Chefs Philip Tessier, right, and Eli Kaimeh work in the kitchen during a fund-raiser Saturday at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio.
MILAN, Ohio — Representatives from one of the world’s premier competitive teams visited here Saturday, raising money to train for an event to be held next January. Talent, precision, skill, focus, cooperative spirit ... the U.S. team members and their supporters brought it all.
PHOTO GALLERY: Bocuse d'Or fundraiser
And what competition are they headed to? The Bocuse d’Or [boh-KOOS dohr], named in honor of French chef Paul Bocuse and held every two years in Lyon, France. It is one of the most prestigious cooking competitions in the world, often dubbed “The Culinary Olympics.” Team USA chef Philip Tessier and his commis chef Skylar Stover, both of the legendary French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., will represent the United States next winter against 23 other teams striving to bring home the gold.
This past weekend, hef Tessier and Team USA’s head coach Gavin Kaysen, executive chef at Cafe Boulud in New York were at the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI) in Milan, along with an all-star array of nationally renowned chefs, to prepare an eight-course dinner for a team fund-raiser. Chefs of this caliber were recognizing our state — and, especially, this venue — as noteworthy destinations. The depth of talent working in the kitchen on Saturday was so remarkable that chef John Selick of Cleveland, who assisted at the event, pronounced that the Institute was “the center of the culinary universe” that day.
Team USA Head Coach Gavin Kaysen cuts green onions during The USA's Bocuse d'Or culinary team fundraiser.
The additional chefs, each headlining preparation of one the dinner’s eight courses - from an Iberico Ham and Garlic Consomme to Sauterne Poached Foie Gras with a Pistachio Genoise to Guinea Hen with Tempura Turnip - were Eli Kaimeh of Per Se in New York City, Curtis Duffy of Grace Restaurant in Chicago, Michael Rotondo of Parallel 37 in San Francisco, former Bocuse d’Or USA candidate Jennifer Petrusky, Thomas Raquel of Acadia in Chicago, Jonathon Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, and Jamie Simpson of The Culinary Vegetable Institute. Wine pairings were selected by Master Sommelier Joseph Spellman. The vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers were all grown and harvested at the CVI, which is owned and operated by Farmer Lee Jones whose family has been farming at the site for more than 20 years.
The CVI, according to its website, was envisioned and realized as “an institute surrounded by a working farm where the chef and farmer could come together outside the restaurant setting ... which would foster a closer relationship with the farmer and provide inspiration.” Chef Tessier said, “What they do here - you can see the heart, the drive for quality.” The cooks and restaurants often drive production, he said, seeking ingredients to realize an idea, while the farm’s products inspire the chefs and their dishes. “We learn from each other,” Chef Tessier noted, as he praised the CVI’s vegetables and herbs, pointing out that they are consistently comparable in quality, variety, and beauty to what the French Laundry famously grows on its own grounds.
All proceeds from this past weekend’s fundraising dinner and silent auction will go toward the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation’s mission “to raise funds for Team USA’s training, inspire young professionals and preserve the traditions and quality of classic cuisine in America.” Chef Tessier is a perfect emissary to represent the United States in this regard, as he says, “My goal is to elevate cuisine in this country.” He began cooking at home, to help his mother by preparing dinner for the family, before going to work in a hotel restaurant at age 16 and choosing to pursue culinary school. He believes strongly that “You can eat better by cooking” for yourself, using wholesome ingredients rather than relying upon processed or pre-packaged foods.
The Bocuse d’Or requires teams to prepare meat and fish platters within a 5-1/2 hour time frame in a kitchen observed by raucous, enthusiastic crowds. (Cowbells are ubiquitous, and the Mexican team was once cheered on with a mariachi band.) But the organization will not inform contestants of which proteins to feature until September and December, respectively, rather than a year early as they’ve done in past competitions. Chef Tessier says that, of course, he’d rather know what his central ingredients will be earlier rather than later; however, this new rule enables him and the rest of Team USA to brainstorm a variety of ideas while also being inspired by spontaneity as they build their dishes, garnishes, and presentation. Chef Tessier believes that his training - working his way up through various stations in kitchens and training in France - will serve him particularly well in this circumstance, and that it’s a “recognition that we need patience in our industry.”
“It’s a disservice not to learn from the ground up,” he asserts, claiming that too many people want to rush in to high-level positions without adequate background and preparation. Chef Selick said that many people complain about spending hours peeling potatoes, for example, But spending such quantities of time enables a cook to become more familiar with the ingredient’s shape, consistency, texture, fragrance, and other qualities, which can only enhance cooking. “Technique and foundational skills,” according to Chef Tessier, are what chefs should strive for, and what will be showcased at the Bocuse d’Or.
There are high hopes for Chefs Tessier and Stover to bring home a prize in January - thanks to fundraising efforts such as the CVI dinner, enabling intensive research, preparation, and training - although the United States has yet to finish higher than 6th place in the Bocuse d’Or. There was a Scandinavian sweep in 2011 - Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, respectively - and France won in 2013 for a record 7th time. But, as Chef Tessier said, “It gets boring when the same people win all the time.”
Perhaps it will be Team USA’s turn in 2015?