Sunday, February 8, 2009
Are you ready to rumble?
I don't think I was prepared for the Bocuse d'Or. Now, unfortunately I wasn't competing, but maybe that's for the best. This competition is intense. Intense. 24 Teams, 24 different countries, over two days of competition. Each team prepared and presented a fish dish and a meat dish in just over 5 hours, with the service to the 24 international judges staggered every 10 minutes. As if the action down in the kitchens and on the floor wasn't enough to make your head spin, the noise of almost 1000 fanatic fans, cheering for their country was enough to make soccer fans seem mild.
The group of Japanese fans (pictured) were very impressive. They had signs, matching outfits, an early presence as well as an awareness of when to cheer. They were very loud, but with pleasant cheers. The USA fan section was still mostly empty when I showed up to get a seat. I had stopped by on day 1 of the competition, but decided to roam the expo and go back for Day 2 of the competition, when the US and France would be competing. I saw how the stands filled up, so after checking my jacket at the VIP booth (getting my ticket on line in advance was totally worth that perk!) I made a bee line for the stands. I settled in for the long haul, even brought my own rations of raisins, salted almonds and water, and just started to watch.
The two dynamic hosts, a French man and an American woman, kept us posted and entertained the best they could, as the stands filled up and the chefs prepared their dishes. Eventually, the Norwegians were up, the first of 12 competing that day, to present their fish dish. This is no ordinary dish, but a masterpiece of 12 servings displayed on a giant mirrored platter. This is paraded in front of the judges and the spectators (at one point one tray was almost dropped!!!) and then brought to a separate table where the chef and some hospitality students then helped transfer the delicately assembled works of art onto individual plates which are subsequently given to the judges. By this time, as the judges were tasting the Norwegians fish dish, the next team brought out their platter to be paraded around. It was extremely hectic since the judges are eating the dish of one country while looking at the formal platter of the next country, all the while the fans are competing to bust their ear drums and mine. Turns out I came well prepared with snacks but left my ear plugs at home.
The 10 Spaniards that showed up too late to sit with the rest of their countrymen, squeezed in behind me to provided some unneeded entertainment. I was definitely not amused when the lady to my right spilled a soup sample on me (soup courtesy of the food expo; the competition was unfortunately not giving out samples) nor when the woman behind me repeatedly hit me in the head with her purse. Although all the fans were loud, very loud, the crowd quieted a bit to hear the announcement of each countries dish...except, you guessed it, these 10 Spaniards behind me when Spain was presenting its dish. They were perfectly nice folks though, even providing a towelette for me to wipe the soup off my pants.
Now, there is no shortage of pomp and circumstance in this competition. All the judges were parade out, with a special moment for Paul Bocuse, founder of the competition and famous chef. In this photo, you can see the 12 judges that were to score the fish dish, the other 12 (not shown) scored the meat dish - presented only 30 minutes after the fish dish. The judge to the far right is Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California. The setting was so fiercely competitive, I really don't know how the chefs do it. Many of the European chefs are used to competing, as it is more common here, but this is the creme de la creme of culinary competitions, and I don't think that was lost on anyone there.
I left before the results were announced, even before all of the teams had competed actually. The US had presented both dishes, and by the time France presented the fish dish, I had been there 5 hours myself, and it was time to escape. I found out Norway had won the Bocuse d'Or, which probably was a bit of a relief since the entire competition had to use Norwegian seafood for the fish dish ( and Scottish beef for the meat dish), yet completely deserved I am sure.
The experience was memorable to say the least, to see so many supportive fans, so many chefs who had spent countless hours preparing for this day, so much excitement and obsession over food. Good to know I am not the only one out there...