Go Inside the Mind of a Bocuse Competitor
In January 2017, the American team at the Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon, France, made history when head chef Matt Peters and commis Harrison Turone took the coveted gold for the first time in history. Plate was there for the grueling five-hour competition—a culmination of more than two years of intense training and rule-restricted recipe development. This year, Team USA head chef Matthew Kirkley and commis Mimi Chen will endure what’s been called the Olympics of the culinary world to try and bring home another gold statue. As a follow-up to our award-winning long-form feature on the Bocuse d'Or, we are proud to host this blog series, "Behind Team USA at the Bocuse d’Or,” which will explore before-and-after insights pre- and post-competition. We’ll capture the personal, behind-the-scenes perspectives of past and present chefs, captains, coaches, program directors, and others as the team prepares to head back to Lyon in January.
The Bocuse d’Or took place January 29-30, and Team USA took 9th place. They still made a strong showing with their stunning vegetable and shellfish chartreuse and veal platter, and had stands of supporters cheering them on throughout the day. But before all that, in the wee hours of the morning, there was packing, prepping, cleaning, checking, double-checking, and official judge reviews to endure. Chef Kirkley takes us back to competition morning as he and Chen prepare for their official start time…
4am: The day is finally here. It’s taken Mimi and I over a year and countless hours to arrive at this point. All that time, energy and effort were to culminate now, here in Lyon.
Though it’s an early start for us, the rest of our team started at 11pm the night before. We need to get all of our meticulously prepared gear and product to the competition space, ensuring it be carefully assembled on a truck in the middle of the night so we can make our 5:45am scheduled load-in. We had learned a lot following the Americas Selection competition in Mexico City, and not taking this part of the competition lightly was one of them. We are prepared this time.
We meet up with the crew at 5am. Mimi hops into the truck with Alice Kim, one of the team assistants, to check in on her trays and mise en place. So far so good. I check in with Jordan, who is head of the night operation. He seems reasonably at ease, at least as at ease as one could be on such a day. He must have at least a half-gallon of black coffee in him by now. A couple of other teams had had the same idea we did. Flood lights lit the parking lot. Lots of poker faces.
5:45am: The doors open to the staging area. We file into our staging box, #3. Easy on the gear! We try to move efficiently, yet slowly simultaneously; any slip here could be costly.
6:20am: We are able to enter our kitchen. The team moves swiftly to the first part of our install. Electrical first. We’ve been sweating this one. Will the 10K of wattage be dispersed the way we thought? We can’t have anything going down during the run. Paris Dreibelbis, another team assistant, installed the front electrical system, while Jordan and Mimi start scrubbing down the station. We want to make sure we start from very clean, not leaving it to chance. Rugs go down. Next, heavy equipment. Speed racks, Robot Coupe, meat slicer, cryovac. I start to look around for our product and for our extra commis, a third team member in the box whom we will only meet for the first time that day. I hope we get a reliable one. The Organizing Committee said he and the product would have arrived by now.
Mimi starts racking product into her coolers. I begin to run down my safety checklist on my station with Jordan. Everything is on a list, every last detail. I can’t rely on my memory when there’s this kind of pressure, something will be missed. We flip through our binders. Meat grinder attachment is properly assembled? Check. 3D printed molds for chartreuse are properly sprayed? Check. One by one. We are looking good on time. 30 minutes left in the load-in hour.
Viola comes over. He’s in charge of the checkouts for the boxes. Making sure no one is breaking the rules. We are prepared for heavy scrutiny. Two judges enter and tell us to clear out of the box to review our ingredients and equipment. They look through my station fairly quickly and move on to Mimi’s station. More time was spent reviewing her station, but alas, we are finally allowed back into the kitchen.
We lose more time than we anticipated during the checkout. Chef Robert Sulatycky calls out from the pass that we’ve got 45 minutes left until we start. How’d we get into the prep hour already? Where’s our product? Mimi finds our commis, first impressions are that he will be strong. And his English is pretty good. Another thing we’ve been sweating for months. Awesome. They finally give me the product. I hand off the produce to Mimi, and start looking at the veal products they’ve issued us. The rack is huge, and completely different than what we’ve been practicing with. Bones are flimsy and a couple are deformed. Nothing to be done about it at that point. I need to make it work. I worried about getting such a big rack to fit on the stand. We’ve only practiced with the stand once.
“15 minutes to cooking,” states Chef Robert from the pass. Really? I’m just finishing scrubbing the shellfish. Mimi looks surprised too. We have to move. Mimi is missing turnips from her kit. They said it would have been in our veg basket. They said it would have been there. Chef Robert starts asking the Organizing Committee for it. We need that badly. I start setting up my table, we’re getting close now. Are the dehydrators running at the right temp? Are the circulators set right? I check for the 5th time. We can’t screw that up. Mimi places her pots on the induction burner units. She is close too, but not there yet. We had only used these burners a few times and hoped our recalibrations were right. Five minutes. Where are the turnips? The judges start to reappear. I can feel my hands start to shake, the adrenaline is starting to pump. Too much energy. I don’t want to start off too amped up. Two minutes. Mimi makes it to setup. What is the commis’ name again? One minute. Still no turnips! I give Mimi a wink. We made setup. The rest should be as practiced.
8:20am: We’re ready. Here we go….