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Q&A: More from Andrew Friedman on Bocuse d'Or

Are you intimidated yet? And this is just the announcement of the semifinalists for the US team, with James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro along with chefs Gavin Kaysen and Daniel Boulud, Tim Ryan, chefs Jerome Bocuse, Alain Sailhac and Laurent Tourondel and Joel Buchman. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

"Knives at Dawn," meet the editing knife! Here are some tasty leftovers from J. Freedom du Lac's Q&A today with Andrew Friedman, author of the new book about America's efforts to become more competitive at the Bocuse d'Or, the culinary equivalent of the World Cup. Friedman chronicled the 2009 competition, but the 2011 season has already started heating up. In February, the finalists for the American team (including Kevin Gillespie of Atlanta, who won the chance on an episode of "Top Chef: Las Vegas") compete for a spot in a public event at the Culinary Institute of America.

— Joe Yonan

Du Lac: There’s so much built-in narrative tension, which had to be appealing as a writer.

Friedman: To be honest, I didn’t really understand until I was in it what we were up against. Daniel (Boulud) and Thomas (Keller) and Jerome (Bocuse) just got into this thing in March of 2008. They didn’t have a team selected until the last week of September, and that team had 3 1/2 half months to get ready. And we’re going up against candidates from countries that have a real deep history of doing well at the Bocuse d’Or, and those countries pick their teams 18 months or sometimes two years out. Some of those people were already practicing full-time and taking time off from their jobs by the time our team was picked. It was a real mountain to climb for the U.S. team, so there was a lot of tension from the get-go; it was unavoidable.

Du Lac: What does the United States have to do to be competitive?

Friedman: A lot of the better restaurant chefs in this country certainly know who Paul Bocuse was and they may have heard of Bocuse d’Or, but they don’t focus on competition the way some chefs in other countries do. With people like Daniel and Thomas behind this event now, you may well see, in six or eight years, somebody who was 16 years old watching that “Top Chef” episode who decided, the way Geir Skeie did 15 years ago, "I want to win that when I grow up." That kind of motivation is hard to manufacture, and I think it’s essential to win. A lot of people who compete in this event, once they go through the struggle of figuring out what they’re going to cook in this event, and then figuring out how they’re going to get it done in 5 1/2 hours, they’ll practice that full routine 40 or 50 times. That takes a lot of passion.

Du Lac:And once they get to the competition, the hazards have just begun.

Friedman: It’s just like the Olympics; you train for years, but you can snap a tendon, you can land wrong coming off the parallel bars. You can practice to perfection, but you can scorch a piece of meat or you can put a little bit too much salt in your sauce.

Du Lac:Or a dishwasher can eat your garnish?

Friedman: (Laughs.) Yes, which happened to the U.S. competitor Gavin Kaysen at the Bocuse d’Or in 2007. That is life; you are at some point at the mercy of your staff.

Du Lac: It says a lot about what the competition is to think that Thomas Keller, a chef who holds three Michelin stars at two different restaurants, might have a chance to win but wouldn't be a lock.

Friedman: You just never know. You can’t say anybody’s a lock. I did a signing the other day, and somebody asked about the ideal candidate. I said ideally that person would be from France or Norway but had since become an American citizen. There’s a line in the book that France and Norway have done so well that the reality is, 22 other teams are competing for the bronze. You can’t discount that history. This year, Norway was first and France was third, but they were third only because they were one minute late. On the food scores, they were the silver medalist.

Du Lac: In addition to writing about the competition, you spend plenty of time on Keller and Boulud themselves. If you could collaborate with one of the two of them on a book in the future, which one would you choose?

Friedman: Are you trying to kill me? I’ll give you a cop-out answer. Thomas Keller has done all of his books with the same team, so I’d put my eggs in the Daniel basket on that one.

Du Lac: Whose food is better?

Friedman: Oh, I don’t know. They’re so different. I can’t. Honestly, I don’t know how to pick between the two. Two or three of the best meals I’ve ever had have been in their restaurants. Do you have to give a gold and silver in your personal life? I can’t. It’s like when you ask the waiter: Should I have the halibut or the steak? They’re such different experiences to me.

Du Lac: I think the event organizers are missing a tremendous opportunity to sell plated samples of the food to the audience, which has to be starving by the time the food is being paraded before the judges.

Friedman: What’s interesting is that no journalist gets to taste the food, either. I developed the opinion that they should have members of the media taste and execute food notes, maybe English, French and maybe Spanish: three or four respected, fairly elder-statesmen writers like Alan Richman in the States. Somebody unimpeachable who could be objective. The only people who taste the food now are judges, and then it’s gone, literally forever. And you never get a record of what it tasted like. It would be interesting to have a couple of representative tasters, almost the way pool reporters function at the White House.

By Joe Yonan  |  December 30, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Books , Chefs  | Tags: Joe Yonan, chefs  
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