Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Bocuse d'Or, Team USA, and Me

Program book for the Bocuse d'Or fundraising dinner held in Milan, Ohio on March 15, 2014


Hi! It's me, again!

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
I've been to a Shabbat dinner for which I was warned to stop eating at noon, so I'd be ready for all the food. I've been to a tasting event to sample the dishes and wines being served at a high school auction. I've been given a personal tour of still life paintings at the Toledo Museum of Art. I've eaten the Garbage Salad at Grumpy's, which has everything in it from lettuce to poppy seed dressing to four kinds of cheese to chicken to raisins ... and everything works beautifully together! I was invited to a Lenten fish fry, which was my first in decades and Craig's first ever - he loved it.

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
So, that's what Craig and I did. We headed down to Milan, Ohio - an hour away, and eons away from the urban environment of Toledo. We had an adventure.

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
And I went downstairs to be a grown-up and a professional, when all I wanted to do was squeal like a tweenybopper.

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.

But I cared desperately about the artists, trendsetters, chefs I was watching as they danced in the kitchen. As expected, there was none of the screaming and ranting that you see on "entertainment"-style television shows. These were professionals, friends, colleagues, collaborators. Farmer Lee Jones, whose family owns the CVI, wrote in the dinner's program book: "After all, what matters more than pursuing excellence in whatever you choose to do?" I was witnessing the realization of that statement, fluidity and grace in action.

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:

Hors d'oeuvres:
Jonathon Sawyer
Aged Beef Suet, Spring Vegetables, Five Year Anchovy Sauce, Côte Rôtie Vinegar
Cold Gold Duck and Foie
Italian Chicharron


Jamie Simpson
Cucumber, Yuzu Curd, Cucumber Bloom

First:
Curtis Duffy
Salsify Cooked and Raw, Trout Roe, Black Lime, Apples Compressed in Ferrari, Mountain Mint, Oxalis

Second:
Jennifer Petrusky
Iberico Ham & Garlic Consommé, Black Garlic, Iberico Ham Chips

Third:
Jamie Simpson
Potato, Sea Urchin, Nasturtium, Barley, Crème Fraîche

Fourth:
Eli Kaimeh
Sauternes Poached Foie Gras, Pistachio Genoise, Cherry Bomb Radish, Watercress Blooms, Saba

Fifth:
Philip Tessier
Bacon Wrapped Monkfish, Pommes Maxim, Petite Pois à la Française, Red Wine Braised Escargots

Sixth:
Michael Rotondo
Grimaud Farm Guinea Hen, Tempura Turnip, Reduction of Nettles, Jalapeño

Seventh:
Gavin Kaysen
Lamb Mosaic, Fine Herb Pesto, Niçoise Olives, Red Pearl Onion, Confit Pepper, Natural Jus

Eighth:
Thomas Raquel
Matcha Custard, Puffed Wild Rice, Toasted Rice Sorbet, Hojicha Branches, Lychee Snow

Final Bite:
Thomas Raquel
Golden Egg

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)
He was very friendly and keenly focused, smiled a lot, and he was deeply passionate, committed to his art; he also speaks even faster than I do.  Chef Tessier talked about the need to "look outside the culinary norm," and noted that it is a "disservice not to learn from the ground up" with technique being critical to performing and innovating and competing. He agreed with me that, much as Meryl Streep explains to Anne Hathaway in "The Devil Wears Prada" that an absurd haute couture look eventually evolves into a ready-to-wear sweater, the creations produced by chefs at the Bocuse d'Or level eventually "trickle down" to influence how the rest of us grow, cook, and eat our food. While in the past, Bocuse d'Or candidates have maintained their restaurant schedules, their training schedules, their fundraising schedules, and made attempts to have family time as well, Chef Tessier has "backed out of the kitchen a bit" and is focusing on a recipe archive for The French Laundry, enabling him to have more balance as he prepares for the competition. We discussed the importance of preparing food, that "you can eat better by cooking" although this is difficult in food deserts where "wholesome foods are hard to come by," thus compromising health and quality of life.

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.

I also had chances to speak with women in the CVI's marketing department - Alex Scheufler, who's been there for 6 years (and sent the gasp-inducing invitation), and Carole Firth, who's been there a whopping 3 weeks. Both are originally from Ohio, left for awhile, and then came back. In my own short 6 weeks in the state, I have heard over and over again about people who have either lived in Ohio their entire lives or who have left but returned again. There is something about it that lures people back, that calls them home. And Ohio also lures world class chefs, as evidenced by Saturday night's gala fundraiser. Before he went back into the kitchen, Chef Selick uttered a statement which nailed the essence of Saturday's event. He pronounced the state, region, and the Institute itself - on that day, at that time - to be "The center of the culinary universe."

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.)

5 comments:

Cranberry Morning said...

I would love to have been a fly on the wall when you got the notice, Mary. :-) This would be exciting to even me, so I can hardly imagine what a delight it was for you to be there, in person, watching those amazing chefs. The closest I get to that is watching 'Pie in the Sky.' lol

Robin said...

Wow. Your enthusiasm leaped off the page. I understood about half of what you said, but it didn't matter. I am so happy for you. This job has turned out to be even more than you anticipated (in the best sort of way). I know that things are just going to get better and better!!!!

Jean | DelightfulRepast.com said...

Mary, how exciting! Sooo much better to be invited to watch the chefs work on the meal than to be invited to the dinner! In fact, I wouldn't have eaten much at the dinner--don't like trout roe, sea urchin, foie gras, escargot. Can't blame you for going all "tweenybopper" about this! I'm so happy you're loving this new phase of your life.

Chris said...

Very impressive opportunity, I can tell you were awestruck. So much to see and take in, it's just amazing.

I guess with your busy schedule Memphis In May is out of the question this year? We have our team conference call this weekend.

Empty Nest Insider said...

I just came over from Robin's and I'm glad to meet you! Congrats on your new job, and I look forward to seeing more of your wonderful recipes!

Julie

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