Competing for the Culinary Olympics

Cesar Gutierrez, Executive Sous Chef at Café Boulud in New York City, prepared by “practicing and doing dish development twice a week."
Cesar Gutierrez, Executive Sous Chef at Café Boulud in New York City, prepared by “practicing and doing dish development twice a week."

As the world’s top athletes head to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the culinary equivalent of cooking athletes participated in a competition last month to determine who would stagier with Team USA 2017 for the Bocuse d’Or competition. Six young chefs and their assistants, along with three Commis candidates, competed on June 8 at the Institute of Culinary Education (ice) in New York City. The winners earned the right to stagier alongside the esteemed Team USA, led by Chef Mathew Peters and his Commis Harrison Turone, and to attend the Bocuse d’Or finals in Lyon, France, in January. 

The competition at ICE was hosted by Chefs Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jérôme Bocuse—founders of ment’or BKB—and was judged by a panel of 12 preeminent chefs including Philip Tessier, who led Team USA 2015 to earn a silver award at the last Bocuse d’Or competition and who serves as the head coach for Team USA 2017. 

FSR asked each of the Young Chef Competitors how they prepared for the competition and what they learned from the training process. 

Marco Bahena, Chef de Tournant at The Everest in Chicago consulted with the experienced people he works with for ideas in flavor development and for another perspective on the aesthetics of the plate. “Something as simple as looking at a painter’s color palette has completely changed my dish,” he says, adding that he also returned to his alma mater, Kendall College, to use its kitchens for practice sessions on his days off. “Learning how to balance my time between work, practicing, and moving to a new city [were] challenges.”

Sam Daigle, Chef de Partie at Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis says his preparation was all about “practice, practice, practice.” He learned a lot about his creative process—and “about hydrocolloids,” which carries a somewhat ominous implication, although he also notes that training for the competition “raised the level and quantity of my techniques.” 

Cesar Gutierrez, Executive Sous Chef at Café Boulud in New York City prepared by “practicing and doing dish development twice a week,” and involving his commis, Esther Ha, “through every single step of the training sessions.” Although he says it’s “not easy to train while maintaining my responsibilities at Café Boulud,” he learned the importance of collaboration for dish development while also growing the confidence to remain true to his cooking instincts.

Sarah Hsieh, Chef de Partie—Meat Roast at The Modern in New York City practiced on her days off, testing dish ideas and performing trial runs. “Organization is key to every part of the process,” she says. “In addition, I’ve learned that planning a dish is very fluid and ideas change almost every day.” 

Vincenzo Loseto, Line Cook at The NoMad in New York City learned that “to be the best, you need to sacrifice a lot. My assistant, Daniel Garcia, and I practically lived at the restaurant.” Everyday they arrived early, around 8:30 a.m., and trained until the dinner shift started around 1:30. 

Aaron Salita, Poissonier, at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, California, practiced daily to perfect parts of the dish, “for instance, a garnish would be a part of the daily special at the restaurant or our meat special would be done exactly as we would for our competition protein.” He also worked daily on improving the timelines of preparation and details of the recipes. “Every week we did a full run of the menu, [timing] ourselves and writing notes on what we could improve on and what we missed as far as mise en place. … Most importantly, I learned how to become a better chef and how to utilize everything and work with the seasonality and locality of ingredients.” 

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