US chef trains like an athlete for French culinary 'gold'
US athletes have taken home plenty of gold at international sporting events. Now James Kent, sous chef at New York's swank Eleven Madison Park restaurant, wants to bring home the gastro-gold: a coveted Golden Bocuse.
The statuette may not be as widely recognized as Hollywood's Oscar. But for chefs around the world, being able to compete in France's Bocuse D'Or event is like making it to the Olympics -- and requires intensive Olympic-style training.
Kent, who will represent the United States in the competition, is one of 24 world finalists who will gather in the southeastern French city of Lyon in January 2011 for a two-day faceoff.
The New York-born Kent began his career at 15, when he spent a summer as an apprentice at Bouley, an upscale French restaurant in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan.
He later took classes at the Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris, studied culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University, and "spent time in the kitchens of Babbo, Jean-Georges, and Gordon Ramsey" before arriving at Eleven Madison Park in 2007, according to his biography on the restaurant website.
Kent recently spent 10 days of intensive "boot camp" training in Yountville, in northern California's Napa Valley, under the strict supervision of Thomas Keller, chef of The French Laundry, a three-star Michelin guide resturant.
In Manhattan, Kent works so hard he hardly has time to breathe: he spends three days at his at Eleven Madison job, then spends the next three training with chef David Bouley at Bouley Restaurant, where he worked as a teen.
Bouley offered his kitchen, fully equipped with professional ovens and a complete array of copper pots and pans, to Kent and his 22 year-old assistant, Thomas Allan, to train for the competition.
All Bocuse D'Or participants will be judged by their work based on the same list of ingredients: two monk fish weighing two to five kilos each, including the fish head; four crabs weighing one kilo each, and 20 shrimp.
As for meat, they will get two sets of lamb saddles weighing two kilos each, along with four kidneys, a lamb shoulder, one kilo of lamb sweetbread, and a kilo of lamb tongue.
"Here in America, people still don't understand the importance of this competition, which is like the Super Bowl or the World Cup final," said Jerome Bocuse, son of the late great chef Paul Bocuse who set up the competition.
His son is now head of the Golden Bocuse Foundation along with restauranteurs Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud.
"Candidates are rated on a 60-point scale -- 40 for the taste and 20 for presentation and originality," said contest director Florent Suplisson.
Participants will have five hours and 25 minutes to prepare their dishes. Twelve referees will test only the meat, and two others the fish and crustaceans.
Until now European chefs have dominated the event, which has been held every two years since 1987.
The top award, a golden statuette of a chef with an apron and a toque hat standing on a globe, has been won six times by French chefs and four times by Norwegian chefs, and once by a Swede and once by a female chef from Luxembourg. Outside of Europe, a chef from Singapore won a bronze award in 1989.
On January 25 and 26 the two Americans will attempt to convince the jury at Lyon, made up of chefs of 24 countries, that they deserve the top award.
Europeans are favored at the event, Kent told AFP. "We don't know the ingredients. We get everything shipped in. Monkfish is very specific to cook. And I had to learn to like kidneys."
Until now, the best US chefs have done is reached a sixth spot -- which 30 year-old Timothy Hollingsworth of The French Laundry did in 2009.
The contest not only brings enormous prestige, but a nice check: 20,000 euros (about 27,600 dollars) for the winner, 15,000 euros (20,700 dollars) for second place and 10,000 (13,800 dollars) for third place.
© 2010 AFP