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One of the things that came up while I was chatting with Daniel Boulud and Paul Bartolotta about their upcoming event in Milwaukee on October 22 was the subject of the Bocuse d'Or, the international culinary competition that is also the theme of the current menu at Next (as chronicled recently here and here). Not least because a portion of the dinner's proceeds will go to the U.S. Bocuse d'Or team.
Boulud is chairman of the U.S. team, while Bartolotta serves on its board of culinary advisers, and both come by their interest sincerely—they both worked for Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, in the 1980s. Some in the food world question whether the Bocuse d'Or and a culinary world that revolves around France really ought to matter to international chefs today, but they still take it for granted that classic French technique, as modernized by Bocuse and other nouvelle cuisine chefs since the 1970s, is the heart of modern refined cooking and a worthy aspiration for chefs anywhere.
The Bocuse d'Or draws American chef star power (including Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, and not least, Jerome Bocuse, son of Paul and head chef of Disney World's Les Chefs de Paris) to its advisers. But what it hasn't done, so far, is demonstrate that America can top other countries at the game of preparing a French-inspired classical meal; we've never placed higher than sixth. I asked both Boulud and Bartolotta what America needed to do to place higher in future competitions.
Paul Bartolotta: This past year we lost a demerit point because of a technicality. But our team continues to get better and better. Listen, it's only been our third competition that we've been involved in. I don't care what anybody says, we talk about it in our meetings—people want to talk about France, or the Scandinavian countries, and these are people that spend their entire four years, two years between each competition, purely focusing on winning that dish and that item. And there's a certain level of perfectionism that goes into that, and that can be appreciated.
Daniel Boulud: I think we're going to have keep persisting. But I hope that next time around we will be doing greater and better. I think it takes time, and it takes maybe less restraint than we were trying to put on to put up a competition like this. I think we did an amazing job last time. We were penalized for some mistakes which were maybe not relevant to the dish.
Why do American chefs think this is something we should care about winning?
Bartolotta: [Paul] Bocuse called up Daniel, and Keller, and said, would you get with my son Jerome and you guys put together a team? He said, how can America not be well represented? He said, in my lifetime I would like to see America win.
And this is Paul Bocuse, who has no voting rights, he's not involved in any way, but who's a person who, years ago, identified the importance of America and American food with the money that he made down at EPCOT at Disney, at the restaurant that Jerome runs for him now. But more so, this is a man who sold books in America, who toured America, who had a huge amount of his customer base come from America. And he said, I watched the evolution of food in America. And yeah, once upon a time it was old-school French haute cuisine, making coquilles Saint-Jacques. But that has changed. And quite honestly, the upscale casualization of food was born in the U.S.
Think about it. Twenty years ago, we barely had farmers' markets. Today we're a country that is setting a trend almost globally. Because we are that melting pot, because we have the street forms, because we have that modern economy, because we have social media—we have so many things about American lifestyles that get exported elsewhere. If anything, we've seen that consumers have moved toward high quality, but they don't always want the trappings of the uberluxury fine dining experience. And as a result, I think the Bocuse d'Or appreciates the speed at which the United States has moved forward, culturally, in food and wine.
Will we ever win?
Boulud: We keep hoping . . . but that's very exciting what Grant [Achatz] is doing in the Bocuse d'Or [menu at Next]. I think that was very well received. That shows how much Grant is engaged in evolving and continuing this journey.