Author Matt Berkman Illustration Graham Roumieu
Hundreds of avid supporters are packed into viewing galleries above the test kitchens at The Culinary Institute of America. As AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blares from the loudspeakers, 12 competing chefs toil below. The atmosphere is tense but jubilant, with sections of the crowd chanting the names of the competitors. Suddenly, Top Chef Season 3 winner Hung Huynh enters the gallery, and spectators swarm him with camera phones.
This isn’t Top Chef or The Iron Chef or any sort of TV show, but the qualifying round of the contest that inspired them both: the Bocuse d’Or World Culinary Competition, the Olympic Games of upscale cookery, which will take place next January in Lyon, France.
The judges are a panel of gastronomic luminaries including Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse (scion of the contest’s namesake), and they sit before an electrified throng of white-jacketed culinary students and laymen foodies, some of whom are pounding ladles against pots in displays of competitive exuberance.
Here’s how it works: The 12 finalists have five and a half hours to prepare a salmon and a lamb dish with accompanying garnishes. The judges scrutinize each chef for technique and temperament. In the end, James Kent of Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park wins the day with his bacon-wrapped lamb saddle with piquillo peppers and Provençal herbs. Although the onlookers don’t actually get to sample the dish, it’s a feast for the eyes.
“Taste, of course, is very important,” says Kent, wiping his hands on an apron afterward. “But the platters must be visually stunning to be able to compete and win in Lyon.”
One result of his victory is that he will train under Keller and Boulud. It’s a long road to France. “I know we have a hard slog ahead of us,” he says. “But with the right training regimen, and enough supporters, I’ll reach the podium in Lyon.”