For the first time ever, an American team tasted victory at one of the world's most prestigious cooking championships. A team of professional chefs, led by Per Se executive sous chef Mathew Peters won gold at the Bocuse d’Or competion on Wednesday, Danica Lo reports for Food & Wine.
For gourmands, the two-day event is treated with an almost religious reverance, and fittingly, it was founded by the “Pope of French Cuisine,” Paul Bocuse. The French chef introduced the world to nouvelle cuisine in the 1960s and ’70s—the modern style of French cooking that pushes back against the Julia Child school of butter in favor of clean, fresh, articulated flavors.
The competition, held each year in Lyons, France, the epicenter of France’s gastronomic scene, gives chefs 5 hours and 35 minutes to put together two dishes: one fish, one meat. An international team of judges will then consider a host of factors including taste, innovation and complexity to decide the winning countries. In addition to bragging rights, first place takes home 20,000 euros in prize money, second place, 15,000 euros and third place, 10,000 euros.
The event itself is wild—done in front of a live studio audience, the crowd, draped in colors of their home nation, would fit in easily at any sporting event. Their cheers blend in with the music that throbs as the clock ticks down on the chefs. The cacophony of sounds mixes in with the regular bursts from fog horns and cowbells that have become de rigueur for audience members to carry, and present a unique curveball for competitors who must prepare and plate their finest dishes under these conditions.
While this is the USA’s first time atop the podium, the country’s top chefs came close to taking home the gold in the last competition, when the team placed silver, Greg Morabito at EATER reports. That was a breakthrough moment—the first time USA placed higher than 6th in a Bocuse d’Or.
Despite a lack of hardware, throughout the competition's history, there have been some thrilling moments for the USA. One of the most exciting, in fact, took place during the inaugural event.
Then, in 1987, a 27-year-old from Chicago captured the attention of the culinary world for her skill—and her gender—when she placed 7th overall for Team USA, The Chicago Tribune's Patricia Tennison reported at the time. The sous chef at Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Susan Weaver, even surprised herself, Tennison wrote, by making it into the finals, where the contestants were tasked with preparing two chickens with ingredients selected from the famous Lyon markets.
The day would go to France—Jacky Fréon, a chef at a Michelin Guide-rated 4-star hotel with a 1-star restaurant, took home the gold for his home country. “He won the competition hands down thanks to a concentration and determination that enable him to control his emotiveness,” the official Bocuse d’Or website writes. However, Weaver gave Fréon a run for his money. “For a while it looked as if an American woman had a chance to win,” Gutierrez, a native Frenchman, told Tennison.
During that first competition, Weaver was the sole woman in a field of 24 chefs. Now, 30 years later, the boy's club reputation at the Bocuse d'Or has remained—Luxembourg's Léa Linster is the only woman to have won the competition so far. (She took home victory in 1989 for her saddle of lamb wrapped in a potato pancake crisp.)
This year, the American team won gold by putting an American twist on a Lyonnaise classic. The dish, “Poulet de Bresse aux Écrevisses,” incorporated "morel mushroom sausage, braised wings, a wine glaze and sauce Américaine, a kind of lobster sauce," Florence Fabricant reports for The New York Times.
While the achievement puts team the United States in the history books, the competition itself has yet to make its way into the American mainstream. But for those who understand what this win means, the victory is sweet, indeed. As Tennison put it in '87, when she tried to explain the importance of Weaver's achievement: "[F]or an American—particularly a woman—to get this far in a trés French culinary competition is like a woman being the 7th round draft pick of the Chicago Bears."