The first time Tracy O'Grady saw the Bocuse d'Or, the international cook-off held in Lyon, France, every other year, she was surprised by the rowdy atmosphere and impressed by the level of competition. And no wonder. The 22 chefs chosen to show their stuff at the contest are among the world's very best. The next time O'Grady went to Lyon, earlier this year, she was one of the contestantsthe only American, and the only woman. By then, she had practiced her menu to near perfection in the kitchen at Kinkead's, the highly regarded restaurant in Washington, D.C., where she works.
Writer Rudolph Chelminski, a frequent contributor to Smithsonian who lives outside Paris, talked to O'Grady before the contest began and stood by throughout her intense daylong stint in a tiny "kitchen" at the vast Eurexpo Center, where the Bocuse d'Or is held. He heard American supporters chant in the stands ("Tracy! Tracy!") and watched as a panel of judges in their immaculate toques ogled, smelled, tasted and graded the exquisitely served haute cuisine O'Grady and the other chefs had so meticulously prepared. When the results were announced at the end of the day, la petite Américaine failed to win a medal but, she told Chelminski, she was grateful for a chance to compete. "This has made me a better cook, I know that. And you know what? I've never won a cooking contest, but people always remember me."