The Elevation of American Cuisine

Chefs Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Philip Tessier, Paul Bocuse, Skylar Stover, Gavin Kaysen, and Jérôme Bocuse at the 2015 Bocuse d’Or competition.
Chefs Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Philip Tessier, Paul Bocuse, Skylar Stover, Gavin Kaysen, and Jérôme Bocuse at the 2015 Bocuse d’Or competition. Image Used with Permission

The Bocuse d’Or competition held biennially in Lyon, France, is considered the Olympics of culinary competitions. In 2015, Team USA placed among the top three for the first time, bringing home the coveted Silver Bocuse statue along with an elevated respect for American cuisine and American chefs. Chef Philip Tessier, formerly executive sous chef at The French Laundry, and his young commis, Skylar Stover, led Team USA to the unprecedented victory. Chef Tessier, who now serves as coach for Team USA in the 2017 Bocuse d’Or, says:

“The crazy part—for someone like me, who had been cooking nearly 20 years—was that you set aside your career for a year and a half to dedicate to this competition. When you do that, you prepare yourself in every way possible. But no matter what you do, half of what happens the day of the competition falls into the hands of a 22-year-old.

“It’s a pretty daunting task to take someone with a relatively small amount of experience and work with him so that he is highly motivated, will have the endurance and perseverance to get through it, and will come out of the training, not only with a fresh attitude towards it, but also with a sense of confidence, determination, and excitement.”

What was the biggest challenge?

To develop mental fortitude: You do not always see immediate results, and it becomes a mental game. At the competition, you are in a 3-by-6-meter box for six and a half hours, surrounded by famous chefs, video crews, photographers, and an [audience] of 2,500 people who are screaming like they’re at a sporting event. You have to arrive at that moment and focus on what you are doing.

Clearly, you and Skylar made that moment work.

There were moments when it seemed the wheels were coming off. But we were going to do whatever we could to make ourselves better for that day—and that included physical training.

We got into CrossFit, four or five days a week. In the beginning, I was pushing him through it, saying “Come on, we’re doing this at 6 o’clock every morning.” Eventually he saw what it did for him and the mental clarity that it brought.

Another thing: There was no alcohol; I didn’t drink for 22 months and Skylar had to follow suit. … This becomes a life-mentoring opportunity. We came out on the other side having been very successful, but looking back, there was also a big shift that had to take place on my end.

Can you tell us about that transition?

For a long time, I was saying: “Push harder. Do more. You’ve got to be better. You have to be faster, more diligent, inspired. You have to be teachable.” But there’s a point where I had to shift from pushing along to becoming that team. We had to gel as those two guys.

And now, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction, gratitude that we were successful, and excitement for the way [this experience] helped to shape Skylar, who is spending five months at El Celler de can Roca in Girona, Spain, and then going to Amass Restaurant in Copenhagen for two months. (El Celler de can Roca was ranked the best restaurant in the world on the 2015 list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.)

Read the full Q&A with Chef Phil Tessier.

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