoed], he's been an incredible person—somebody's who really exemplified you know commitment to the Bocuse d'Or. He's the singular person that does that. And he drives his team and he does a really great job,” Keller said. “And you know the Swedish team was great. The Norwegians were great. They were all great. There were six or seven people that could have been there.”
On that note, I was finally ready to meet the mythical Kofoed. I waited for the media swarm to clear away from him and walked over to talk to the apparent living legend. Up close, he didn’t look like the evil adversary I painted him out to be. He looked like every other happy European guy basking in the glow of an Olympic victory. I asked him how he was feeling.
“I feel great. I’m so proud of Denmark and the teamwork,” he said.
“Thomas Keller tells me the that you have winning down to a formula. Can you tell me what’s in that formula?”
“That’s a secret,” Kofoed laughed. “I’ve been coaching a few years and I feel really proud to help my own country—and I know the time that it takes. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it the right way. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to hurt. And then always be positive, constructive. See what you can do better. Teamwork.”
He had the talking points down like a media trained athlete. He was patriotic and humble. He had all of the trimmings to make a story’s hero, not its villain. If someone had to keep dunking on everyone, Kofoed wasn’t the worst option.
In a few months, Keller and the Ment’or team would begin their quest to find the next head chef to represent the United States in 2021. It would be another long road to Lyon, to Rasmus, to the podium.