It could have been any guy talking about moving with his wife and dog across the country. Except it wasn’t just any guy: This was Chef Mathew Peters, executive sous chef at Per Se, one of only six New York City restaurants to boast three Michelin stars. Now, Chef Peters has been tapped to lead Team USA at the 2017 Bocuse d’Or, the world’s preeminent culinary competition held biennially in Lyon, France. He and Commis Harrison Turone, who works with Peters at Per Se, won the competition hosted by the ment’or BKB Foundation in December—step one in the quest for gold in Lyon. Hence the trek cross-country to spend the coming year in Napa Valley, training at the Bocuse House (as the R&D kitchen adjacent to The French Laundry has come to be called.) In some respects, it’s a trip home for Chef Peters, who spent two years as a sous chef at The French Laundry before accepting Chef Keller’s offer to move to Per Se in 2012. When we talked, Chef Peters expected he and Turone would be making the move to Napa this month.
How does working in restaurants like Per Se and The French Laundry prepare you for the Bocuse d’Or?
In many ways: We develop our menu on a nightly basis, we change our material regularly, we have a group of highly skilled cooks and sous chefs running the restaurants, and we’re always innovating. That helps the creative process, especially when a competition [discloses] the secret ingredient very late in the game. You have to think quickly about what you will do with that product. Having come up through Thomas Keller’s program, we’ve been trained on how to be organized, how to be clean. The way the teams are taught, the language, the preparation, the technique, the finesse, and the attitude in the kitchen—it is all very similar between The French Laundry, Per Se, and all of the Bouchon restaurants.
Will your dishes in the competition foreshadow the future of fine dining?
The expectation is to drive the competition into a new direction. Many people mimic the winners of past competitions, and those winners have set the bar above and beyond creative. Phil [Tessier] did that really well with his platter [in the 2015 Bocuse d’Or] and he [showed] an extreme amount of creativity.
Who has been your mentor?
Chef Keller—he’s been a great mentor through my growth in his restaurants. It’s inspiring to see how he goes about his business and mentors individuals. You learn a lot by watching him work.
What about your opportunity to lead, teach, and mentor others?
Every step of the way you learn something about yourself and the restaurant, and being able to recognize all of those things is a key part. I constantly tell the cooks at Per Se that I’ve made a lot of mistakes leading up to where I am, but what is important is recognizing those mistakes and being able to make changes appropriately.
What mistake are you glad you made because of the learning experience?
I think it’s communicating. It’s a key part, and one of the things chefs gradually learn as they mature into a position. You have to develop a way to better communicate with each cook—some people are more hands-on and some have the ability to listen more. It’s important to understand each individual and learn how they work best with your teaching so you can help them.