French chefs coax young east European cooks to their best

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French chefs coaching east European newcomers at the elite Bocuse d'Or contest on Tuesday cast a critical eye over their proteges as pans were shuffled, vegetables chopped and sauces whisked before a cheering crowd.

Jean-Luc Rocha, chef at the Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, in the heart of Bordeaux wine country at Pauillac, said the Slovakians he was advising in Geneva "really come from another planet to the others."

"Everything they have revolves around potatoes and gnocchi. You can't really speak of a gastronomic culture," he added as the two-day European leg of the contest for upcoming young talent was in full swing in a giant exhibition hall.

Their participation was like laying a foundation stone, he remarked, rather than a quest for "a culinary performance."

Slovakia, like Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and Malta, were taking part in the international cooking competition for the first time.

Paul Bocuse, the renowned chef and founder of the competition in 1987, wandered between the open kitchens, casting an eye over their work as the recipes took shape.

"It's more and more difficult. The level has become fabulous and the more it goes on, the higher it goes," marvelled the 84-year-old patriarch of French "nouvelle cuisine".

Each team of a chef and an assistant has to produce two dishes -- Norwegian halibut and Swiss veal -- in five hours and 35 minutes.

By the end of the morning the Danish cook was squeezing lemons, while his British neighbour mixed cooked garlic into milk with chopped bacon.

Next door, a beetroot was being diced in the Dutch kitchen and the Belgian was keeping a careful eye on the cooker.

Malta was separating egg white from the yolk, Poland rolled up horseradish leaves and France carefully laid thin slices of bacon in a mould.

Meanwhile, English supporters in the grandstand overlooking the kitchen area had donned Union Jack waistcoats.

Each team's supporters cheered when the seemingly endless list of concoctions displayed on a giant screen was read out over the public address system.

"The Hungarian team's fish is a halibut roll with a paprika veloute, accompanied by fish crisps with butternut pumpkin, a micro-salad and its cucumber jelly with pumpkin seed vinaigrette and a variation on 'vitelotte' violet potatoes," the announcer said.

Little escaped the eye of Pierre Mathon, a 62-year-old retired French chef, as he kept watch over the Estonian team. The back of his jacket signalled his role: "coach".

"They don't have much in the way of produce there, except excellent meat and a few vegetables. Their cooks are good technicians, they often trained abroad," Mathon explained.

"But they have a tendency to bow to the product, they don't know how to exploit it, to get the best out of it," he said.

"They have been methodical but they lack a zest of creativity," the coach opined.

Unlike the more experienced teams, who spend six months on average preparing for the event, the newcomers had little in the way of training beforehand.

"The Slovakians have only been preparing for a month and a half," said Rocha.

"I spent a few days in Bratislava and they came to my place for a couple of weeks."

Sporting the distinctive red, white and blue collar of the prestigious best "Ouvriers" in France -- a quadrennial national competition for craftsmen and women, including the cooking trades -- Rocha showed some pride in their performance.

"They got their dishes out on time. The fish was cooked to perfection, the tastes were interesting," he said.

"But visually, it was little less attractive than the others," the exacting French chef concluded.

© 2010 AFP

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