What It’s Like to Be a Commis at the Bocuse d’Or
Mimi Chen served as the commis for Team USA at this year’s Bocuse d’Or. The commis must be under the age of 21 at the time of competition, and must win the Ment’or Young Chef and Commis competition to qualify. Chen trained with Team USA Head Chef Matt Kirkley for more than a year to prepare for the competition in Lyon, held late January. She reflects on what she learned from taking on the challenge of a lifetime and why she’d do it a million times over.
I knew from the start that being a commis for the Bocuse d’Or would be a challenge unlike any other. I knew participating in a competition this prestigious would take both physical and mental effort, and being younger than everybody else, I wanted to uphold expectations. I felt inspired to push myself, and knowing I did was worth it in the end.
Being a commis requires an incredible amount of dedication and passion—you must REALLY want it. You’re away from family for more than a year, so it’s critical to be committed. Remembering to be strong, both physically and emotionally, is also important. You have to remember to eat and find time to rest.
I learned and perfected a number of essential culinary skills while training: Staying organized by making lists and packing everything in advance, working efficiently, working with tweezers for difficult handiwork, traveling with food and equipment and continuing to improve on something after doing it over and over again. I also learned from my mistakes; being only 21, I’ve only had so much time in the kitchen, so the intense hours helped prepare me. I also had to learn to work with Chef Kirkley. I admire him so much, but all chefs work differently, and finding our rhythm was key. Everyone felt the pressure, especially me. It was important that we put up perfect food and defend our gold title.
I was not a confident cook when I went to work with Chef Kirkley. Long before I realized things about myself as a cook, he saw my ability to be molded and trained.
Chef Kirkley told me once that he likes working with introverts like myself because his food can be tedious and require focus. He recognized if he taught me something, I’d be able to put my head down and work on it over and over until it was right. Among the most important things I learned from him during this competition was consistency, focus, and execution. He sometimes called me a robot, explaining that he appreciated he could "input the information into the system" and expect consistent output. It was a great compliment.
Anyone will say it was the gold trophy we wanted and it’s true, I wanted it more than anything. I craved this challenge. I had already had a few competitions under my belt and I wanted to show my professors what else I was capable of. I wanted to prove to my parents, who were not too keen on me cooking for a living, that I could push myself this hard and this far and accomplish this much.
In the end, we didn’t bring home the gold. But as I settle back into my routine and reflect on my experience, I realize I accomplished what I set out to do. I proved I had the stamina and drive to push myself more than I could’ve ever imagined. Not every 21-year-old has the chance to be inspired and motivated firsthand by chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud.
Ultimately, I learned that I can do what I put my mind to. I learned that I need to believe in myself as much as others believe in me. Most of all, I’m glad to have met everybody I did on this adventure, and I would do it again a million times over.
Mimi Chen served as the commis of Team USA at the 2019 Bocuse d’Or.