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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
When Andrew Friedman's publisher suggested a book on the American team competing in the 2009 Bocuse d'Or competition, Friedman wasn't much interested.
But the journalist, who writes about food and chefs and is co-author of a best-selling tennis biography and contributing editor to Tennis magazine, soon realized the Bocuse d'Or was rather like tennis with white coats instead of white shorts.
"There are team trials, there's a coach, there's practice and competition," said Friedman.
Former competitors and judges explained that competition experience carried over into their work lives in ways that had not been immediately obvious to him building confidence, stamina, management skills and exposing the young chefs to other influences and places. "It makes you a better chef every day," said Adina Guest, a Kapi'olani Community College graduate and the commis (assistant) on the 2009 American team.
Friedman also came to realize it was a story most Americans didn't know.
And so, in December 2009, "Knives at Dawn: America's Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition" was published by Free Press.
The competition in Lyon, France, between two-person teams selected by committees in their host countries was founded by legendary "Ambassador of French cuisine" Paul Bocuse in 1987. The irrepressible 84-year-old, who pioneered nouvelle cuisine at his Michelin three-star restaurant, Abbaye de Collanges, outside Lyon, is often credited with creating the celebrity chef phenomenon by coming out of the kitchen to talk with guests, making his face known along with his philosophy of lighter food and fresh, local ingredients.
The French and Norwegian teams have dominated the Bocuse d'Or competition, and no U.S. team has risen higher than sixth place, the position attained in 2009 by the team of Timothy Hollingsworth, chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and Guest, also employed at The French Laundry.
In Europe, the Bocuse d'Or is so popular that supporters travel with the teams, crowding the stadium seating in front of their country's cooking booths and shouting encouragement. (This, despite the fact that, most of the time, they can't actually see into the kitchens TV screens broadcast the scenes in successive kitchens, but not all at once.)
Contestants prepare 12 portions of both a meat and fish dish within five hours and 35 minutes. Food counts for 40 points of the score; presentation for 20 points; and the remainder covers sanitation and kitchen practices.
Bocuse organizations in European countries routinely select their teams a year in advance, and chefs are given paid time off to prepare.
But in America, even among chefs, you're more likely to hear "Bo-what?"
In a telephone interview from his New York home, Friedman said the main theory on the lack of interest in the Bocuse in America is that, "in a lot of ways, we're more consumed with business. American chefs compete in their restaurants. They don't compete in competitions."
Here, he said, competitive cooking has been a "subculture" dominated by teaching chefs and students.
But American indifference to the Bocuse d'Or is warming into interest, which makes Friedman's book particularly timely.
One reason for the change is Thomas Keller, who is among the most respected chef-restaurateurs in the country and a hero to his colleagues. Bocuse, seeing this, shrewdly tapped Keller in 2008 for president of Bocuse d'Or USA. As Friedman tells it in the book's first chapter, Keller, despite his crowded schedule, knew that the only thing you say when Paul Bocuse asks you to do something is "Oui, chef!" (Which, by the way, is exactly what Guest said when she was asked to serve as commis on the Bocuse d'Or team but in English.)
Keller in turn recruited his friend Daniel Bouloud, another French-American cooking legend. And Bocuse's son, Jerome Bocuse of Les Chefs de France at Epcot in Orlando, Fla., was a force, connecting the contest with its roots.
Both Keller and Bouloud are more familiar to the broader American audience than they once were for one reason: food-related reality TV shows, particularly "Top Chef" and Bouloud's "After Hours."
Chefs have come to see the marketing power of appearing as a competitor or judge on such shows. Where competitors used to be students or line cooks, now they're executive chefs and even restaurant owners, Friedman noted.
This year's competitor, chosen a few weeks ago in Hyde Park, N.Y., is James Kent, sous chef of Daniel Humm's Eleven Madison Park, which has earned four stars from New York Times critics for its modern French cuisine.
Friedman said many people are optimistic about Kent's chances of winning, in part because he has some advantages that the Hollingsworth-Guest team lacked.
For one thing, Kent clearly wants to compete. Hollings-worth was invited to do so by Keller and showed some hesitation at first.
"If he hadn't been asked, I don't think it would ever have occurred to him," Friedman said.
Kent has also had a year to prepare; Hollingsworth and Guest had a little less than four months, having been picked in September for the January competition. Though Keller made a home and kitchen available to Hollingsworth and Guest for practice, both seemed a bit conflicted about taking time away from their jobs a much-publicized three-month leave originally promised them never materialized .
Also, Friedman said, Kent's restaurant is known for exquisitely presented French food, the sort that usually impresses the judges.
At the competition in France, things fell apart for Hollingsworth and Guest in a number of small but telling ways (scenes skillfully painted by Friedman, building tension even though you know the end of the story). One reason for the problems was that they had literally never seen some of the platters and presentation plates they had commissioned for the event because the items had been delayed in a customs snafu.
"Any competition veteran will tell you that's a recipe for disaster," Friedman said.
But Friedman remains proud of the team's efforts.
"They came in sixth of 24. They did a lot better than many teams that were picked much earlier (in the year). It wasn't a bad result at all," he said.
He admitted he lost his reporter's objectivity.
"It was a very intimate time. There were many times when it was just Tim and Adina and (coach) Roland (Henin) and me in the kitchen."
But in the end, he couldn't be with them; no one but judges are allowed in the kitchens when the competition begins.
"It was hard when Tim relayed to me what went on in that kitchen. I really felt for those guys."