On January 29th four finalists competed in the Bocuse d'Or at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Upstate New York. The winner determined from this event will go on to represent the United States, challenging teams from around the world, in the international Bocuse d'Or World Cuisine competition in France next year. The Bocuse d'Or (a literal golden statue) is named after and molded in the image of renowned chef Paul Bocuse who created this competition in the late 1980s. Bocuse was named Chef of the Century by the Culinary Institute of America for his vision and contributions to the industry. The magnificence of Bocuse's influence was illustrated with a large banner showcasing the visionary.
On a crisp day with plenty of sun bouncing off the lake smack dab in the middle of the CIA campus chefs-in-training, well-respected chefs, fans and foodies and food bloggers alike--along with some celebrities including Top Chef (season 1 contestant) Stephen Asprinio--were present to watch these culinary artists compete.
A cacophony of cowbells and clappers resounded throughout the gymnasium as the four teams raced in the several hours they had, each sectioned off within their own kitchen to create grandiose dishes based around the categories of meat and seafood. The chefs had from 8am to 2pm to present and serve. Allowing the judges about an hour or so afterwards to consider a winner after making notes and deciphering the dishes presented to them for sampling and grading. There was great anticipation from the crowd on the bleachers. Stomping and clapping rang throughout the gym. This competition was as high pressure and intriguing to onlookers in attendance as it would be for sports fans. Each new dish was met with claps and/or awes as if someone had just made a three point free-throw from an impossible distance.
During the competition VIPs could (on a rotational basis) go upstairs to the balcony to sample food made by students and instructors of the Culinary Institute of America as well as samples from sponsors/suppliers Bridor, Nespresso, and Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte and view equipment showcases from main sponsors KitchenAid and Villeroy & Boch.
While waiting in line to be allowed upstairs I appreciated that some CIA students shared samples of items provided upstairs.
As I ascended to the VIP area I could feel the fervor of the events below, fiercely. The audible enthusiasm from attendees floated upwards to the VIP section while bright lights placed a spotlight on the action going on below. Media was kept behind a red velvet rope with an up close view of every dish, every scribble by a judge, every bit of encouragement from the host. Screens sprinkled throughout the balcony in the VIP section provided a close-up view of the lush decorations and judge responses during tasting.
However, the crowd upstairs reveled in much calm viewing and taste testing of their own.
As the competition progressed I enjoyed partaking in the array of items made available by the CIA and speaking with students about their methods for making such tasty bite-sized items--from foie gras made three ways to shrimpcake burgers to bratwursts in pretzel buns to freshly made hummus and tahini to salmon spiked salsa.
A chef stopped by to offer some kind advice as my guest and I ogled the cheese table--continuously refilled--encompassing hard cheeses, smooth cheeses (brie, my favorite), bleu cheese, dried apricots and apple butter to add a level of sweetness, and sliced pieces of toasted baguettes. Everyone was quite amiable and very helpful in regards to my inquisitiveness, especially the youthful student body.
My favorite item served was the shrimpcake burger. I had to hold myself back from getting seconds so that I could try more. After having a shrimp cake at Mesa Grill earlier that week I was in seafood heaven. The CIA shrimp cake burger had the texture of a crab cake with the breaded exterior and the seafood and other items minced together into a thick patty on a sesame seed bun with a type of tangy tartar sauce. Overall it was delicious and had a bit of sweetness added to the mix. It definitely hit the umami tastebuds. Something else I was a fan of was the Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne. It had a light sweetness to it and was not as heavy, alcohol-heavy, as some champagnes I have had in the past. It was a perfect cleanser after trying various dishes that were mild in spice and high in flavor. I have a feeling the bartender started counting how many I had (three, but some glasses were more full than others). Feuillatte is definitely a brand I will look for to bring to future social events. Very tasty.
During a lull in the competition we headed to the cafe to partake in the generosity of sponsor KitchenAid in providing us lunch. I was amazed at the offerings and quickness (and again, friendliness) of the students staffing the cafe. The whole place was run as expertly as a kitchen in a fine dining restaurant. One student showed me how to use their computer order machine where you just punched in what you wanted, got a ticket, the kitchen got a ticket, and you waited. Swift and fast! Many eateries could learn a thing or two from how organized the CIA runs their eateries for students and visitors. As an aside the brisket sandwich I had was delicious. While I'm not a fan of Swiss cheese on my sandwiches the brisket itself was not too soft but a perfect consistency for a sandwich and held together well. It was dry with a bit of juice so that you could fully experience the flavor of the meat.
By the time announcements were to be made of the victor much of the VIP section had emptied. Some leaving to head back to their respective areas after a long morning and early day of competition viewing. Many attendees were steadfast in remaining to hear the final decision. In the end Jerome Bocuse (son of Paul) helped announce the winner: Chef Richard Rosendale of West Virginia. (Fellow food blogger Amy also noted her take on the competition via her blog.)
The Bocuse d'Or was fun to watch. It was nice to be up close (or closer) to see a food competition at work. Having watched many Food Network challenges it was intriguing to see how intense it could get and how invested viewers were. But, I was also amazed and in awe of the gorgeous CIA campus. Even though it was bitter out the sun illuminated the beauty of the brick buildings on campus. Colorful plaques noted what each building held and students in white coats and Crocs shuffled back and forth from the building where the Bocuse d'Or was being held to their dorms and other areas.
CIA was a homey place with greenery and a lovely backdrop of fields and mountains. The sun set as the competition came to a close, as visitors drove off, and as CIA students packed up for the night. I was glad to visit both the CIA and the Bocuse d'Or, and couldn't help but consider what my future would have held had I pursued an education in food and not writing primarily. Absorbing the vastness and recalling the kindness of those around I couldn't help but think that the Culinary Institute of America would've been a great choice to pursue my other love.