Competing at the Bocuse d’Or: Team USA’s Unbeatable Recipes
In a super-elegant New York City apartment, the two chefs who had won the right to represent the United States in the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious international culinary competition, were busy scooping bananas into perfectly round little balls. Their challenge: to create an easy, innovative and exceptionally beautiful menu for a small group of food-world insiders. They set about their task with the same focus that had marked their efforts in the qualifying round of the Bocuse d’Or, just two months earlier in Orlando, Florida. Minus the bananas, the scene could have been from a Vermeer painting: the strong light, the domestic tableau, the cooks working intensely, even the Delft-blue aprons.
© Quentin Bacon
It took a lot of determination for the Bocuse d’Or USA team, Timothy Hollingsworth and Adina Guest, to arrive at this point. Over the past seven years, Tim worked his way up from commis to sous-chef at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa Valley, with apprenticeships in France, Germany and England. Keller, who was recently named president of the Bocuse d’Or USA committee, recommended that Tim try out for the competition to allow him to “reach forward with his creativity.” Tim chose Adina, who also cooks at the French Laundry, to be his commis. “Tim calls me out on everything,” Adina says. “He corrects me right away, which is a good thing. You have to improve, or you don’t succeed. And it makes you improve every part of your life.” After beating seven other American chef pairs in Orlando in September, Tim and Adina prepared to go to Lyon, France, in late January to battle 23 teams from around the world in the biannual contest, which French über-chef Paul Bocuse founded 21 years ago. In anticipation, they began running through prospective recipes in the French Laundry practice space.
Before Tim traveled to France, I asked him to come to Manhattan for a Food & Wine challenge: to create a gorgeous menu that even a novice cook could prepare. I wondered whether his training at what is arguably the best restaurant in America might get in the way. In perhaps the smartest move a chef can make, Tim channeled his mother. What would she cook? he asked himself.
© Quentin Bacon
He and Adina took over the kitchen in the apartment of Georgette Farkas, the public-relations director for star chef Daniel Boulud, while the judges chatted in the living room: Daniel, the chairman for Bocuse d’Or USA; Gavin Kaysen, a former American Bocuse d’Or contestant and the chef at Manhattan’s Café Boulud; and Susan Ungaro, president of the James Beard Foundation. We talked about the state of cooking in the U.S. (excellent) and America’s history of success at the Bocuse d’Or (not so great; we’ve never done better than sixth place). We were all looking forward to fantastic things from Tim and Adina—no pressure.
For the first course, Tim made a simple soup with one key ingredient, roasted squash. But then he added a mix of maple-glazed bananas and pecans. What kind of crazy garnish is that? I thought. Then I tasted the soup, and suddenly, squash and bananas seemed like the most natural combination in the world. Plus, the soup was so lovely that I decided to put it on the cover of this magazine. Score one for innovation.
For the main course, Tim prepared beef rib eye with sautéed chestnuts, brussels sprout leaves and Asian pear. “I was inspired by the smell of Sichuan pepper,” he said, describing how he developed the dish. “I thought how well it would go with pear. And then I thought about beef rib eye and other fall ingredients, like chestnuts and brussels sprouts.” His explanation reminded me of improvisation in jazz, with one flavor note leading to another.
© Quentin Bacon
Susan loved the brussels sprout leaves; she’d never seen them used this way before. Daniel was impressed by how perfectly the meat was cooked and seasoned. I swear he has a flavor computer in his brain and can say how any dish was prepared, and why it works—or doesn’t.
Tim’s dessert, a goat-cheese cheesecake with honey-soaked cranberries, was a take on his mother’s classic cherry cheesecake. “I worked at the cheese station at the French Laundry, so I feel a real connection with the cheesemakers and goat cheese,” said Tim. “This dessert, like all the dishes on my menu, is a little sweet and a little savory.” Tim baked the cheesecake in a traditional ring mold, but cut it into neat little bars to serve with the cranberries.
© Quentin Bacon
When I asked Gavin about Tim and Adina’s prospects at the Bocuse d’Or, he said, “Their chances are better than mine were—they have a lot of great support. And they have a tremendous foundation in cooking.” Susan concurred: “They are truly a best new hope.”
For an update on team USA, go to bocusedorusa.org.