Meg Smith

Next step, Lyon.

Karen Shimizu
April 13, 2018

If you’re suffering from Top Chef withdrawal between seasons, start following Team USA for the Bocuse d’Or (@mentorbkb). The three-person team of chef Matthew Kirkley, commis (assistant) Mimi Chen, and coach chef Robert Sulatycky, just placed first of 11 countries at the Bocuse d’Or Americas. The win places the team squarely on the road to the Bocuse d’Or (a.k.a. the Culinary Olympics), qualifying them to compete in Lyon in January 2019.

At the qualifying round for the Americas, which wrapped today in Mexico City, Kirkley and Chen had 5 hours and 35 minutes to prepare a platter composition (which needed to feature a suckling pig and two types of berries) and a plated dish (using a whole salmon and crab) to a panel of judges. 

Here’s what you need to know about how the team cinched the win:

Chef Training for the Bocuse d’Or Is Olympic-Level

Since their selection in November, Kirkley and Chen left their positions at Coi in San Francisco to do nothing but train for the Bocuse d’Or.  

It wasn’t always that way. Chef Gavin Kaysen (of Spoon and Stable and Bellecour in Minneapolis) represented the USA Bocuse d’Or in 2007. That year, he remembers, he was on his own–as every USA Team before him had been. He practiced on Sundays, during brunch at his work, which allowed him half the line to practice. He cold-called companies to ask for sponsorship and equipment.

He didn’t place that year—but that was the last year USA competitors were on their own. “I was the last Jamaican Bobsled team,” says Kaysen, who acted as head coach in 2015 when Phil Tessier won the silver medal.

Ment’or, a non-profit, was founded in 2008 by Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Jérôme Bocuse to nurture culinary talent and support Team USA. The foundation set the 2019 team up at a training facility in Napa Valley, where they’ve been cooking in a custom-built kitchen in a barn at Hestan Vineyards. (Ment’or is in the process of building out a permanent training kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa).

They Married American Flavors to Out-of-the-Box Ingenuity

“The team wanted to make the judges say not just, ‘wow, that’s delicious,’ but ‘how did they do that?,’” says Young Yun, Executive Director of ment’or. Chef Kirkley decided to make an American ham, using a press and Activa (a.k.a. “meat glue”) to transform scraps of the suckling pig into a mini ham, using collagen to create the rind, and blanketing the whole thing in a blackberry-mustard seed glaze. The team also created a truffled pork roulade with a green cabbage wrap and chicharron; a tiny savory cake of the pig’s braised head and trotters; a crispy pumpernickel sphere with blood pudding, and potato filling; a salad with raspberry vinaigrette (micro greens nested into tiny tangles of crispy potato); and a radish and herb butter tart, for which Chen painstakingly placed each petal with a pair of tweezers. For the plated fish dish (which was finished three minutes early), there were six components: a salmon roulade topped with a sheet of crisped salmon skin, a crab bisque with grapefruit, asparagus and osetra caviar, a green garlic sphere, and a citrus anglaise.

“Our approach to the pig was to use an American method–the honey-glazed ham—to represent our country honorably, which is always my goal,” said Kirkley. Figuring out how to make the ham alone took a week. “I spent a week reading a book about commercial meat process.” He hit on a method that took the industry method of making honey-glazed hams (one that takes a week) and figured out how to do it in under 5 hours. “That was the simplest element, but it took the most research, and was the most fulfilling,” he says. 

They Had an X-Factor 

He’s not officially on the team, but Martin Kastner of Crucial Detail, the Chicago-based design firm whose work you’ve seen on tables at Alinea, has collaborated with Team USA to create custom tools and platters for the Bocuse d’Or. In 2015, the year Tessier cinched the silver medal (and the first year the United States graced the podium), Kastner created a platter that contained battery-powered heating elements that would keep the food at an ideal temperature when it reached the judges.

For the qualifying round in the Americas this week, Kastner also invented a series of tools. “Most kitchenware is prized for its versatility,” says Kastner. “But you lose precision with it.” As the menu for the competition came together, Kastner watched the chefs cook and devised tools perfectly suited to elements of each dish, including a weighted mold for creating hollow crispy potato orbs (an element of one garnish for the suckling pig), an oven-proof miniature ham press, and a mandoline designed to produce the perfect radish rounds for the radish tarts. "These helped to bring the overall cook time down, Kastner says. “Refining the tools allowed the chefs to refine other parts of their process.”

It Takes a Village

Aspic, a Mexico City culinary school, opened its classrooms to Team USA, giving them a kitchen to use as their own, where they spent the past week fine-tuning their program and troubleshooting recipes—Mexico City is at an altitude of over 7,000 feet, so the team had to adjust some cook times and methods. While at the school, Team USA rehearsed their recipes for Aspic culinary students.

“The experience was amazing,” says Rodrigo Garay, a chef at Aspic who helped facilitate the visit.

The cross-cultural exchange hearkens back to the origins of the Bocuse d’Or. Thomas Keller, who also serves as a judge for the Bocuse D’Or, noted, “Paul Bocuse wanted to unite culinary professionals—to bring the culinary world together.”