An American Underdog Dreams of Kitchen Gold

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Team USA contestants Chef Timothy Hollingsworth (second from right) and Commis Adina Guest (second from left) pose with the Bocuse d'Or USA Executive Board, Chefs Thomas Keller (far left), Daniel Boulud (far right) and Jerome Bocuse.

With twenty days to go before the most important competition of his young life, Timothy Hollingsworth still didn't have the fish plate right. He had just spent the previous five hours calmly but urgently preparing the two dishes he would present in Lyon, France at the world's most prestigious chefs' contest. The beef plate came out beautifully. But his coach, Roland Henin, poked a little despondently at Hollingsworth's cod. "You need more on the plate," he said. "There's a segment of judges who are going to feel cheated. They'll look over at the meat judges and think, 'How come they got so much more?'"

The culinary Olympics known as the Bocuse d'Or are decided, entirely, by the judges' tastes. Founded 21 years ago by one of France's most respected chefs, Paul Bocuse, the bi-annual contest combines Iron Chef-style showmanship with the rigors of classical cooking. For the young chefs who will compete in this year's contest, which runs January 27-28, the Bocuse offers unmatched prestige, a 20,000 euro prize, and — with luck — the opportunity to open their own restaurant sooner than they otherwise might. To win, they must demonstrate their own creativity and talent while hewing to a style of cooking that can perhaps best be described as rigid. Or French. And for the contestants from countries such as the United States that aren't necessarily accustomed to that style of cooking, that presents a challenge. (See pictures of a movable feast.)

"If you're playing soccer, you can't use your hands," says Antonio Saura, a Spanish filmmaker who featured the 2007 Bocuse in his documentary, El Pollo, el Pez, y el Cangrejo Real. "The Bocuse is the same way: you have to play by their rules."

Those rules stipulate that each country put up only one team, consisting of a chef and his or her assistant, or commis. The Bocuse organization assigns the main proteins that all teams must use (this year they include Norwegian cod, scallops, shrimp, and several different cuts of Angus beef), but contestants are otherwise expected to design their own recipes and presentations. Each of the 24 teams — including 13 from Europe, 4 from Asia, and 3 from Latin America — has five and a half hours on competition day to prepare two platters, which will be judged by a jury comprising one chef from each participating country. That might sound like plenty of time, but the contestants are expected to complement those main proteins with elaborate garnishes, and to keep things clean and remain unflustered while they cook on stage, surrounded by thousands of screaming, flag-waving fans. (See the top 10 food trends of 2008.)

In fact, the fans often provide more fireworks than the food. Avant-garde techniques and flavors that are too closely regional (like Mexican mole or American barbeque) tend to be frowned upon by much of the classically trained jury. "You have to stay in the comfort zone of the judges," says French-born Henin. "They can't be tasting or looking at something they don't know, because you'll lose them."

That 'comfort zone' may have something to do with why the French, who have won gold or silver in all of the last five competitions, have been so successful in the Bocuse. But the Scandinavians — Norway won first place in the semi-finals held in July 2008 — are expected to pose fierce competition. "Those countries dedicate tremendous resources to the contest, pouring in millions of dollars so that the candidates can take time off to train for a year," says Thomas Keller, chef of both The French Laundry and New York's Per Se, as well as president of the 2009 Bocuse USA team. (See pictures of what makes you eat more food.)

Some, however, see something more pernicious than training at work. At a practice session in mid-January, Spanish candidate Angel Palacios put the finishing touches on a tray of whole, hollowed egg-shells filled with spherified scallop carol made to look like yolks and gelatinized algae broth that had the slippery, translucent appearance of albumen. It was a bold choice for someone who made it into the finals only when higher ranked Belgium dropped out. "In the semi-finals, two of the judges didn't even taste my dishes," he said. "I don't know why. Maybe they're jealous that Spain has displaced them. Maybe it bothers them that the best restaurant in the world is in Spain," he said, referring to Ferran Adria's El Bulli.

If the Spanish team provides the element of frisson that every go-for-the-gold story needs, the U.S. team hopes to bring the Cinderella element. The Americans have never placed higher than sixth, and the 2007 contestant, Gavin Kaysen, had a singularly unlucky experience when a dishwasher unwittingly ate one of his garnishes. But Hollingsworth, the 29-year-old sous chef at Keller's French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California, thinks he can turn that unhappy history around. "I'm motivated by the sense that the U.S. is always the underdog," he says. "A lot of Europeans still think that American cuisine is hamburgers and hotdogs. That just makes me want to strive harder." (See 9 kid foods to avoid.)

Hollingsworth will have the benefit of more support than any American candidate in the Bocuse's history. With the help of New York-based chef Daniel Boulud (who is also honorary president of this year's competition) and an advisory board that includes some of the brightest lights in American cooking, Keller has raised over $500,000 for the American team. He also transformed a his father's old house, located next door to The French Laundry, into a training center for the team. Hollingsworth has been preparing there since he won the U.S. semi-finals in early September 2008.

It was at the team's third trial run, on January 8, that Hollingsworth and his commis, Adina Guest, ran into the fish problem. They had begun cooking just after 1 p.m., with Guest peeling the potatoes, and Hollingsworth butchering the cod and beef. For the next five hours, the two engaged in a graceful ballet, barely speaking to each other, but anticipating each other's needs as they chopped carrots and shaved truffles.

It was only when the final dishes were laid out that their coach noticed their cod looked a little lonely on the plate. In a burst of inspiration, Henin reached for an ingredient he had picked up on a whim that morning [and which, as a team secret, cannot be revealed before the contest]. Carving it with his fingers, he set it carefully beside the sliced cod. Then, the three cooks stood silently and stared at the plate for a while. "I'll think about it," said Hollingsworth finally.

Will Angel Palacios appall the judges with his spherified scallop 'egg,'? Will Timothy Hollingsworth fill out his fish plate and redeem America's reputation? Or will one of the unlikely teams — Uruguay, say, or first-timer Malaysia — pull off an upset victory? For those looking for suspense, the Bocuse offers plenty. But at least one former contest, 2005 winner Serge Vieira, says he found the competition oddly soothing. "I was just glad I didn't have to practice anymore."

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