Maybe you caught the "Top Chef" episode, where contestants competed in a Bocuse d'Or-inspired challenge. Or perhaps you've read about Andrew Friedman's just-released book "Knives at Dawn," which tells the tale of the most recent American team -- from the rigorous training to the big competition, which involves preparing two ridiculously complex dishes served on enormous mirrored platters.
The contest, often described as the Olympics of the culinary world, began in 1987 in Lyon, France, under the leadership of Chef Paul Bocuse, who Tim Ryan of the Culinary Institute of America described as "Elvis Presley and the Beatles rolled into one" at Monday's semifinals announcement. Despite America's recent thirst for cook-offs and throw-downs, the high-end culinary competition has been slow to gain recognition in the United States. But last year, heavy-hitters Daniel Boulud, also from Lyon, and Thomas Keller got behind the American effort to change all that.
And they're not the only ones who believe Team USA has a shot this year. Paul Bocuse's well-tanned son Jerome was in attendance for the semifinal announcement at Restaurant Daniel in New York and confidently stated, "with the proper support and structure, someone in this country can get to the podium." A feat that Timothy Hollingsworth of the French Laundry fell shy of in October 2009 by placing sixth.
Gavin Kaysen, who represented the USA in 2007 and now heads up the kitchen at Café Boulud, had even less time and fewer resources than the most recent team and compared that year's American effort, which lacked significant financing and extensive training, to the "Jamaican Bobsled Team."
In 2011, everything will be different. Daniel Boulud says this year's early announcement puts America "ahead of the game."
The twelve semifinalists are all young talents, who don't have the bold-faced names their mentors do (except Kevin's from "Top Chef" fame); but with recommendations from their bosses Charlie Trotter, Barbara Lynch, Daniel Humm, Marcus Samuelsson and other luminaries of the culinary world -- you know they're bound for greatness even if they don't make it to the Bocuse d'Or.
Slashfood announced them Monday, but here they are again:
- Luke Bergman, the Modern, New York
- Danny Cerqueda, Carolina Country Club, Raleigh, N.C.
- Michael Clauss, Daily Planet , Burlington, Vt.
- Kevin Gillespie, Woodfire Grill, Atlanta
- James Kent, Eleven Madison Park, New York
- Mark Liberman, Roxy's Black Sheep, West Palm Beach, Fla.
- Christopher Parsons, Catch, Winchester, Mass.
- Jennifer Petrusky, Charlie Trotter's, Chicago
- John Rellah, New York Yacht Club, New York
- Jeremie Tomczak, French Culinary Institute, New York
- Andrew Weiss, the Chef's Workshop, Las Vegas
- Percy Whatley, the Ahwahnee, Yosemite, Calif.
On Feb. 6 at the CIA in Hyde Park, N.Y., they'll compete to determine who will go to Lyon, France, in 2011. The Bocuse d'Or team has opened the event to the public in hopes that a crowd shows up and screams like NFL fans to prepare the contestants for the raucous noise at the big event in Lyon. At the most recent Bocuse d'Or, Hollingsworth mistook the crowds cheers as "No way! No way!", when actually they were chanting "Olé! Olé!"
As for what we should expect to see prepared at the semifinals, the menu is set with salmon and lamb, the same proteins as the big competition in 2011. But as for they prepare it, Boulud says, "They can cook as simple as they like but it might not fly so well in the competition."
On Feb. 6, we'll all find out, who's worthy to represent all of American cuisine, which is quite a precise task. As Gavin Kaysen so bluntly put it, "you can win or lose in just eight bites."