Tina Nielsen tracks the history of the world’s first and only professional cooking competition to take place in front of a live audience
To the uninitiated the Bocuse d’Or is a wondrous spectacle. The professional cooking competition, staged in front of a live audience has all the emotion and excitement of a major sporting event. Noisy supporters create the atmosphere, singing and shouting – Mexico famously brought a mariachi band in 1997 while the British World Cup band follows Team UK.
Conceived by the late, great chef Paul Bocuse in 1987, it was designed to emulate big sports competitions. “We wanted to make a real show out of the culinary skills of the candidates,” says director Florent Suplisson. “We built a stadium and we brought all the ingredients from a sporting event into a gastronomic event. Instead of a football ground or a tennis court we had a gastronomic arena where you have 10 or 12 fully equipped kitchens where chefs work in front of a live audience.”
Over five hours and 35 minutes, the competing countries – each team comprised of chef, commis and coach – have to cook a plated dish and a platter, following a theme and using the same equipment.
The grand finale, taking place during Sirha in Lyon every other year, is the culmination of up to 18 months of preparation, training and rounds of national and regional selections. “You need to invest all the time for that competition; if you have too much in your head it will be tough. People can break down if they are not strong enough mentally,” says Rasmus Kofoed, chef of the three-Michelin-starred Geranium in Copenhagen. “It is not just about being a good cook, but about standing up to the pressure and seeing how you can perform better every day.”
Monsieur Paul’s vision
Small wonder that Kofoed has been called Mr Bocuse d’Or. He is the most successful chef to ever enter the competition, having won bronze (2005), silver (2007) and gold (2011) – this year he coached Team Denmark to victory and he has also coached Hungary while he consulted for Finland and Estonia. “I just feel love for this competition and of course for Monsieur Paul; it was a privilege to meet him many times,” he says. “He was very charming and had a lot of humour, but it was also his mission to get the chefs out of the closed kitchen and open up to the public, so they can see who is cooking for them.”
Thomas Keller (below), the celebrated American chef behind restaurants including the French Laundry and Per Se, is also the president of Team USA. He has been involved in the competition since 1996 when Paul Bocuse asked him to join. He says the Bocuse d’Or represents Monsieur Paul’s vision. “He had the kind of heart that drove him to bring chefs together,” he says. “The Bocuse d’Or was the mechanism for him to bring the world together to share ideas and experience, build relationships and expand the opportunity for all chefs around the world to excel. Back then this was a very bleak profession to be in.”
For that first competition, now over 30 years ago, Bocuse relied on his extensive network of chefs from around the world, asking them to help get his big project off the ground, help identify what countries would be ready to have a candidate and make it to Lyon. Over the years he has involved some of the best chefs from across the globe. Fellow Frenchman Joel Robuchon was the first honorary president in 1987, and again 30 years later in the 2017 edition, which was also the last before his passing in 2018.
It started out very simply with the grand finale, which saw 26 countries competing for the title during one day. It was much later that national selection and regional competitions on different continents were introduced, in order to maintain the spirit of competition. “Bocuse d’Or is about competition and when you compete you may be the best on paper, but you need to be the best on the day. This is the spirit of the competition – you have to be the best, so we ask all countries to go through national selection to make sure we get the best ones,” explains Suplisson who was an intern for the first competition and has been a part of the Bocuse d’Or ever since.
In another nod to the sporting world, two countries that haven’t made the cut in regional competitions are given a wild card to be decided by the International Organising Committee. “It is a way to invite a country that has never competed before or to promote its gastronomy,” says Suplisson.
For the chefs taking part this requires nothing less than 100% commitment. The cooking skills are a given, so what else does it take to compete? “An extraordinary amount of confidence and courage,” says Keller. “Training is obvious, but in order to get there first you have to have confidence in what you are and who you are and you have to have the courage to step forward.”
Winners receive a modest and symbolic amount for their effort; you do not enter the Bocuse d’Or for the money, but those who do make it are richly rewarded. “You mature as a human being,” says Kofoed. “It is about learning about yourself, but it also hurts because it is long and a lot of pressure.”
Keller points to collaboration as one of the main lessons for chefs. “They learn how to take criticism and how to take direction. They learn to stand up for what they believe in,” he says. “They come here and they learn how to respond and react; not just on the stage but with all that is going on around them – music, interviews and people standing in their face.”
The winning Danish chef Kenneth Toft-Hansen did not make it easy for himself – he became a father just days before the finals in Lyon and also went through the process of opening a new restaurant in the run-up to the competition. “It has been tough for him; when we set out we didn’t think he would become a father and it would take so much time with the new hotel,” says Kofoed.
Part of Bocuse’s plan was to solidify Lyon’s position as the centre of French gastronomy and for France to be the host country of the world’s first professional cooking competition. But beyond that, the intention was for the event to be international, not just for competitors to turn up and cook French or European food. “It was a way of declaring that Lyon and France were the locations to promote gastronomic cultures worldwide, so when you come you have to use your own cooking,” says Suplisson. “In terms of taste, technique and presentation all the teams come up with different things because you express your own culture through cooking.”
Kofoed describes this when he recalls his experience coaching the Hungarian team, who he helped win the European selection in 2016. “When I first spoke with them about their food for the competition I suggested a take on goulash, their national dish, but they said no straightaway; it wasn’t good enough, just goulash,” he recalls. “But it is also their culinary history and you need to represent your country in a beautiful way.”
From the start competitors were required to serve their food on a big silver platter, a fitting way to display the food in front of such a large crowd. But reflecting the real world of gastronomy is vital to the competition and given that it is rare to serve from a silver platter in a restaurant, organisers introduced a second element, the plated dish. “We decided that in a restaurant it is mainly about plates. We kept the platter, which is in the spirit of the show, but for the second part of the competition we decided it would be plated as in the restaurant,” he explains.
Of course, as Suplisson points out, things have changed yet again as restaurants now put service staff at the front and the decision to keep the platter has been vindicated. “The platter has come back in a lot of gastronomic restaurants, we see more silver platters as the maître d’hôtel cuts and plates in front of the client. It is a show.”
It is hard to overstate the impact of the Bocuse d’Or on the wider chef community over the years. The winner of the first competition in 1987, Jacky Freon who at the time worked at Hôtel Lutetia in Paris, saw a 50% increase in bookings after his victory.
Keller says Monsieur Paul’s legacy is seen throughout the profession. “He set the standards for so much of what we take for granted today,” he says. “He was the person who collectively brought us all together, gave us an example of what a chef can do and we all followed.”
Suplisson says the best word to describe the Bocuse d’Or is useful. “Competing is useful because you become a great chef. It is like the unofficial world championship of cooking but it is useful because it is such an experience – you have to train a lot, day and night,” he says. “Chefs make many sacrifices – personal as well as professional – but it is useful because if you win it you are the best young chef in the world and it brings you a lot.”
It is easy to focus on the chefs at the centre of the competition but the director points out that as well as being a springboard for young chefs, it can act as a springboard for countries who get the opportunity to show off their gastronomy and their terroir.
“Cooking and gastronomy are very important worldwide and nowadays you can’t be a big country if you don’t have anything to say in terms of gastronomy,” he explains.
Paul Bocuse passed away last year, having handed the presidency to his son Jérôme the previous year. The 2019 edition of the Bocuse d’Or was especially poignant as the first without its figurehead present. It was a celebration of the legacy he created; the competition, the emotion, and the chef communities coming together from all over the world to show off their skills and their pride in national gastronomy.
It was obvious that the founder’s original aim, to bring chefs together to share, continues at the core of the event. “I look around today and I see chefs I have known for 10 years and some I have just met, but there is always a warm handshake, an embrace and a kiss,” says Keller. “The bonds of this profession are becoming stronger around the world.”
30 years of bringing chefs together
The first Bocuse d’Or, created by chef Paul Bocuse as a professional cooking competition, is held in Lyon. Jacky Freon of France wins gold.
The Spanish team entered with a fish course, ambitiously inspired by Salvador Dali as part of a Bocuse d’Or campaign that totalled €1m. Team Spain finished second to last.
The first Latin America selection heat takes place.
The documentary El Pollo, el Pez y el Cangrejo Real(The Chicken, The Fish and the King Crab) gives viewers an insight to the life of a competing chef.
- The first European selection took place in Stavanger, Norway. It was won by Norwegian
- Asia Pacific selection was introduced; Japanese chef Yasuji Sasaki won the inaugural event taking place in Shanghai.
- A coach, positioned to communicate with the team on the outside of the kitchen, was added to each country’s team.
- Plate theme introduced alongside the platter in order to reflect the reality of how food is served in restaurants.
- Kitchen jury was introduced to observe competitors in the kitchen. “It has to taste good but we also watch how candidates behave,” says director Florent Suplisson. “How do they behave with the commis, how much do they waste, how is their hygiene, their organisation.” This accounts for 15-20% of the final score.
- Paul Bocuse passes presidency of Bocuse d’Or to his son Jérôme. “Paul wanted to organise this before he died, he wanted the competition to continue without incident so he handed over to Jérôme,” says Florent Suplisson.
- Paul Bocuse passes away.
- African selection stage introduced and the American selection introduced to replace the Latin American selection.
- The first Bocuse d’Or competition since the passing of Monsieur Paul is held. Denmark takes the gold, Sweden comes second and Norway wins bronze.