|Program book for the Bocuse d'Or fundraising dinner held in Milan, Ohio on March 15, 2014|
I know - it's been forever. I've been wined and dined, done a lot of schmoozing, and made many great new friends since I dropped in for a quick update last month. Toledo is a great, underrated food town with some of the nicest people you'll ever meet.
|"Flowers and Fruit," Henri Fantin-Latour|
So, life is a whirlwind of food and typing and deadlines and stress and fabulous events, all at once. Really, truly, I am having a LOT of fun, despite the chaos and the transition period! If you want to keep up with my adventures more closely, you'll have to follow @BladeFoodPage on Twitter or like The Toledo Blade Food Page on Facebook. Time is a luxury that I hope to one day have again, so unfortunately I'm only popping in here when I've got a really good story to tell.
And I've got a REALLY good story to tell today.
Two members of the United States' Bocuse d'Or team - Chef Philip Tessier and Head Coach Gavin Kaysen - were in Ohio on Saturday to prepare an 8-course meal for a team fundraiser, seeking money to help train for next January's main event. They had an array of all-star chefs with them, each taking the lead on one of the courses. And while I didn't get invited to the dinner, I did get invited to the Culinary Vegetable Institute, where the event was held, to interview Chef Tessier, to watch in awe as the chefs worked on the meal, to see the world-class Institute, to meet new friends, and to just generally wonder - to quote the Talking Heads - "Well, how did I get here???"
Well, I got this email, to start with:
"I am writing to invite you for behind-the-scenes access to a very special event. The Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation is hosting a fundraising dinner at The Culinary Vegetable Institute on March 15 ....
While it is not uncommon for chefs of this caliber to gather in NYC, Aspen or L.A., this event is a rare opportunity for the Midwest to rally in support of a national organization that represents the U.S. internationally ....
Are you interested in observing in the kitchen as chefs prepare for the dinner on Saturday?"
GASP!!! There is no adequate way to convey, in mere letters and words, the vacuum sucking sound as the air left my lungs, as my eyes bulged, as my mouth gaped. "GASP!!!" is woefully inadequate, but it will have to suffice. The planet stopped spinning, and my heart may have stopped, as well. I just sat and stared at the screen.
Because most of you know that I obsess about the Bocuse d'Or. I have babbled about it here. I've read Knives at Dawn, about the 2009 competition. I follow the chefs involved with Team USA on Facebook and on Twitter. I wake up at 4 a.m. on "game day" to study and admire the meat dishes, the fish platters, the garnishes, the presentation trays, everything.
You might say I'm a fan.
So I tried to persuade my co-workers (editors, graphics department, ANYone) that it was A BIG DEAL that these folks were coming to Ohio. A BIG DEAL. Internationally acclaimed chefs were coming to our state, recognizing us, acknowledging us, not dismissing us as a bunch o' chili mac-eatin' rubes. The Bocuse d'Or was coming to OHIO.
Huh? What is that? Say that again? Can you spell it? I know - very few people are as fixated as I am upon this.
But they could see that, clearly, it was A BIG DEAL to me. No, readers couldn't buy tickets anymore. No, readers couldn't attend. No, readers had no access. So it didn't warrant promotion. But it warranted recognition and acknowledgement in return for what was being bestowed. This was news. They told me to put in a request for a Blade photographer (a very sweet guy named - love it! - Jeremy Wadsworth) to accompany me, and head on over.
|The Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio|
We got to the Institute (CVI) - originally a family farm that now provides produce to restaurants, offers CSAs and gift boxes, and also has a retreat center with an extraordinary kitchen, an event center, a library. It's professional and yet intimate. We walked in and were enthusiastically welcomed; Linley Murphy greeted us, and she knew me by name ... I was SO impressed! She showed us around, offered us something to drink, and then Craig went off to the cupola to relax in a reclining chair in a sun room. (Despite this dreary-looking photo, the sun did come out and shine down upon the site!)
|Team USA Head Coach Gavin Kaysen|
There, in the kitchen, were the chefs - faces I recognized, names I knew, people whose talents and gifts I am utterly in awe of. Gavin Kaysen - I've watched him on "Chopped" as he competed for charity, and here he was 5' away from me doing interviews while trimming spring onions. Jonathon Sawyer of Cleveland, on the list of semifinalists for this year's Best Chef: Great Lakes at the James Beard Awards. Chef Tessier, who is heading to France in January to represent the U.S. along with his commis, Skylar Stover.
In Ann Arbor, once, my BFF Wendy and I were stuck in traffic trying to head downtown and park for an event. We knew that this many people were not planning to see a Brazilian dance troupe. What were we missing - was there an accident??? Well, we finally got to the structure, parked the car, got in the elevator to head to the theatre. And in the elevator, folks were talking about Robert Plant ... he was in town and performing that night. Oh. Didn't know, didn't care, but at least that explained the traffic issues.
It was just so fascinating to watch as hundreds and hundreds of small yellow flowers were picked over one-by-one, as sauces were stirred and blended, as everyone seemed so calm as they were working hard, of course, but really weren't working because they so adore what they do. I caught a whiff of a vinaigrette that smelled of apples and wine, and it was so sharp and so sweet that truly, even as I type, I can almost feel again what I felt in that instant, almost recall the fragrance. Every sense was alert, and yet there was no sense of over-stimulation, of stress, of rushing, of time limits. I just stood and watched, absorbing it all while knowing that I couldn't possibly convey everything I was experiencing in any coherent way to others.
These are the headlining chefs I watched in their intricate dance, and the dishes they prepared:
Aged Beef Suet, Spring Vegetables, Five Year Anchovy Sauce, Côte Rôtie Vinegar
Cold Gold Duck and Foie
Cucumber, Yuzu Curd, Cucumber Bloom
Salsify Cooked and Raw, Trout Roe, Black Lime, Apples Compressed in Ferrari, Mountain Mint, Oxalis
Iberico Ham & Garlic Consommé, Black Garlic, Iberico Ham Chips
Potato, Sea Urchin, Nasturtium, Barley, Crème Fraîche
Sauternes Poached Foie Gras, Pistachio Genoise, Cherry Bomb Radish, Watercress Blooms, Saba
Bacon Wrapped Monkfish, Pommes Maxim, Petite Pois à la Française, Red Wine Braised Escargots
Grimaud Farm Guinea Hen, Tempura Turnip, Reduction of Nettles, Jalapeño
Lamb Mosaic, Fine Herb Pesto, Niçoise Olives, Red Pearl Onion, Confit Pepper, Natural Jus
Matcha Custard, Puffed Wild Rice, Toasted Rice Sorbet, Hojicha Branches, Lychee Snow
I was offered an opportunity to speak with any chef I chose ... oh, my word. I hated to impose, to interrupt; and yet, I was there precisely to meet with these people and to publicize their work. (I haven't quite grasped, yet, that I'm "media" and that I get privileges!) I knew I wanted to meet with Chef Tessier, as he's the candidate heading to France to compete, the one the fundraiser was supporting. And so, he came out of the kitchen, walked over to a table in the dining room that had already been set up beautifully, pulled out a chair for me, and sat down to talk.
|Team USA Chef Philip Tessier (The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth)|
After Chef Tessier went back into the kitchen, I simply observed from a distance, not wanting to intrude upon the the choreography, the balance, the rhythm. I spoke with Chef John Selick as he took a short break; he had come from Cleveland to assist in the preparations, and half-joked about "kids in the kitchen"-type reality shows, alternately encouraging children to pursue his own chosen field of culinary arts, but also insultingly saying that even kids could do his job with no respect or regard for the decades invested in it. He agreed with Chef Tessier about the need for technique, saying that he actually enjoyed spending hours preparing carrots or potatoes. It was informative, as one becomes far more aware of texture, of size, of aroma, of every aspect of the ingredient while learning so many other important skills through years of training that can't be approximated or compensated for if they're lacking.
Having taken a few moments to go upstairs to observe the kitchen from above, with its own unique vantage point, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the servers, Dan, who works at the Ritz-Carlton in Cleveland. He is quite knowledgeable about food, and enjoys making "a good cut of rib eye," pizza (though we both acknowledged the need for a pizzeria-quality oven to do it justice), and potatoes. Neither of us would be attending the dinner, though Dan and his fellow hotel servers would be present; but he noted that the best chefs have the waitstaff taste the food before bringing it to guests, so that they can be well informed about what they're serving.
This entire scene was like something out of "Brigadoon." It all happened in a small house on a small farm in a small town in Ohio. As I left, I knew the dinner would take place (I followed along as photos of each course were posted on Twitter). I knew everyone would be exhausted but thrilled once the dishes were washed and the kitchen was clean. A glass of wine or a beer, perhaps, stories told, lots of laughter among friends, and then to bed. And the next day, they'd go back to their homes and their restaurants, and it would all be over. A fleeting moment.
But I was there to see it, to witness the intricacies of getting ready for it.
And I got Chef Tessier's autograph on my copy of the program book, ready for him to win gold in January ... :)
For more about the Bocuse d'Or team coming to Ohio, read my article for The Toledo Blade here.
|Team USA Chef Philip Tessier's course: Bacon Wrapped Monkfish, Pommes Maxim, Petite Pois à la Française, Red Wine Braised Escargots (Michelle Demuth-Bibb/The Chef's Garden, Inc.)|