Alex Chen was the chef representing Canada at the Bocuse d'Or. He was assisted by commis Jack Beers who had to be under 22 years of age and Dan Olson who was the Canadian coach. The team competed on January 29, the first day of the Bocuse d'Or. There were over 2000 people in the stands with just over 50 Canadian supporters in red hockey jerseys with "Chen" on the back and "13" to indicate the year of the competition. The team was supported by a number of chefs who helped with food preparations and other supporters (17 in all) who helped with a number of other duties including cleaning up.
The drive to the culinary school which has been our base for the prep work prior to the competition, was especially quiet; everybody was thinking of what they had to do, or were curled up trying to get some last minute sleep. Four-thirty a.m. on January 28 and the first pleasant dawn of our stay, the Rhone sky gently brushed with pink.
This is THE DAY.
There is no conversation as the black ribbon of road slips away, changing from country lane to motorway, to city roads and its roundabouts until we reach the school. It's there we meet Chen, Jack and Dan who had come from their official hotel, provided by the organizers.
Like a SWAT team, the "boys" move from the van to the kitchen, silently and quickly completing their tasks, knowing that the outcome depends on following the plan and the strength of their individual work. I have little to do but pace around, worry about being late and getting caught in the traffic that chokes up the roads at Eurexpo. I hate being late.
There is a light breakfast for Chen and Jack before the last components are packed, the truck loaded and we're off. As it turns out, the traffic is light and we arrive at Eurexpo (the vast complex of buildings that house the SIRHA trade show, The Coupe de Monde pastry competition and the Bocuse d'Or ) with plenty of time to spare. We get through security and unload. I kick myself for pushing the team unnecessarily.
Tucked in behind the kitchens of The Hall Paul Bocuse, chefs and event staff scurry about, the support team takes the opportunity to look around, absorbing the activity; some of them hoping to be in Alex's place one day and I'm sure imagining what that would be like.
Students from the Institut Paul Bocuse gather in the corridors waiting for direction; they unpack the plates, polish stemware and silverware for the judges table and help clean up ice spilt by one of the chefs. Later, some of them will be serving the dishes to the jury and others will be assigned to assist the chefs.
Going through the kitchens are coaches (selected by random draw) and an MOF chef (Meilleurs Ouvriers de France) selected to examine food and equipment brought in by the competitors to make sure nothing contravenes the rules. We wait till we have permission to move into kitchen #9. Alex asks Steve to test the vacuum pack machine for pressure, while he collects his thoughts, reviews his notes and visualizes the day.
As we settle into the kitchen, the inspection team thoroughly examines our food and equipment and being satisfied, move on. The time is ticking down now; Alex is setting up his station and more importantly is having time alone with his thoughts. Then the MOF chef returns and like a zealous customs officer on a mission, grabs a pair of long tweezers and pokes through the salt container, then with his hands digs into the ice bucket, convinced that we are hiding something.
Alex stops what he is doing and watches as the MOF chef takes the plastic wrap dispenser apart looking into the tube to make sure there was nothing hidden there. Moving on he picks up pasta dough and wants to confiscate it, as Dan Olson (the Canadian Coach), clearly upset, explains what the dough is for and that it is well within the rules.
Still the MOF chef wants to remove it. Thankfully one of the international coaches overrules him, aggravating him even more so he searches the fridges again. "What the f#*k is up with this guy?" Finally he grabs the bag of date energy balls, asks what they're for and takes them, telling Alex he will have to come and get them if he wants to eat them! While this is going on Alex can hear the announcement that Finland is starting in kitchen #8 and knows he has 10 minutes. He's scrambling to get ready, no time to collect his thoughts now, the clock is racing.
Too soon, they are told to start and "Bon Chance!" All of the fund raising, organising and the string of practices has come down to this.
Looking from the kitchen I can see that the seats directly in front of Alex and Jack are a sea of red as his fans stake their claim in the stands, immediately cheering, urging on their heroes. Soon into the competition Alex and Jack fall behind the schedule they have been practicing for months, badly behind. (Damn! Don't tell me it's lost already.) Inside the box Alex calls at Jack to push. He does. From the stands they hear the rhythmic chants of "Alex! Alex!"
After a noisy welcome to open the competition, emcees, Vincent Forniot and Angela May walk along the line of kitchens with "colour commentator" chef Regis Marcon describing the cooking techniques and some of the more unique ingredients that are being used. As they reach Alex's kitchen the Canadians ramp up the noise, and get the award for the loudest fans of the day!
Above the kitchens the 40 foot screen catches the red shirted Canucks, cheering, blissfully unaware of how far behind their chefs are. Inside the kitchen Alex says a silent prayer, "Please don't let me be last." Vincent, Angela and Regis go to the next kitchen. I move into the stands and visit the supporters everybody wants to know how it's going. "They're doin' really well, he's just a little behind," I lie.
We talk about how well they work together, how intense the whole project is and how the relationship between chef and commis is tested! I think about the dynamics in kitchen #7, the Dutch team. The chef Martin Ruisaard and the commis Rosita Nietvelt are engaged, getting married in June. I think if they can get through this they will have a great marriage!
The 24 member jury is introduced and they take their places at the long white tables in front of the media and fans. Then it's time for Paul Bocuse to enter, the crowd goes CRAZY! Bocuse had recently been in hospital so it was uncertain if he would be here. They love him and show it!
The announcement for the first dish of the day follows shortly after the introductions. It is presented by the very strong Swedish team. The dishes will continue at 10 minute intervals. Alex and Jack have one hour and 20 minutes left to finish their fish plates; still not sure they can do it. At 1:35 it starts to get crazy as the meat platters begin coming out of the kitchens, the judges now will taste one dish while looking at another as menus pile up in front of them.
A wall of noise rolls through the stands from one country's fans to the next as their teams' food is announce and menus are read in English and French. The fish plates and meat platters are paraded in front of the judges and then the press; both jury and press asking frequently whose platter? What country is this? This is the beautiful chaos that is the Bocuse d'Or!
Just before 2:20 p.m. we see an electrician working at our kitchen, the heat lamp that keeps the food warm while plating must have drawn too much power, not what we need at this point! The MOF's and servers swarm our kitchen, (you know Alex's heart is just thumping in his chest now). They have just minutes to finish the plates. It's time to be quick, but controlled. Don't let the jacket cuff drag in the food. The MOF's tell him he has one minute left to serve. No drips, no spills. The noise builds. Vincent Ferniot announces "FROM BOX #9, THE FISH DISH FROM CANADA!" The techno music explodes as it has done 8 times before for the preceding competitors, and the screen flashes between the fans and the plates and back. The supporters are yelling at the top of their lungs doing everything they can to urge on their chefs, waving flags, scarves and signs. It looks like they are on time. We watch Regis Marcon walk along the line of judges pointing out the garnish that represents Canada. The plates look really good. Thank God. Somebody slaps me on the back.
There are 35 anxious minutes ahead of us as the chefs gun it to the finish. Beside them, the fish was coming from Belgium another strong team and one that Canada must beat. Alex and Jack are rushing now; at this point it's all or nothing. Alex goes for the platter he sees that the cloth covering it has melted on to it; his heart sinks. "Holy s*#t, can we get more f#*ked than this?" They have to clean it before they can start setting the food, losing precious time. Again the MOF's gather in front of the kitchen, Dan gives Alex the time "30 seconds Chen". The beef is on the centrepiece. Thomas Keller looks toward our kitchen (I wonder what he is thinking). Jack starts to position the chicken mousse-foie gras garnish on the platter. Dan calms them down and starts to walk them through the set up, they are totally in his hands .
"Make it perfect, okay? Take your time". Then to Chen "Beets on, beets on ..." Chen struggles to get the stand from the holding base so changes his mind and picks up the oxtail garnish, searches for the position on the platter and asks "Which one is that, the first one?". "The beets go closer to the beef, those go second. " Dan corrects him. I yell from the stands "C'mon Alex, C'mon, Go, go, go!" knowing full well that he can't hear me, but it gives me something to do. Dan calms them down "We've got 3 minutes. Take your time Chen, make it look good." . It's hard to watch. 2 oxtail garnishes have slid off the stand; Dan still very much in control gets Alex to replace them with the 2 extra pieces. Done, the platter is whisked away! The music blasts! "Madame et Monsieur, Voila" starts Vincent Forniot .... I can't hear the rest of what he says, it's just too noisy. The platter is paraded before the judges taken aside for the official photograph then off to the side table for the maître d'hôtel to carve and plate for the jury. "Was he late?" I am asked. I think so, for sure less than 5 minutes, he may have a 12 point penalty. They looked good. I can see some of the minute decorations have been eliminated, to save time I suppose. Angela reads the Canadian menu book presented to the jury and Vincent adds "I love the book, the Canadian book, really superb" The fans are so excited, so proud of what they have just seen...our competition is over.
The last platter goes out at 2:55 p.m. Day one is over. It's time to clean up. Dan, Roger, Nathan, Connor and I make our way to the loading dock and start to load up the equipment (Thank God we have some young strong kids to help!). Tobias, Steve, Alex and Jack break down and clean up the kitchen ready for tomorrow's competition. Alex, Dan and Jack join us outside, exhausted from the effort. Alex flashes his smile and says, "Thank you for everything. "
The competing chefs nod at each other as they pass, the kind of acknowledgement that says I respect you. It's eye contact that can only be shared by a brotherhood of combatants, from somebody who knows what you have just gone through. Chen shares a moment with the Chinese chef Jian Ping Sun and then from the hall somebody calls for the chefs, commis and coaches to go back inside for the official photograph. The rest of us load into the vans and battle the clogged roads back to the culinary school.
The drive back takes a lot longer than it did this morning, but at least I don't have to worry about being late now. In fact, I can relax! At the school we set up 3 stations and fifteen of us spend 3 hours washing the pots, pans and equipment and packing it to be shipped back to Canada. My God, how much stuff do you need to make 28 portions of food ?. "I hope you'll tell your friends the truth about your glamorous trip to Lyon with Bocuse d'Or Canada, washing pots and cleaning house." I tell them. We head off for moules, frites and a beer and replay the day over again. Then drive home excited for tomorrow.